The Trump-Putin War on American Intelligence Is in Overdrive

President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on December 15, 2017. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In my last column, I criticized the anti-Trump “resistance” for its excessive zeal in exposing Russian espionage, observing that counterintelligence work driven by politics and emotion rather than facts and discipline is bound to go wrong. At worst, we run the risk of a new wave of McCarthyism, with meandering witch-hunts for Kremlin agents (most of them imaginary) instead of serious counterspy efforts.

What’s interesting is that the “resistance” is a movement of the Left and its adherents, with few exceptions, are recent fans of counterespionage. Their interest in Russian spying is driven by Donald Trump and is as intense as it is new. Their enthusiasm for unmasking traitors customarily outpaces their understanding of real-world intelligence operations.

It’s difficult to miss that these are the same people who mocked Mitt Romney only five years ago when the Republican nominee for president presciently opined that Russia constituted our main geopolitical foe—a suggestion that was mocked as old-think by President Barack Obama and his followers.

Moreover, the Left was hardly brimming with anti-Kremlin zeal back in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was mainly the Right, aided by a few stodgy old Democratic Cold Warriors, that signaled the alarm about Soviet espionage and propaganda as a threat to our country and the West. Indeed, for many on the Left, the notion that Moscow was aggressively spying on us was a notion deserving of derision.

How times change. Now the Left is on the enthusiastic hunt for Russian agents, while the Right has transformed itself seemingly overnight from a Romneyian skepticism about the Kremlin to indifference to the threat at best, and at worst a strange and unsettling affection for Vladimir Putin. President Donald Trump is the Republicans’ biggest Kremlin fan, and his reticence to hear anything bad about Russia extends to any classified White House discussions about Kremlin interference in our 2016 election. As a bombshell new report in the Washington Post explains, the president’s Intelligence Community briefers customarily avoid anything to do with Russia in their daily briefing to the commander-in-chief altogether, lest they upset him by saying something bad about Putin.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Team Trump has now taken to direct public attacks on our Intelligence Community in a desperate effort to stave off the results of the investigation of the president’s ties to Moscow that’s being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. President Trump’s lawyers misinformed him that the Russia investigation would wrap up by the end of 2017, without grave damage to the White House. That was patently false, as demonstrated by recent indictments and plea deals by major members of Team Trump, not to mention the prospect of more indictments soon—perhaps of people even closer to the president.

With his presidency and more on the line, Donald Trump is in the fight of his life, and it’s no coincidence that his media mouthpieces are hurling everything they can at the people who are investigating him—above all Mueller and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Attacks on Mueller are now routine, with torrents of unsubstantiated allegations of his alleged bias against President Trump. According to the Fox News version of reality, Mueller, a Republican, has surrounded himself with partisan Democrats who are out to sink Team Trump, evidence be damned.

A scandal has emerged over private text messages sent last year between Peter Strzok, a top FBI counterintelligence official, and his mistress. These texts showed Strzok to be notably anti-Trump, privately—as, let it be said, were virtually all IC personnel in 2016 who were acquainted with the modus operandi of Russian intelligence, since they understood that Trump’s Kremlin ties were problematic at best—and as a result Mueller removed him from the special counsel investigation.

This event has been turned into a cause célèbre by Trump fans, notwithstanding the administration’s alleged hatred for leaks, with the implication that the FBI is tainted. Indeed, the president’s media allies are portraying our nation’s top law enforcement agency as a rogue outfit and worse. Fox News has led this charge, naturally, and last week Fox stalwart Gregg Jarrett, in an appearance on the vehemently pro-Trump Sean Hannity show, which parrots Kremlin lies, went full tinfoil, in a monologue worthy of Alex Jones:

Mueller has been using the FBI as a political weapon. The FBI has become America’s secret police. Secret surveillance, wiretapping, intimidation, harassment and threats. It’s like the old KGB that comes for you in the dark of night, banging through your door.

Not to be outdone, this week on Fox News, Tom Fitton, the head of Judicial Watch, a right-wing lobbying group, called for the Bureau’s dissolution:

I think the FBI’s been compromised. Forget about shutting down Mr. Mueller. Do we need to shut down the FBI because it was turned into a KGB-type operation by the Obama administration?

Let’s be clear here. Jarrett and Fitton—with no pushback from Fox hosts—publicly compared the FBI to the Soviet secret police, which murdered millions of innocents, ran the GULAG, and served as the enforcer of Red terror for 74 years. The KGB was one of the nastiest, most blood-drenched organizations in human history. It was judge, jury, and executioner for the Bolsheviks. The rational mind has difficulty seeing how the FBI, a law-based police force held to account by Congressional oversight, is “like the KGB” unless facts simply don’t matter anymore.

Apparently, they don’t matter to Team Trump, since their fact-free war on the FBI and more broadly the IC shows no signs of abating. Of course, there’s nothing new about attacking American counterintelligence, seeking to delegitimize it by any means possible. Throughout the last Cold War, Soviet mouthpieces and allies portrayed U.S. efforts to detect and deter Communist espionage as illegitimate, sneaky, and somehow just not right.

Hence, we have countless media depictions, beginning in the 1960s, of Western (especially American) counterintelligence as inherently suspicious, paranoid and malevolent, when not merely risible. Such characterizations served to delegitimize U.S. efforts to stymie Soviet espionage and propaganda, and none can deny they were effective. The chronic American weakness in counterintelligence has many causes, but popular distaste for their work thanks to such scurrilous media depictions is surely a factor.

The Kremlin went further, employing Active Measures on a regular basis to smear American counterintelligence, fabricating evidence such as faked “official” documents to present our counterspies in a dismal light. For decades, the FBI, America’s lead counterintelligence agency, was a special target of KGB disinformation, never more than when it was headed by J. Edgar Hoover, the eccentric yet gifted man who led the Bureau for a half-century until 1972.

As revealed by KGB archives after the Cold War, Soviet spies targeted Hoover for public harassment, and it worked. To this day, some Americans whisper sordid allegations about Hoover’s personal life: for instance, that he was secretly a flamboyant homosexual, even attending parties wearing a dress with a feather boa like an “old flapper.” Few know that these stories were ginned up by KGB disinformation specialists in Moscow and have no basis in fact. Combined with Kremlin lies that alleged the FBI was secretly behind everything from right-wing domestic terrorism to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—the latter was another spectacularly successful Chekist Active Measure—this dirty campaign did enduring damage to the public reputation of the Bureau and its leadership.

These lies were parroted by too many Americans, mainly on the Left, until they became cosmically true due to constant repetition. They live on today despite their thorough debunking. Something similar is happening now on the Right. To protect Donald Trump from the Russia investigation, which the president has repeatedly insisted is a “hoax” and “fake news,” his defenders are spinning their own hoaxes and fake news in a sordid fashion, taking aim at core institutions of our Republic.

Since the inauguration, the Trump White House has howled gigantic curses at the alleged “deep state,” another figment of the fervent imagination of the InfoWars and Fox News set, and they’ve now taken direct aim at the FBI. The Bureau will survive this unpleasant episode, but its reputation is being damaged by allies of their boss, our president, who are acting in concert with the FBI’s old enemies in Moscow. Why the Russians seek to dismantle American counterintelligence, their main enemy in the SpyWar, is no mystery. Why our president does, however, is a deeply troubling question that gets at the heart of the rot in Washington right now.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee. 

The Trump-Putin War on American Intelligence Is in Overdrive