General Michael C. Hayden begins his book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies, surveying the flattened streets of Sarajevo. When Hayden was head of Intelligence for the American Forces in Europe, he was tasked with providing intelligence to the United Nations forces based in Bosnia. As he paces the streets, Hayden laments that there was a time when Sarajevo was occupied with thriving commerce and religious tolerance only to be replaced with ruins and artillery. So, his warning about the perils of unchecked ethnic nationalism and its consequences are timely and significant.
The foundation of his message is also clear. The prospect of having a stable, thriving society is difficult to sustain when the institutions that support civil societies are threatened by external stressors, such as fervent nationalism and authoritarianism. The result is likely going to be the downfall and degradation, and eventual annihilation of that society.
So, does Hayden think the United States is on a self-destructive path that will ultimately lead to unrest billowing out into the streets of America? Even though he doesn’t envision a complete meltdown of American society, he makes it very clear that that the institutions and processes that have kept America free and stable for the past 230 years aren’t guaranteed.
According to him, institutions need to be nurtured by guardians of democracy and their respective thought processes. Our decision makers, and their decisions need to be based on data, facts and truths, not on “post truth” where real truth is anathema. Hayden warns that in an environment where personal feelings and opinions guide critical thinking, the outcomes will be flawed and fatal. The institutions these “enlightened thinkers” represent need to be protected from assault by enemies of the state, both foreign and domestic.
Hayden discusses the tension that exists between all three branches of government as healthy and supervisory by design. According to Hayden, if the Executive Branch were to overreach, the Congress and the courts would step in to block the overreach and restore balance. For example, US courts quickly moved to block President Trump’s “Muslim Travel Ban,” forcing the President to revise and tailor its terms.
It is common for an administration that develops its outlook and policies on inductive reasoning, often based on observations and generalizations, to come into conflict with its inherently pessimistic, deductive counterparties, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the Director of National Intelligence. However, any effective President must find an equilibrium between paradigms and not view opposing perspectives as a threat to the sanctity of any given administration.
Past administrations have experienced tensions from within. Clinton and Louis Freeh at the FBI is one example. Bush pushing to get Attorney General Ashcroft’s signature to an enhanced interrogation order at his hospital bed and Obama relying on executive orders in the face of congressional opposition to legislative proposals are a couple more examples.
While this friction is common for any administration, stoking a civil war within one’s own Executive Branch is unprecedented and alarming. Departing from this trend, President Trump has declared war on the law enforcement and intelligence agencies which report to him, demanding loyalty pledges.
Trump’s public vilification of his Attorney General and former FBI Director risks establishing a treacherous pattern. Hayden sees the President pushing his executive mandate beyond conventional limits and Congress failing to draw a line to stop him. Even more unique is the fact that Hayden sees Trump enlisting the help of Congress to intensify the effect of undermining the portions of the executive branch that do not bend to the President’s will.
Hayden believes that the Department of Justice, the FBI, CIA and DNI are the “steady states.” Though they are part of the Executive Branch, many of the rank and file will serve multiple administrations irrespective of their political affiliation or Commander in Chief. Hayden also includes the press and academics as related entities intended to buttress the truth and fact telling. To Hayden, the careerists in these institutions are what separates the US from dictatorships, theocracies, and autocratic forms of government.
The General points out that most civil servants consider an allegiance to truth and the US Constitution as more important than loyalty to a cult of personality. The American process of a normal and peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next is seen as a sign of a stable governance which we have enjoyed for some 230 years. Irrespective of party affiliation, Americans pledge allegiance to our constants, the flag and the constitution on a regular basis. However, under the Trump Administration, the pillars of the steady state are convulsing and being depleted.
From the candidate continuum, through his first 100 days and onto his first year, Hayden reflects upon a Trump administration that operates in a chaotic vacuum focusing on emotional messages, grievance, and tribalism. He finds the Muslim travel ban irrational, the attacks on the judiciary unfounded and Trump’s thirst for public shaming and Twitter simply treacherous.
It is no surprise that this presidency is plagued by leaks because this is the rejoinder of the steady state. Trump has a tendency to live in what Michael Gross, a former Bush speechwriter, calls the “eternal now.” Trump has his own vision of the world, an a priori view of how things work, and is preternaturally confident. As “context and boundaries” are the currency of the IC (Intelligence Community) and its “steady cousins,” the interaction between an impulsive, emotional, and vision focused individual is certain to clash with the cautious daily briefer.
This tension has been exacerbated by differing characterizations of the most successful disinformation campaign in history involving the 2016 US elections. While Trump continues to identify the Russian Piece de Resistance as a hoax, Hayden pauses to acknowledge its success. Hayden points out that most intelligence agencies have always aimed to influence foreign governments and people. Let’s be honest – If the National Security Agency had to steal private communications between the leaders of Putin’s political party who supported a particular narrative or US policy objective, they would likely have weaponized the communications as well. However, the success of a US initiative’s multiplier effect would be limited by Russia’s ability to control social media, internet traffic, and search algorithms. In the US case, these are all unregulated spokes of the operation, open to manipulation, so their impacts can be deadly and impossible to measure.
While there is high confidence in the IC about the parties who funded, organized, and implemented the Magnum Opus–Russia– Donald Trump is still unable or unwilling to publicly accept this fact as truth. The failure of Trump to acknowledge the theft, weaponization, and distribution of the Clinton Campaign emails will be a fracture that will eternally irk both the intelligence and law enforcement communities, as well as large segments of the US electorate.
One could argue that the Special Counsel investigation was prompted to defend the fact finders (against the Trump assault on the institutions that he controls). The Special Counsel is tasked with determining if the President’s campaign was cognizant of the Russian operation and aided and abetted its goals. Or, was the The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation in search of a naive candidate, who would unwittingly embrace WikiLeaks, support Russia’s agenda (lifting sanctions, attacking the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ignoring hacking, failing to take protective countermeasures) and Trump fit the bill?. Hayden calls this the ‘useful idiot’ scenario and finds this the most likely explanation for Trump’s behavior, although he does not address the possibility that Trump could be a willing collaborator, doing Russia’s biding. In either scenario, and the Mueller investigation will hopefully give us the answer, Trump’s actions are becoming increasingly dangerous.
Moving forward, how the American public defines its relationship with the steady or deep state is one of the greatest challenges we face as a society. As we anxiously await a fact-based Special Counsel’s report, Trump’s continued moves to excoriate the people, institutions, and the press go unchecked. If the Special Counsel’s office issues a criminal indictment against members of the President’s family or names him as a co-conspirator, I fear that our streets could become like Sarajevo’s, where our allegiance to tribal and political factions supersede those of constitution and country.
For if the cultish cries of one man are able to destroy the focal allegiances our framers and founders so eloquently crafted, we will surrender our beacons of freedom in exchange for the misery of tyranny, wondering why our spooks didn’t respond more forcefully when assaulted.