The looming spy revolt?
How things are heating up between the White House and the spooks is evidenced by a new report that the CIA has denied a security clearance to one of Flynn’s acolytes. Rob Townley, a former Marine intelligence officer selected to head up the NSC’s Africa desk, was denied a clearance to see Sensitive Compartmented Information (which is required to have access to SIGINT in particular). Why Townley’s SCI was turned down isn’t clear—it could be over personal problems or foreign ties—but the CIA’s stand has been privately denounced by the White House, which views this as a vendetta against Flynn. That the Townley SCI denial was reportedly endorsed by Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director selected by Trump himself, only adds to the pain.
There is more consequential IC pushback happening, too. Our spies have never liked Trump’s lackadaisical attitude toward the President’s Daily Brief, the most sensitive of all IC documents, which the new commander-in-chief has received haphazardly. The president has frequently blown off the PDB altogether, tasking Flynn with condensing it into a one-page summary with no more than nine bullet-points. Some in the IC are relieved by this, but there are pervasive concerns that the president simply isn’t paying attention to intelligence.
In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
None of this has happened in Washington before. A White House with unsettling links to Moscow wasn’t something anybody in the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community even considered a possibility until a few months ago. Until Team Trump clarifies its strange relationship with the Kremlin, and starts working on its professional honesty, the IC will approach the administration with caution and concern.
This is deeply troubling, regardless of one's opinion of Mr. Trump or his staff. The nation cannot afford to have a foreign power that does not have our best interests at heart listening in on top intelligence matters -- let alone calling shots through proxies.
But it also raises questions about the intelligence community. They may believe they are right in withholding information from a White House they do not trust to keep secrets. But they are federal employees in a federal agency that is, ultimately, beholden to elected officials -- be it in the Administration, or in Congress.
They may have legitimate, honest, even dire concerns. But there are other channels, and other means to let those frustrations, doubts, and concerns be known. If they think there is a Russian rat in the Administration, then let Congress know. It's oversight power is a check on the executive, and it can be extremely effective.