The big problem with getting to the bottom of President Donald Trump’s Kremlin ties isn’t just secrecy and classification—it’s that practically nobody in Washington wants to know the messy and complex truth.
You need to shut up about what you can’t talk about, as Ludwig Wittgenstein memorably put it. It sounds more meticulous in the philosopher’s original German (Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen), but the point is the same: Some things just aren’t fit to be uttered in polite company.
Espionage is one of those things. The public likes the movie version of spying—fast cars, beguiling beauties and baccarat—but not the real-life kind, which bears no resemblance to the film version. Espionage in the real world is messy and difficult. Knowing who in Washington is in bed with foreign intelligence services can be unsettling. Counterintelligence is not a job for the faint-hearted, or anyone who likes justice dispensed quickly.
That’s the keyword mostly missing from Special Counsel Mueller’s report on Trump and the Russians in 2016. It’s probably there a lot more, but since the version the public has seen is heavily redacted, who knows how many times counterintelligence came up in the write-up by Robert Mueller and his staff?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The American public seems to have made up its mind, without knowing the full story, if polls are to be believed. Most Americans feel the Mueller probe was fairly conducted, that Trump is covering up his true ties to Moscow and probably obstructed justice to do so, yet barely more than a third of Americans favor impeachment.
From a counterintelligence viewpoint, the Mueller report portrays a Trump campaign that was guilty as hell of colluding with the Kremlin to damage Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016, to the benefit of Donald Trump (and, let’s not forget, Vladimir Putin). While that may not meet prosecutorial threshold—the Espionage Act being devilishly difficult to apply in practice—it meets any intelligence standard of colluding with the enemy.
Of course, this is hardly the first time that a major Washington espionage scandal involving the White House stalled politically even though the Intelligence Community knew the full, unpleasant truth—which Congress failed to unmask despite making a lot of noise about doing so.
Take the Clinton administration’s unfortunate relationship with Iranian spies in the Balkans back in the mid-1990s, which has fallen down the memory hole, yet is knowable to anyone possessing Google. In April 1996, just months after President Bill Clinton employed U.S. military power to end the awful Bosnian war, The Los Angeles Times reported a bombshell: The White House, two years before, had given a ‘green light’ to secret shipments of Iranian weaponry to the Bosnian Muslims.
Given that Tehran, then as now, was considered a terrorist regime deeply hostile to the United States, possessing ample American blood on its hands, this was a shocking story. Republicans professed outrage and charged Congress with getting to the bottom of what happened. Inquiries by the House and Senate intelligence committees followed, promising to unmask the Clinton administration’s support for Iranian spies in Bosnia.
Except, they didn’t. The investigations dragged on for a couple of years yet, in the end, the House and Senate reports more or less punted, concluding that, although some U.S. officials had acted improperly, there was no formal covert action by American intelligence in Bosnia which benefitted Iran. This was technically true, since CIA and other U.S. spy agencies knew what was going on between Clinton’s National Security Council (NSC) and Tehran and considered it madcap. The conclusion that Clinton’s NSC ran a secret arms pipeline that aided Iran was too eerily similar to what Ollie North had done with Ronald Reagan’s NSC only a few years before that it met nobody’s ‘Narrative‘ in the 1990s, so the story ebbed away.
Even after 9/11, it failed to revive, even though it should have. What American spies knew was that the Clinton administration giving Iran a free hand in Bosnia between 1992 and 1996 had baleful consequences for our security. The House and Senate intelligence committees had dodged most of these issues on grounds of classification and simply not wanting to know. What did they omit?
That Tehran’s intelligence agencies, especially its terrorist-backing Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), made Bosnia their European base, training thousands of jihadists there. That Bosnian Muslim political and security leadership was a nest of Iranian agents, with many of them on Tehran’s payroll. That Iranian weapons shipped to Bosnia with U.S. approval made it into the hands of Al-Qaeda. That the IRGC in Bosnia enabled the growth of Al-Qaeda from a minor terrorist group into a major global threat.
I exposed all of this, finally, with my 2007 book Unholy Terror. I was one of the American spooks who knew the unpleasant story about Iran and Bosnia, and my book could be fairly termed a whistleblower’s account. But the mainstream media ignored it, since Unholy Terror wasn’t edifying to anyone in our nation’s capital, depicting as it did dumb U.S. policies that helped Al-Qaeda grow and metastasize in the run-up to 9/11.
A couple weeks ago, a former IRGC general boastfully outed his secret 1990’s activities, including his work under cover in Bosnia training jihadists. He explained, “In Bosnia, in the heart of Europe, there were many developments. We were side by side with Al-Qaeda. The members of Al-Qaeda learned from us. From all over the world, mujahidin poured into Bosnia.”
IRGC leadership denounced these comments, since the last thing Tehran needs right now is more pressure from the Trump administration, which seems hell-bent on war with Iran. But everything the general said about his activities in Bosnia was true, and American spies have known it for decades.
The ability of our political-media elite in Washington to bury spy stories which they don’t want discussed remains impressive, even in the age of the internet and social media. Although House Democrats now seem determined to get to the bottom of Trump’s Kremlin ties, to advance the story beyond what Mueller has told the public, that will be a long and arduous fight. Veterans of the secret wars on the Potomac know how such sagas play out and understand that it will take decades, not years, for the truth to emerge here.