Former CIA Director Michael Morell sat down with Politico’s Susan Glasser, where he admitted that he and others from the intelligence community didn’t think through the consequences of them becoming political last year. Last year, Morell wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Within the agency, Morell sharked his way up the halls of the CIA becoming the chief intelligence briefer to President George W. Bush, and then acting director twice. Intelligence analysts serve the country. There is no politics involved in any of their analyses—at least not until Trump was elected. Morell noted that putting himself in ‘Trump’s shoes’ did not factor into his decision to become political, and that is something he admits he fell short on concerning the backlash for the community. At the same time, he doesn’t think that going public with that op-ed was a mistake.
The arc of Morell going public began when 60 Minutes did a segment on his life and career before he left the agency in 2013. He then became a national security commentator for the network afterward (via Politico) [emphasis mine]:
Michael Morell: … so, I saw my role on CBS, then, as helping the American people understand these incredibly complex challenges that we face. So, that was the first kind of public stepping out.
The second was in August of 2016, when I became political, when I endorsed Hillary Clinton with an op-ed in The New York Times, and that was a very difficult decision for me, because I had never been political before. I worked at this nonpolitical agency, bright red line between intelligence and policy, and intelligence and politics. So, I had never played that role before.
But I was so deeply concerned about what a Trump presidency might look like from a national security perspective, and believed that there was such a gap between Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump with regard to how well they would protect the country, that I thought it extremely important to come out and say that.
Susan Glasser: Okay, so, flash-forward a year. Was that a mistake?
Morell: So, I don’t think it was a mistake. I think there were downsides to it that I didn’t think about at the time. I was concerned about what is the impact it would have on the agency, right? Very concerned about that, thought that through. But I don’t think I fully thought through the implications.
And one of the ways I’ve thought about that, Susan, is—okay, how did Donald Trump see this? Right? And from—it’s very important—one of the things we do as intelligence analysts is make sure that our guy—the president—understands the other guy. Right?
So, let’s put ourselves here in Donald Trump’s shoes. So, what does he see? Right? He sees a former director of CIA and a former director of NSA, Mike Hayden, who I have the greatest respect for, criticizing him and his policies. Right? And he could rightfully have said, “Huh, what’s going on with these intelligence guys?” Right?
Glasser: It embroiders his narrative.
Morell: Exactly. And then he sees a former acting director and deputy director of CIA criticizing him and endorsing his opponent. And then he gets his first intelligence briefing, after becoming the Republican nominee, and within 24 to 48 hours, there are leaks out of that that are critical of him and his then-national security advisor, Mike Flynn.
And so, this stuff starts to build, right? And he must have said to himself, “What is it with these intelligence guys? Are they political?” The current director at the time, John Brennan, during the campaign occasionally would push back on things that Donald Trump had said.
So, when Trump talked about the Iran nuclear deal being the worst deal in the history of American diplomacy, and he was going to tear it up on the first day—John Brennan came out publicly and said, “That would be an act of folly.” So, he sees current sitting director pushing back on him. Right?
Then he becomes president, and he’s supposed to be getting a daily brief from the moment he becomes the president-elect. Right? And he doesn’t. And within a few days, there’s leaks about how he’s not taking his briefing. So, he must have thought—right?—that, “Who are these guys? Are these guys out to get me? Is this a political organization? Can I think about them as a political organization when I become president?”
So, I think there was a significant downside to those of us who became political in that moment. So, if I could have thought of that, would I have ended up in a different place? I don’t know. But it’s something I didn’t think about.
The blowback has been considerable, and the leaks have been seen as something not just unacceptable, but appalling. It’s one of those odd times when the Left and the Right agree that the intelligence community appears to be running amok. Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote in July that there was a leak gang in D.C., who are out to get the president. It was piggybacked off a Senate Homeland Security Committee report from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) issued in the same month that outlined the damage the leaks have done:
The first 126 days of the Trump administration featured 125 stories that leaked harmful information. Just under one a day. The committee staff judged the stories against a 2009 Barack Obama executive order that laid out what counted as information likely to damage national security. And as it chose to not include borderline leaks or “palace intrigue” stories, that number is an understatement.
For reference, the first 126 days of the Obama term featured 18 stories that met the criteria. Ten of those were actually leaks about George W. Bush’s “torture memo,” which Mr. Obama released.
What’s been disclosed? The contents of wiretapped information. The names of individuals the U.S. monitors, and where they are located. The communications channels used to monitor targets. Which agencies are monitoring. Intelligence intercepts. FBI interviews. Grand jury subpoenas. Secret surveillance-court details. Internal discussions. Military operations intelligence. The contents of the president’s calls with foreign leaders.
The analysis lays out the real and the assumed fallout. One clear example is the May stories hyperventilating that Mr. Trump shared classified intelligence with the Russians. Subsequent leaks suggested Israel provided the intelligence, about Islamic State. This revelation caused a diplomatic incident, and reportedly a change in the way Israel shares with the U.S.
The Johnson report doesn’t go here, but let’s go ourselves: This is lawbreaking, in the aid of a political hit job. The leaking syndicate can’t claim whistleblower status, since it has yet to leak a piece of evidence showing Trump wrongdoing. This is about taking out a president.
Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept noted that this activity is the prescription for the destruction of our government, noting that there are little if any constitutional constraints on the intelligence community. The Intercept is seen as a space for whistleblowers to share information of government malfeasance safely. This is none of that. This is about a few people upset with how the 2016 election turned out. Maybe this should be seen as a reminder to any future intelligence folks who are thinking of going public. In the end, it seems as if you just hurt everybody.