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The risks of politicizing the U.S. intelligence community

Is the Trump administration politicizing intelligence and the community that provides it? Johns Hopkins University’s John McLaughlin, who was acting CIA director during the George W. Bush administration, and Larry Diamond, who also served under President George W. Bush and has written extensively about the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, join Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a deeper look at questions over politicizing intelligence and a broader look at American democracy, we turn to John McLaughlin, CIA acting director during the George W. Bush administration and the agency's deputy director. He's now at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

    And Larry Diamond has written extensively about the decline of democracies and the rise of authoritarianism. He served under the George W. Bush administration and is now a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

    We welcome both of you back to the "NewsHour."

    John McLaughlin, let me start with you.

    What's your reaction to the letter that the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, released earlier this week?

  • John McLaughlin:

    Well, Nick, I have to say with regret, it really strikes me as a very blatant example of politicization of intelligence, that is, using intelligence for political purposes.

    I can't think of another reason why the director would release, declassify this particular information at this time, when, in fact, it has already been reviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican chair, and set aside as not worth very much.

    It can serve nothing but a political purpose, to help the president, which is, at the end of the day, something a senior intelligence leader is just not supposed to do in a democracy, particularly ours.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I just reported in the story that preceded our conversation that the CIA and the National Security Agency objected to the release of this letter over concerns about revealing source and methods.

    After all, this is a Russian assessment, and the U.S. had to learn about that assessment somehow. Is that a concern that you share with this, the revealing of sources and methods?

  • John McLaughlin:


    And I don't know, of course, what the precise source is, but any time you declassify information, you run the risk of revealing a source, which, in the Russian case, is almost always sensitive.

    And there's another danger here that's equally important, I think, and that is that you give hostile intelligence services an invitation then to deceive you in the future. Once — a mark of an authoritarian society is the receptivity of intelligence leaders to information that will be somehow pleasing to their political bosses.

    And so, once a hostile intelligence service senses that that exists, they will try to feed your information, on the theory that you will run right to the boss with it. So, that's the other dangerous in signaling that you are this politically attuned, as an intelligence officer, when you're not supposed to be.

    This is the only part of the national security apparatus that is mandated to be totally nonpolitical, objective, clinical in its view of the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Larry Diamond, you just heard John McLaughlin use the word authoritarianism.

    Talk about how you see the letter that John Ratcliffe sent, along with the overall behavior of President Trump and the allegations that we talked about just now about the politicization of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

  • Larry Diamond:

    Well, Nick, I think the most disturbing aspect is, this is a long pattern, really dating back to the 2016 presidential election campaign, but certainly to the early days of President Trump's presidency, of trying to demonize opponents, demonize the media as fake news and enemies of the people, and instrumentalize all the agencies of government to serve the personal political purposes, and really the personal glorification, of the president of the United States.

    Demanding loyalty from the FBI director, James Comey, trashing the current, highly respected and fiercely nonpartisan director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, as somehow not loyal to the president and not on top of the real national security threats facing the country.

    And, Nick, I have to underscore firing in the space of a few weeks in April and May five different inspectors general of different departments and pieces of the government, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, Health and Human Services, Transportation and the State Department, because they were pursuing investigations that might have somehow embarrassed or questioned the behavior of the Trump administration.

    This is all behavior that is part of a pattern of misusing executive power and transgressing the checks and balances in our government in order to defend and enlarge the political interests of the president of the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I should say here, if there was an administration official defending themselves — and the president himself has said this — that those inspectors general whom he fired were not up to the job, and the intelligence officials who also have been fired, in the president's words, were not up to the job.

  • Larry Diamond:

    And I guess James Mattis wasn't up to the job, and H.R. McMaster wasn't up to the job, and a variety, General Kelly was enough to the job.

    It seems that no one who doesn't slavishly submit to the personal political interests of Donald Trump and his infallibility is up to the job.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John McLaughlin, let me turn back to you.

    How do the people in the intelligence community who you continue to be in touch with view the way the president and the administration are dealing with intelligence?

  • John McLaughlin:

    Well, I think we can have confidence that the working professionals in the intelligence community are doing their jobs as they are supposed to and, to use the phrase everyone employs, speaking trout to power, as they should be.

    But they have to be discouraged when they see particularly the top professional, the top leader, I should say, of the intelligence community, John Ratcliffe, actually doing something that to most people in the intelligence world will be transparently political, given that their mandate, and that it's stressed in all their training and all of their professional ethics, that this is not what you do.

    It seems to be true also in the case of DHS, Department of Homeland Security. Again, I don't know all the details of the case, and I'm always hesitant to condemn people without knowing everything. But just on the surface, if the head of the intelligence service there, Brian Murphy, was actually told, as alleged, not to pass information to the White House on things like the interference of the Russians or the role of white supremacist groups, that's a complete violation of everything that you learn in the intelligence business.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Larry Diamond, this — these questions of the politicization of intelligence, how does that affect American democracy?

  • Larry Diamond:

    Well, it is undermining the rules and norms of our constitutional system.

    You know, Nick, we have a very old Constitution. It's not very specific about a lot of things, and it isn't really adequate in some ways to the age that we're in. But it's survived for over 200 years because every previous president has respected informal norms of conduct, of respect for checks and balances, and the rule of law, and minimum standards of decency, and respect for opposition, and respect for the independence of the crucial institutions of rule of law, oversight, and the intelligence community, and the national security apparatus, and the military that need to be nonpolitical, if our democracy is going to work well.

    The one president who most egregiously violated those before, Richard Nixon, of course, was forced to resign. And I think what we're seeing now is a more serious threat to the norms of our democracy, certainly a more sustained one, than even we saw during the Watergate era under Richard M. Nixon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Larry Diamond of Stanford's Hoover Institution, John McLaughlin of Johns Hopkins' SAIS, thank you very much.

  • Larry Diamond:

    Thank you, Nick.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Thank you, Nick.

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