The leaking of CIA methods and the ongoing debate over whether the intelligence community is trying to undermine President Trump have thrust a part of our government into the spotlight that greatly prefers to operate in the shadows.
In the first few weeks of the Trump administration, much attention has been paid to the litany of unnamed sources offering information to the media that casts the president in a negative light, possibly even in cahoots with Russia. In addition, Trump has accused President Obama of keeping him under surveillance during the campaign.
The latest headline material for the intelligence community centers on Wikileaks releasing CIA documents which reveal methods of spying on subjects, including the use of smart phones, televisions and other devices.
When it comes to the exposure of CIA secrets, there is the immediate and the long-term fallout.
“Our intelligence service may no longer be able to access information they need to prevent an attack. So that’s as serious as it gets,” said Herbert E. Meyer, who served as special assistant to then-CIA Director William Casey during the Reagan administration.
Meyer also served as vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. Most recently he’s founder of Storm King Press and the author of the updated booklet, “Why Is the World So Dangerous?”
The long-term damage of CIA secrets and methods being exposed is also sobering.
“This discredits the CIA and the intelligence service. We’re living in an age when rumors go all over the place and news is unchecked. You can never tell the difference between a fact and an allegation. So once again, the idea is out there that the CIA is spying on everybody,” said Meyer.
“That does an enormous amount of damage to our credibility as a country and to citizens. So it’s really very, very damaging, whatever the facts (in the Wikileaks case) turn out to be,” said Meyer, who says rooting out leakers at the CIA isn’t very difficult.
Meyer admits there are endless new ways to track people than when he was serving at the CIA, but he says the agency always adhered to strict privacy policies unless it had good reason for surveillance.
“There was obviously a clear line. We looked overseas. If it was something here in the United States, the FBI dealt with it, said Meyer. “So the line was a little thicker, a little brighter then. But in all fairness to everyone, it’s a different world now.”
But even worse than the leaking, according to Meyer, is the intelligence community’s obsession with simply gathering information.
“Since 9/11, our intelligence service has been making a fundamental mistake. They came to the conclusion that 9/11 happened because they didn’t have enough information. To some extent that was true, but you know, it’s never enough. It’s a trap. If you’re not careful, you try to know everything about everything and you wind up knowing nothing about nothing,” said Meyer.
Meyer likens that approach to constantly shopping for groceries to make a dinner but never actually making the dinner.
As for the intelligence community regularly leaking sensitive material to a media eager to paint the president in a bad light, Meyer says that happened all the time during the Reagan years.
“About twice a week,” said Meyer. “There’d be a conversation on the seventh floor of the CIA and the next day it would be in the Washington Post. Absolutely amazing (and) that’s nothing new,” said Meyer.
But while Meyer says there are certainly intelligence personnel who do not like the president, there is not a grand conspiracy to bring down the president.
“It’s not ‘deep state.’ That’s sort of an overdramatic version of it. The same thing is happening at the EPA. It happens at the agriculture department. The people like us don’t pay as much attention to that,” he said.
When it comes to whether the Obama administration spied on Trump or his campaign, Meyer is mystified by the drawn-out intrigue.
“This is a classic case of what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. You can never get to the bottom of anything. You can never get anything straight. It’s like trying to read a book while someone throws sand in your eyes,” said Meyer.
He says Trump could resolve this quickly.
“The president has access to every document in the executive branch. There’s nothing that you can keep from a president. So why doesn’t President Trump simply call the directors of the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA and say, ‘Get in here with everything you’ve got on this and let’s take a look,'” said Meyer.
“The president also has the absolute authority to declassify anything. If he wanted to, he could declassify the nuclear launch code. So why can’t we get our hands on this stuff? Why can’t we just see it? If there was a FISA request that was denied last spring, somebody wrote the requests, somebody signs it. The document exists. Let’s see it.
“If there was a FISA request that was approved in October, let’s see that. If anything was approved and there are tapes, recordings [or] transcripts, let’s see them,” said Meyer.
Meyer says he expected obfuscation from the Obama administration but Trump should handle this differently.
“We have a president who is, in effect, on our side as opposed to the last president. So why doesn’t he just get his hands on it and says, ‘Here’s what there was’ or ‘There was nothing.’ I don’t understand why this takes more than 10 minutes to get straight,” said Meyer.
“Remember, we never got to the bottom of Benghazi, but that’s because the people in the White House were trying to keep us from getting straight answers. Why can’t we get straight answers now? That’s what I don’t understand,” said Meyer.