Over the course of my 34-plus years at the CIA, I often found dealing with congressional oversight committees a nuisance — not unlike periodic dental cleanings. The intention is not dissimilar; the process makes us stronger; and it works to keep the body, politic or otherwise, healthy.
Congressional oversight committee members, in my experience, were largely professional — even supportive — of the intelligence community and its objectives, regardless of party. But, if you can’t prove your operation is legal, warranted and being run smartly, then you have some holes that need fixing... or perhaps the White House has some explaining to do. And, when it comes to leaks to the press, I found passing few that could be traced to oversight committee members (who tend to take their oaths seriously given the consequences). Rather, they were often attributable to the White House, regardless of which party held it at the time.
That is why Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s recent announcement that he would suspend in-person briefings about election security for oversight committee members isn’t just a way for the ruling party to “stick it” to the opposition; it represents President Donald J. Trump’s most recent selloff of U.S. national security capabilities to Russia — part of a fire sale that accelerates relative to his political fortunes.
The weakening of oversight is a net gain for Russia over the U.S. — period — as is the political weaponization of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The oversight committees were intended to offer a representative layer of protection for the people to make sure our leaders get exactly these sorts of questions right. So was the establishment of the DNI: following 9/11’s catastrophic intelligence failure, the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act created the DNI not merely to assure intelligence that was “timely, objective, independent of political considerations,” but “to make intelligence information accessible to the public with sufficient clarity and context so that it is readily understandable.”
Until the DNI announced that it would end in-person congressional briefings, this was working as intended, even under the current toxic political conditions we now find ourselves. Two recent demonstrations proved as much. On Aug. 7, the DNI’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued its report “Election Threat Update for the American Public,” which highlighted Russian 2020 electoral meddling in Trump’s favor. And the Republican-led Senate oversight committee’s “Counterintelligence Threats and Vulnerabilities” volume of its “Report on Russian Active Measures and Interference in the 2016 Elections,” issued Aug. 18, provided a more granular deconstruction of Trump’s witting collaboration with Putin during the election and throughout the transition.
The statutory requirement “to ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are kept fully and currently informed of United States intelligence activities,” is shared by the president, the DNI and the intelligence agency heads. Keeping faith with that obligation has meant periodic personal appearances to translate complex issues and maintain the committees’ confidence in the community. In-person briefings mean the intelligence agencies know what’s fair game and what meets the bar, as do the members; they allow us to do our job — and elected officials to do theirs without being embarrassed before their constituencies.
It’s a two-way street that has been working — one that now appears to have come to an end. And its end benefits no one more than Vladimir Putin.
In fact, Trump’s overall tenure reflects a faithful adherence to Putin’s interests. The president of the United States pushed the CIA to share intelligence with Russia despite being warned of the consequences; he opened the door to Russia’s expanded presence in Syria; he freed Putin of treaty restraints to expand his nuclear capabilities; and he delayed military aid to Ukraine (over which he was impeached).
Since then, we have seen Trump’s ongoing dismissal of reports about Russian bounties against American troops in Afghanistan. The president protested that it was a “hoax” despite national security adviser Robert O’Brien’s acknowledgement of the intelligence having been included with a February 2020 President’s Daily Brief, and reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley had cautioned their Russian counterparts against such behavior. (By comparison, when asked about reports that the Iran might offer bounties against U.S. troops, he responded “if we found out, that would be true; if we found, that would be a very — it would be a fact, what you just said. We would hit them so hard your head would spin.”)
Trump’s pro-Putin moves didn’t stop there.
In May 2020, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which allowed us to conduct unmanned surveillance flights over Russia and vice versa, harming our intelligence gathering capabilities. He offered no substantive response that month when Russia deployed combat aircraft to Libya to support mercenaries already on the ground fighting for renegade Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar against the U.S.- and United Nations-recognized government.
In July 2020, Trump then directed the Pentagon to withdraw 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany, a goal pursued for decades by first the Soviet Union and then Russia, aimed at America’s NATO allies. The reduction and division of forces — who were there not to defend Germany but rather to support U.S. global deterrence, logistics and response capabilities — provided Russia with a huge strategic victory for which it never had to fire a shot.
All of this must have far exceeded even the early Kremlin wishlist; Trump has seemingly traded U.S. national security capabilities like he was selling off holdings from the companies he managed into bankruptcy. Little appears sacrosanct.
We have to remember that American national security is not simply a matter of troops, arms, diplomats and spies, or even the sum total of our economic prowess. National security starts at home, and is defined by what we care about and what we’re willing to fight for.
Americans — and Republican leaders — must decide whether allowing foreign powers to interfere with our government, undermine our values and participate, directly or indirectly, in selecting our elected officials (who then seemingly seek to repay that help) is a national security threat that demands accountability.