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Politicization of Dead Spies

A man crosses the Central Intelligence A

The opening week of the Trump administration has involved more outrages than I’ve had time or energy to address. The new president’s outrageously hamhanded visit to CIA headquarters has received sufficient attention that I have little new to add. But there’s one aspect that I haven’t seen covered.

Everyone is rightly outraged by this:

In his remarks, Trump made passing reference to the “special wall” behind him but never mentioned the top-secret work or personal sacrifices of intelligence officers like Ames and the others who died in Beirut, including the C.I.A. station chief Kenneth Haas, and James F. Lewis, who had been a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and his wife Monique, who was on her first day on the job at the Beirut embassy. Nor did the President refer to any of the dozens of others for whom stars are etched on the hallowed C.I.A. wall of honor. It was like going to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and not mentioning those who died in the Second World War.

[…]

Trump’s remarks caused astonishment and anger among current and former C.I.A. officials. The former C.I.A. director John Brennan, who retired on Friday, called it a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of C.I.A.’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes,” according to a statement released through a former aide. Brennan said he thought Trump “should be ashamed of himself.”

Crocker, who was among the last to see Ames and the local C.I.A. team alive in Beirut, was “appalled” by Trump’s comments. “Whatever his intentions, it was horrible,” Crocker, who went on to serve as the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, told me. “As he stood there talking about how great Trump is, I kept looking at the wall behind him—as I’m sure everyone in the room was, too. He has no understanding of the world and what is going on. It was really ugly.”

“Why,” Crocker added, “did he even bother? I can’t imagine a worse Day One scenario. And what’s next?”

John McLaughlin is a thirty-year C.I.A. veteran and a former acting director of the C.I.A. who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He also chairs a foundation that raises funds to educate children of intelligence officers killed on the job. “It’s simply inappropriate to engage in self obsession on a spot that memorializes those who obsessed about others, and about mission, more than themselves,” he wrote to me in an e-mail on Sunday. “Also, people there spent their lives trying to figure out what’s true, so it’s hard to make the case that the media created a feud with Trump. It just ain’t so.”

John MacGaffin, another thirty-year veteran who rose to become the No. 2 in the C.I.A. directorate for clandestine espionage, said that Trump’s appearance should have been a “slam dunk,” calming deep unease within the intelligence community about the new President. According to MacGaffin, Trump should have talked about the mutual reliance between the White House and the C.I.A. in dealing with global crises and acknowledged those who had given their lives doing just that.

“What self-centered, irrational decision process got him to this travesty?” MacGaffin told me. “Most importantly, how will that process serve us when the issues he must address are dangerous and incredibly complex? This is scary stuff!”

But politicization of heroes is shameless regardless of who’s doing it.  Here’s Brennan a week ago, before Trump’s speech:

While Mr. Brennan brushed off Mr. Trump’s dig at him personally, he was indignant at the president-elect’s attack on his fellow spies. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has accused them of botching their analysis on the Russian hacking campaign and accused them of leaking pieces of their conclusions for political gain.

“I think it’s the right and indeed the responsibility of the president of the United States to challenge the conclusions of the intelligence community,” Mr. Brennan said. “We don’t expect our information and our assessments to be swallowed whole.

“It’s when there are allegations made about leaking or about dishonesty or a lack of integrity, that’s where I think the line is crossed,” he continued, taking particular umbrage at Mr. Trump’s comments last week that leaking intelligence on political figures was something that Nazi Germany “would have done and did do.”

“Tell the families of those 117 CIA officers who are forever memorialized on our wall of honor that their loved ones who gave their lives were akin to Nazis,” Mr. Brennan said. “Tell the CIA officers who are serving in harm’s way right now and their families who are worried about them that they are akin to Nazi Germany. I found that to be very repugnant, and I will forever stand up for the integrity and patriotism of my officers who have done much over the years to sacrifice for their fellow citizens.”

Now, Brennan is absolutely right that Trump’s equating the US intelligence community with Nazi Germany is repugnant. But there’s simply no question that, on occasion, the IC leaks information—usually via Congressional offices that they know will share it—-to the press. That practice is almost always done by headquarters types, not rank-and-file officers in the Clandestine Service or Directorate of Operations or whatever they’re calling themselves this week. So, hiding behind the 117 heroes who lost their life in the service of their country over the seventy-year history of the CIA is a rather shameless politicization of their sacrifice.  (And, yes, that applies to headquarters generals who point to dead soldiers and Marines in justifying their pet project.)

To be clear, Trump’s and Brennan’s transgressions here aren’t of the same weight. We’ have, however, unfortunately already established that Trump is without class or honor. Brennan is a career professional; I expect better from him.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    You seem to think that the normal rules apply in the age of Trump.
    Everything changed this past Friday.
    1/20/2017…the day America ended.

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  2. SenyorDave says:

    I believe we are in a very dangerous time.

    Trump contaminates everyone and everything he touches. From what I have read, Sean Spicer had a reasonably good reputation when he was appointed WH press secretary. He looked like a clown on Saturday, spouting off statements that were easily shown to be lies. The question is why such obvious lies. Either he’s too lazy to lie effectively, or it was intentional. I’m going with the latter.

    Gary Kasparov, the former chess champion, has been tweeting regularly, he’s an outspoken critic of Putin. Here is a tweet from today, along with one from a few weeks earlier:

    Obvious lies serve a purpose for an administration. They watch who challenges them and who loyally repeats them. The people must watch, too.
    — Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) January 22, 2017

    The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.
    — Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) December 13, 2016

    This is a guy we should all be listening to.

    This is what Spicer said:

    “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 who used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.”

    CNN and The Washington Post confirmed Metro ridership with the agency. The full day of Trump’s inauguration prompted 570,557 trips in the system. Obama’s first inauguration drew 1.1 million trips, and Obama’s second inauguration drew 782,000 trips

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @C. Clavin: @SenyorDave: Trump is even more of a loose cannon than I feared. That may, in time, necessitate others breaking with normal procedures. Right now, though, I think the best course of action is for the grown-ups to be particularly grown-up. Professional norms are sacrosanct right now precisely because they’re under assault.

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  4. Mikey says:

    @SenyorDave: Obama’s first inauguration was the busiest day in Metro history.

    The second busiest was Saturday.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2017/01/22/womens-march-leads-to-2nd-busiest-day-in-metro-history-just-trailing-obamas-09-inauguration/?utm_term=.ee176b082afc

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    James, this is a bizarre post. You are twisting yourself in knots to try to slam Brennan by focusing on the least important part of what he said. Trump accused them of leaking information to influence the election and compared them to Nazis. Brennan took offense, rightly so. To look at his statement and think that his purpose was to deny that the CIA ever leaks information rather than to attack Trump for his accusations about this particular leak seems to be force fitting a narrative.

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  6. KM says:

    For those who are asking why this is a big deal, think if Trump held a presser at Arlington or the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and proceeded to disrespect the environment with his usual asshattery. Those people die in service to their country and we don’t even know all their names. In some cases, those are the only graves they might have. They deserve respect for that, regardless of your political beliefs.

    For Trump, however, it was just a backdrop for his bloated ego puffing. He talks shite about Gold Star families and now throws hissies in front of a memorial wall. It couldn’t be clearer that he doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s feelings but his own. Democrats and Republicans that claim to love the military and offering service to one’s nation should be slapping this down as hard as possible.

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  7. SenyorDave says:

    @James Joyner: Trump is even more of a loose cannon than I feared.

    I’ve ceased to be surprised at anything Trump does. As someone who lived in the NY metropolitan area back in the 80’s and early 90’s, I remembered him not so fondly. He has spent a lifetime doing anything he wanted, behaving horribly towards people and never paying a price. Now he has been rewarded with the presidency despiter being an ignorant buffoon. During this campaign season, I told my friends that he was much worse than he seemed. This was his best behavior. What astonishes me is that he can find people to surround himself with who will not enable him, but basically start to act like him.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    I am honestly a bit bothered that people from the CIA were willing to listen to a speech in front of the monument wall. Was no one in the agency able to direct him to a nice conference room?

    There are certain backdrops that you do not use for a speech — Vietnam wall, Arlington Cemetary, etc. (exceptions given for veteran’s day)

    I would have heartily approved of agency folks turning their backs on him, but, alas, that did not happen.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher:

    I am honestly a bit bothered that people from the CIA were willing to listen to a speech in front of the monument wall.

    I’ve seen it reported that these were people who volunteered to come in and see Trump speak on their day off. So they were probably predominantly Trump-istas.

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  10. CSK says:

    @SenyorDave:

    Exactly right. I often wonder if those Trumpkins who exclaim “He’s just like me!” understand that what they’re saying is “I, too, am a crass, ignorant, malign charlatan!”

    I’m pretty sure that’s his appeal for many.

    By the way, David Duke Tweeted his heartiest congrats to Trump on his inauguration, noting that “we” won.

    “We.”

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  11. cian says:

    @James Joyner: I’m curious, genuinely. Who do you consider to be the grown-ups in this administration?

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @cian: I’m talking about the career people, not the appointees. (Although I think Mattis and a few others qualify.)

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan: Yes, apparently the audience were 400 out of thousands of employees who accepted an email invite. This is actually a good thing, as the employees who were working on Sat presumably had something urgent they were supposed to be doing. It’s also being reported that the front three rows were shills brought in by Trump, Pence, and Pompeo.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I’m making a very narrow point here. Brennan was right to be outraged by Trump’s remarks and to push back. He was wrong to invoke the names on the wall in doing so.

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  15. Scott says:

    @MarkedMan: Not sure what the facts are but 1) any attendees were self-selected and 2) there are some claims that the first few rows were Trump campaign supporters which explains the cheering.

    Personally I though the cheering very peculiar and out of place.

    BTW: Repeat after me: Trump is a classless pig and always will be.

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  16. Lit3Bolt says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Act grown-up?”

    You mean, collaborate with Trump on everything and slam his critics at every opportunity, and use professional norms to legitimize an compromised president.

    We’re doomed. We might as well hand over all federal data to Russia right now.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08: That report about Trump’s people bringing in ringers to cheer the president is disturbing, to say the least. Whether in a business or in a banana republic, surrounding yourself with people who see it as their job to protect you from having to hear bad news quickly turns into a vicious, downward spiraling cycle.

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  18. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @cian: Just like always when one is dealing with the current crop of GOP people, everyone else is going to have to take the adults in the room roles. There won’t be any grown-ups in the admin or the majority caucuses in Congress.

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  19. C. Clavin says:

    @James Joyner:

    Right now, though, I think the best course of action is for the grown-ups to be particularly grown-up.

    If you play that out in your mind you will see that it’s a losing strategy. Already they are talking about their own “alternative facts”. This cannot be normalized for even a second. Not even one second.
    It’s time for the grown ups to take charge and limit the damage this man-child does to the Republic.
    You have long supported the party that gave us this absurdity…so I get that you are embarrassed.
    Don’t compound the error by idly standing by and watching the destruction.

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  20. KM says:

    Right now, though, I think the best course of action is for the grown-ups to be particularly grown-up.

    And what does the grown-up do with the destructive, lying, tantruming, set-fire-to-Daddy’s-wallet, hitting non-grown up? The one that steals from your purse and lies to your face about it? The one that bullies others shamelessly and calls you names when you try to get them to conform? The problem child that seems to getting worse – falls in with a bad crowd, becomes their leader and starts terrorizing the neighborhood?

    I agree we should be the grown-ups in the room. Part of being grown-up is recognizing that some supposed grown-ups would have benefited from time in juvie. Trump’s never had to pay for his misbehavior and is *very* sure he’s not going to have to pay now. The thing is, he’s probably right. Unless all the adults start seriously holding him accountable (*especially Republicans*), then all being the grown up in the room means is you’re the one standing amidst the flames wagging a pointless finger. Start spanking your problem child, GOP, or its your house he’s gonna torch next. He can’t help himself.

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  21. Lit3Bolt says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Jeet Heer tweeted this:

    The lesson is clear: we can’t rely on GOP to resist Trump, even on behalf of their own long-held ideological preferences.

    He was talking about Marco Rubio, but he might as well have been talking about James Joyner.

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  22. al-Ameda says:

    Trump’s remarks caused astonishment and anger among current and former C.I.A. officials. The former C.I.A. director John Brennan, who retired on Friday, called it a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of C.I.A.’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes,” according to a statement released through a former aide. Brennan said he thought Trump “should be ashamed of himself.”

    Crocker, who was among the last to see Ames and the local C.I.A. team alive in Beirut, was “appalled” by Trump’s comments. “Whatever his intentions, it was horrible,” Crocker, who went on to serve as the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, told me. “As he stood there talking about how great Trump is, I kept looking at the wall behind him—as I’m sure everyone in the room was, too. He has no understanding of the world and what is going on. It was really ugly.”

    Maybe it’s just me, but, I think, actually I know, that Trump politicized these ‘dead spies’ by comparing Agency staff to Nazis. I’m proud that Brennan, on his way out the door, elected to stand up to Trump and level a broadside. Will it have an effect? On Trump – probably not. On others? Perhaps it will embolden journalists to grow a spine and call these ‘deplorables’ on this stuff.

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  23. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Gustopher:

    There are certain backdrops that you do not use for a speech — Vietnam wall, Arlington Cemetary, etc. (exceptions given for veteran’s day)

    That!

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  24. C. Clavin says:

    Turns out that Trump packed the first three rows of the audience, for that speech at the CIA headquarters, with his own cheerleaders. I thought it was bizarre when I read about the audience cheering. Now I know why.
    He also hired actors to show up at the announcement of his campaign.

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  25. CSK says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I remember the actors. Fifty bucks a head.

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  26. Pch101 says:

    If you’re going to claim that every act of self-defense is “politicization”, then we’re going to be getting a heap of cognitive dissonance from you over the next four years.

    Brennan defended the character of his former employees, people who presumably died for the country. You actually believe that this is a problem?

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  27. neal says:

    Well, the alphabet stuff has a certain blend of Nazis.
    That is spy stuff. Inclusive. To call something out for what it is probably involves actually being there and taking a stand. One could call that politics. One could call that making deals with historical idealogical remants that continue to be raised in certain schools that transmit breeding and power.

    It is easier to come in from the cold with a certain perspective.

    I have not seen things that are called out for what the are in public since the last wave of murders.

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  28. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner: Yes; waving the bloody shirt is always an appeal to the audience’s passions and therefore not worthy of a reasoned adult. But we’re seeing less and less reason all around these days.

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  29. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @KM: The Republican party no longer exists. Once there was such an entity, and some in Washington still claim the label, but the President isn’t one of them. He is the center of the political solar system, and everything revolves around him, and his latest grievance.

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  30. bookdragon says:

    I didn’t read Brennan’s comment as ‘hiding behind’ dead agents, but calling Trump out for disrespecting them and those currently serving with that Nazi comment.

    However, offenses wrt using the dead to make a point are small in comparison to the real worries starting to come out from veteran and current agents: that Trump will burn those in Russia who collect negative information on Putin.

    If I knew anyone who even might be in that position, I’d be very worried for them. European and even Israeli intel agencies are also reportedly concerned about information shared with the US, and taking measures to protect assets.

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  31. James Pearce says:

    In 2017 America, we politicize everything: dead spies, sporting events, pizza restaurants, Oscar nominations.

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