DAY 6

A former CIA officer says U.S. intelligence officials could be justified in leaking classified information

The rift between the Trump administration and the U.S. intelligence community deepened this week as former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign. Retired CIA officer Glenn Carle says under the circumstances, intelligence officials could be justified in leaking information.
US President-elect Donald Trump with then-National Security Adviser designate Lt. General Michael Flynn at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida in December 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)
Listen8:27

by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)

As soon as Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, media began to call for the country's democratic institutions to monitor and check the power of the executive branch. They were mostly looking to elected bodies like Congress, even one under Republican leadership, to push back.

Some expected opposition would come through the mechanisms of civil society and federalism. Others pointed to the power of the U.S. Constitution.

No one expected a challenge from the intelligence community (I.C.), but less than a month into his presidency, it is the I.C. that appears to pose the gravest threat to Trump.

Donald Trump jokes with retired Gen. Michael Flynn as they speak at a rally at Grand Junction Regional Airport on October 18, 2016 in Grand Junction Colorado. (George Frey/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported Trump's campaign team had regular contact with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. The source for the story was "four current and former American officials."

This week, Trump blamed the intelligence community for the leaks that brought down his National Security advisor Mike Flynn, saying: "From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It's a criminal action, [a] criminal act, and it's been going on for a long time before me, but now it's really going on."

                

An existential dilemma

Glenn Carle was the Deputy Intelligence Officer for Trans-National Threats with the National Intelligence Council. Before that, he served 23 years with the C.I.A. in Clandestine Services. 

I asked him if he thinks the president is right that the leaks are coming from the I.C.

"Typically, most leaks in Washington come from Capitol Hill, which means the Congressional staffers and the organs attendant to the legislative branch," he said on CBC's Day 6.

How can you have a functioning government when, if, for any reason, someone ... says something that displeases the chief, he or it is then denounced?- Former CIA officer Glenn Carle

"Leaks coming from the national security establishment — the intelligence community — I'm sure happen, but are far less common. On the whole, the intelligence community is an apolitical branch that serves the executive directly."

"It truly is largely apolitical."

Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn on February 10, 2017. (Getty Images)

I reminded Carle that in the week before the election, the F.B.I. decision to reinvestigate Hillary Clinton's emails was seen by some as an overtly political intervention. Can the I.C. still claim to be apolitical?

"There are politicized individuals, certainly," he said.

"Are entire entities politicized? I don't believe so. I don't believe that's the case."

"The issue of the Hillary e-mail business with [FBI Director James] Comey is notable, certainly. Can it [the I.C.] be politicised and discredited? Yes. Yes, it could. This is certainly what Donald Trump is attempting to do, to try to make it an issue of ostensible partisan attack as opposed to [one of] fulfilling the mission, which is to present facts to the executive."

               

Mission Impossible

But Carle says that mission of presenting facts has become impossible to fulfil, because Trump, in Carle's view, is incapable of accepting criticism. Carle says that is leading to crisis.

"The United States is facing, literally, an existential crisis, the biggest crisis to our institutions of government since 1861. That was our Civil War, when the country broke in half and 600,000 Americans died. How can you have a functioning government when, if, for any reason, someone or some entity says something that displeases the chief, he is, or it is, then denounced?"

"It's impossible."

A couple kisses in front of graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is right when he says leaking classified information is a serious crime, and Carle is careful when I ask if he believes the I.C. would be justified in doing so.

"This is the existential dilemma that one has. In either direction — whatever direction one turns — one finds that somehow you are challenged in the fulfillment of your oath. And how does one address a crisis when there is no means to do so?

"It is an existential dilemma. You have a chance here to either be complicit and compromised or to do something about it. So it's a horrible dilemma."

                    

A break in the process

Classified information is the key to world security. The president makes national security decisions based on what he or she learns from the intelligence community.

"The intelligence community should be the eyes and ears of the United States, or of any country, so that we don't have to find ourselves in a position where force might be required, or our positions are undermined without our knowledge," says Carle.

If you don't pass the information along — if you don't serve the executive — you are not fulfilling your mandate. If you do, you de facto betray it.- Former CIA officer Glenn Carle

"Without that, then you're blind, deaf and dumb."

I wondered how those briefings could have unfolded when Mike Flynn was National Security Advisor and the IC. knew he was compromised by his lies about his communication with Russia.

Carle says the agents would have been in an impossible position.

"If you do your job, which is to report up the chain of command, but you believe that the superior is not fulfilling his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, or is being exploited by a hostile power — in this instance, Russian intelligence — what do you do?"

"If you don't pass the information along — if you don't serve the executive — you are not fulfilling your mandate. If you do, you de facto betray it."

"How do you serve an executive who's been compromised? That's a huge problem."

                   

Withholding intelligence?

And then, there's the Wall Street Journal. This week, it reported that intelligence officials are withholding information from the White House because they don't trust that the executive will keep the intelligence contained.

It's a shocking allegation, so I asked Carle if he thinks the report is credible.

"Oh my God. I do," Carle says. "I find it credible because, what do you do?"

"If you know that the information, if passed along, could jeopardize lives and national security, and yet your order — the chain of command — is that you have to pass it along, how then do you act in the fulfillment of your oath?"

Carle imagines intelligence would still be processed, but in a way that cuts out the executive.

"I think what one might try to do is provide information to relevant organs of the government that act in accordance with accepted procedures and parameters. So if there's information relevant to our defense department, that routinely they will receive it. Or to the State Department, and so on and so forth. And that would allow some coherent functionality of the government."

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who tendered his resignation late Monday. (Reuters)

                  

The conflict to come

Trump has vowed to review the role of intelligence and to investigate the source of the leaks. This week, reports said that Stephen A. Feinberg, a New York billionaire with close ties to Trump's Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, would head the investigation.

The news has put the intelligence community on edge.

The issue is what's going on between the Trump entourage and Russian intelligence. That's an issue of grave national security.- Former CIA officer Glenn Carle

"He's going to appoint a friend of his with no knowledge or understanding or experience whatsoever in the intelligence community, in diplomacy, in foreign affairs, the function of the executive branch, solely to root out those who seem to say something that contradicts an assertion by the president. It's a very alarming thing," says Carle.

"This is what happened in Berlin in 1933, frankly. So that's very alarming, yes."

Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn gestures as he arrives at New York's Trump Tower on Nov. 17, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

               

The Russian connection

Ultimately, Carle urges people not to be distracted from the issue he believes is most important.

"The issue is what's going on between the Trump entourage and Russian intelligence. That's an issue of grave national security."

"I am deeply apprehensive about the health of our institutions and the corrosion that is occurring to our social contract and our political culture. These attacks on the judiciary, the attacks on the intelligence community, attacks and denigration on any entity that in any way challenges a position of the executive of Donald Trump, are seriously damaging to the long term health of American democracy and certainly to the functioning of the federal government."