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To the growing anxiety about the possibility of a triumphal Donald Trump return to office, we can add yet another worry line: How would the recalcitrant former president mobilize the intelligence agencies to punish enemies and reward friends?
With pro-Trump Republicans increasingly embracing "any means necessary" to retake control of Washington, from extreme gerrymandering to new voter suppression laws -- and poised to capture Congress in the mid-terms -- apprehension is growing among veterans of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that bad times may be ahead for them.
The former president won't be shy this time around about installing sycophants atop key national security organs, starting with the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments, along with the CIA, NSA and most critically, the FBI, intelligence veterans queried by SpyTalk agree. The lesson he's likely learned from his first term is not to vacillate over putting overt authoritarian loyalists into senior billets there -- and to ignore the howls from more timorous aides or careerists. With an expected Republican control of the House and Senate starting in 2023, according to current forecasts, the confirmation of Trump nominees would be a cinch, if messy.
So imagine this Rocky Horror Show of characters atop the federal government's national security machinery:
Bernard Kerik, the disgraced for NYPD commissioner and Rudy Giuliani pal who served as quartermaster for the GoP "war room" to overturn the 2020 election result, as FBI director
Kash Patel, the far-right Devin Nunes acolyte who worked tirelessly to bury investigations into Trump's ties to Russia, and who Trump tried to make the CIA's deputy director, as director of National Intelligence.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the pliant Michael Flynn protégé who held the intel portfolio on the White House NSC and later Pentagon, as CIA director.
Authoritarian-loving former Trump ambassador and acting DNI Richard Grenell back as secretary of defense or White House national security adviser.
Marjorie Taylor Green (Q-Ga.), as director of Homeland Security
Qanon hero and confessed liar Michael Flynn as director of the eavesdropping National Security Agency.
Scoff, many will. It's a long way off. Such appointments are unimaginable. But ignoring Trump's unrelenting attempts to overturn Joe Biden's election victory, including inspiring a mob to attack the Capitol and maybe even murder his own vice president, Mike Pence, is willful amnesia, say critics, including intelligence veterans polled by SpyTalk: The Jan. 6 riot may well turn out to be practice for a real Trump-led insurrection. "The image of the raptors in Jurassic Park testing the fences for weaknesses comes to mind," American University Assistant Professor Mary Ellen Curtin wrote in The Washington Post. "‘They remember,' the caretaker says."
Almost anyone who's closely studied Trump's post-election behavior and the alarming coarsening of the "stop the steal" movement, with its wave of death threats against election officials, are confident he'll stop at nothing to return to power and enact revenge against his opponents. And if he does, there's good reason to fear that he and his minions, having labelled Democrats and dissident Republicans as "traitors," will turn the screws of U.S. national security agencies against them.
Justice for All
The key appointment in a second Trump administration would be attorney general, intelligence veterans agree. It's the Justice Department that can loosen guidelines for U.S. investigative and intelligence agencies, as it did when it approved the CIA's torture of terrorist subjects, NSA's mass warrantless surveillance of U.S. emails and the FBI's hounding of Arab Americans after the 9/11 attacks.
Panic is clearly premature -- the next presidential election is three years away. But worry is warranted, says a former senior Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration who asked for anonymity in exchange for commenting freely.
"This is impossible to game out, but if there were really an attempt to use the DOJ for something deeply nefarious, I think the norms and institutions would hold -- as they did, ultimately, throughout the Trump term," he told SpyTalk. "But I don't think we should be complacent about this."
Likewise, former CIA senior operations official Douglas London calls a possible Trump return to office "a nightmare scenario" for the intelligence community, "since its credibility and focus were significantly undermined during his tenure and are only now beginning to recover."
CIA lawyers can advise the president and his attorney general that a proposed policy or operation is unwise or legally dubious, he told SpyTalk, but in the end it's political appointees in the top rungs of the Justice Department who decide what's legal.
Take the CIA's "enhanced interrogation program," London says. "Unfortunately, lawyers at the Department of Justice sanctioned that. They gave it a thumbs up. So the agency officers who were involved in that … had the legal authority for what they were doing."
"So the greater risk," he adds, "is the degree to which a politicized Department of Justice might enable CIA and other agencies to effect legally and ethically questionable policies, since CIA's lawyers take their lead from DOJ's." And in the end, he says, CIA operations officers have to "suck it up or resign."
Guardrails and Exit Ramps
FBI veterans surveyed by SpyTalk think the "guardrails" of bureaucratic norms and oaths officials take to obey the law and defend the Constitution will hold. But most also weren't absolutely confident of that -- an astounding admission in itself -- pointing to such disquieting harbingers as the participation of former and active-duty police and military personnel in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Unsurprisingly, Trump had a substantial following among white police and federal law enforcement personnel, especially in comparison to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The FBI's New York office was a hotbed of anti-Clinton rancor, according to several reports.
"I think the rank-and-file, and maybe even senior management, still support him and would welcome his return," says Terry Albury, a Black former FBI agent who became so alarmed about the bureau's aggressive tactics for turning American Muslims into informants -- enabled by Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey -- that he leaked documents about it to the media (and eventually served four years in prison for it).
"Trump spoke to their longing and desire for radical change," Albury said in an interview. As Obama's term ran out in 2016, he said, "there was an Obama countdown" among white agents in the Minneapolis field office where he worked. "They hated what he represented. When Trump came in, the gloves were off."
"It's a strongly conservative organization," Albury added. Would they welcome a second Trump administration? "Absolutely," he says. "I definitely think they would."
Some would, agrees Peter Lapp, a former high level FBI executive with a deep background in counterintelligence. But the "vast majority" would continue to check their politics at the door.
"Some [Trump] supporters might say, yeah, we need a Bernie [Kerik] character" running the FBI, "we need a Mark Meadows type that will clean up the bureau," says Lapp. "There are probably some folks within the organization that feel that … The bureau is made up of human beings that have their own views, and in many ways they're suppressed because of the rules and because of the culture and because of the need to be apolitical as an organization."
If Trump tried to weaponize the FBI against his real or perceived enemies, Lapp says, "I think the vast majority would think that that would be problematic.
"Regardless of their political backgrounds or views, most agents enjoy the fact that the FBI is an independent law enforcement organization and they strive to be that way in how [they] conduct investigations … So I think that most of the workforce would not be happy if there was an obvious kind of ringer put in there."
At the same time, senior managers who object to a Trumpification of the bureau would likely stay quiet, for the most fundamental reason, Lapp and other former FBI officials say: the agency's lucrative retirement package.
"The guard rails of the pension would keep…anti-Trump people in line," Lapp told SpyTalk. But he maintains that "the vast majority of folks" check their politics at the office door anyway.
Other FBI veterans grant that Trump had a following among the rank and file -- and may still have some -- but that his "stop the steal" antics have cooled the ardor of many.
"I think you're seeing a lot of Republicans and former Republicans like me who are really fed up with what he did," says David C. Gomez, a retired FBI executive with broad experience across the federal government and private industry. "They accepted it to a certain point and -- had he just let it go and gone off and lived his life and made money and played golf or whatever -- they would have been more accepting of his historical perspective. But the guy wanting to come back is a bridge too far for me."
Trump's return "would be a disaster" for the FBI, Gomez, now a security consultant for the London-based group, BSI, told SpyTalk. On the one hand, he sees "a lot of people leaving," especially those with career records that could land them lucrative jobs on the outside. On the other hand, "people who have more than 10 years in may stick around" for the bureau's generous pension, the golden fleece for middle management. How they would respond to a Trump appointee's effort to target Trump's real or perceived political enemies is "the $64 million question," Gomez says, "because it's the rank and file who are the ones that are going to be in the cross hairs of that."
Some former FBI and CIA officials have long worried about the "militarization" of their agencies over two decades of war and counterterrorism operations, with a concomitant rise of Trump sympathizers in the ranks. At the FBI, Lapp says, many senior managers in recent years earned "badges of distinction" from their service in Iraq or other war zones or came up from the swashbuckling hostage rescue teams.
The FBI has "a history of recruiting folks to come from the military and I think that prevalence has increased over the years," Lapp said in a SpyTalk interview. "And with that comes the military-type mindset of how to tackle problems," versus the mentality of "investigators with the skills and passion for the law and the Constitution." Same for the recent senior managers who came up through hostage-rescue or SWAT teams, he says. Still , he maintains, they've all sworn an oath to follow the law.
At the CIA, an influx of counterterror veterans increasingly altered the workforce vibe, moving it away from its collegial, if sometimes raucous, culture of give-and-take to a more military-style "yes, sir -- no, sir" regimen, says Douglas London, a 34-year CIA veteran who was Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia before his retirement in 2019.
"Post-9/11, the leadership of the agency was filled with folks … who embraced a very conservative religious, political-social view of the world, who had come from positions in the military and were much more willing to embrace a harsher code of engagement with detainees, or even agents," London said during a September SpyTalk podcast about his new book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.
"I think it would be pretty bad if Trump or a Trump-light person came back and executed those same policies and worse in an emboldened White House," London said in an interview last week. "But you know, if it's legal, then agency officers will either leave in protest or suck it up and go, ‘Okay, well, that's a lawful order' -- just like the military."
"Personally, I'm a bit more worried about the military than the CIA," London added. "There were more military people at the January 6 insurrection than from across the IC, a frightening number who remain sympathetic to those who stormed the Capital. I never imagined I'd see the day when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was required to remind service members to ‘obey the lawful orders of civilian control of the military' and to ‘not become involved with domestic politics.'"
Gen. Mark Milley, the JCS chairman, was so worried about Trump's mental stability in the weeks before the presidential election that he called his Chinese counterpart to assure him no plans were in the works for a U.S. attack, but if there were, he'd warn him in advance, according to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their book, Peril. Milley confirmed he'd made the call, but said it wasn't his intention to undermine Trump.
It's become increasingly difficult, meanwhile, to differentiate Trump's "stop the steal" movement and the Qanon conspiracy cult, which extremism expert Jason Blazakis, pointing to the involvement of onetime DIA chief and Trump national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn and the CIA's former Bin Laden unit chief, Michael Scheuer, calls, "a significant national security threat." Both have countless thousands of followers in the conspiracy world, at least some -- perhaps many -- working in intelligence and law enforcement.
It's the political vagaries of the rank and file that concern David Gomez. A history buff, the former FBI agent points to the role of ordinary police in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
"It was acquiescence by basic-level police officers that allowed a lot of things to happen that probably wouldn't have happened [without them], you know? So I just don't know what the answer is to that" -- a Trump weaponization of the FBI. "I can't gauge anymore how the current rank and file would react to that.
"Sometimes," he says, "your hands are tied, because you've got a family to take care of, and a pension that you don't want to lose."
As always, the answer may come in a shopworn dictum: Follow the money.
This article by Jeff Stein first appeared on Spytalk.co.