Stunningly, the GOP has opted to rebuke Donald Trum
p for his foreign policy recklessness and his fact-free attacks on his own experts.
Trump tweeted “the Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” The president added in a follow-up tweet about Iran: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” Trump appeared to be responding to television news coverage that focused on how the testimony contradicted his views on global threats.
Exasperated Republican lawmakers quickly pushed back against the criticism, urging the president to show more restraint.
It's about time.
One must savor the irony: We have a president who cannot spell, who despises the rules of grammar, and who Capitalizes Words in a Fashion last Seen in the 17th Century. Yet he counsels others to "go back to school."
Last night, Lawrence O'Donnell castigated the NYT for reporting that Trump's blistering attack on his own intelligence community was "unusual." The better word, said O'Donnell, would be "unprecedented."
In a sense, this is true. But O'Donnell was wrong to give the impression that there has never before been a serious divide between a president and the intelligence services. In fact, there have been quite a few rifts -- though none of them gave rise to anything like Trump's insane public tirade.
The Kennedy administration offers the best example. JFK learned the hard way -- at the Bay of Pigs -- not to trust everything that Allen Dulles told him. Every American should thank God that Kennedy chose not to listen to the CIA folk who advised him to lend air support to that ill-conceived invasion; doing so might have led to World War III. We should be even more thankful that JFK ignored "expert" advice to attack Cuba during the missile crisis; nuclear war would have certainly resulted.
The JFK/CIA rift predated those events. Consider Kennedy's pained reaction (captured in this photo
) to the news of Patrice Lumumba's murder -- a murder almost certainly aided, if not planned, by the Agency
I could mention several other points of division, including Kennedy's clandestine peace feelers to Castro, which he felt obliged to keep hidden from his own spies. Bottom line: I agree with those who believe that Kennedy, in his second term, would have appointed his brother as Director of Central Intelligence. Bobby would have cleaned house.
Richard Nixon vs. the CIA. Nixon
had his own rifts.
After he won the 1968 presidential election, in part by sabotaging the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War, Nixon tried to put the CIA in its place. He ordered a restructuring of the NSC that ran all critical national security decisions through the White House. That plan would have left the CIA director, then Richard Helms, out of the NSC completely.
It took Melvin Laird, the Defense secretary and a canny former House member, to talk Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, out of it. Kissinger persuaded Nixon to include Helms in the NSC. Nixon, however, had one condition: Helms could brief the council at the top of its meetings but then would have to leave.
That condition was deemed too counterproductive and humiliating, and Nixon soon let Helms brief and stay in the meetings. He never trusted the CIA and often ignored its work, most prominently in the days before the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the disastrous U.S.-backed Lam Son 719 operation in which South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos in 1971. After Lam Son, Nixon tried to blame the CIA when it was Nixon himself who had ignored their advice.
Rather Trumpian behavior, wouldn't you say?
Nixon eventually sacked DCI Richard Helms. One popular theory of Watergate holds that Helms retaliated by arranging the president's removal -- a blow from the grave, delivered by CREEP personnel with CIA backgrounds. It should also be noted that Nixon's moves toward detente were viewed with grave suspicion by a hardline faction within the intel community, particularly by those who hated Kissinger. (Silent Coup
, a book which I do not
admire, is actually pretty interesting when it sticks to this angle.)
A vs B
. The intelligence community was never monolithic; any president who favors one faction will inevitably alienate those within the opposing faction. I am thinking here of the 70s-era rivalry between Team A and Team B
concerning the assessment of Soviet military capabilities. Team B believed that the CIA underestimated the USSR. The cynical view -- which is, of course, my
view -- holds that Team B was a propaganda exercise designed to bolster a domestic military buildup and to undermine Jimmy Carter, thereby paving the way for Reagan.
Carter had serious disagreements with the Agency -- and for good reason
. In the 1970s, various congressional inquiries had led to widespread public mistrust of the CIA, which was portrayed as a rogue elephant. (That was the term commonly heard at the time.) Carter instituted reforms which led to the dismissal of one-fifth of the Agency's work force -- and when they found themselves on the outside, some of these former employees got up to serious mischief. But that's a topic for another post.
Carter was always careful not to lambaste the Agency in public. He never went on a Trumpian tirade. Nevertheless, Carter ordered a ban on assassinations, curtailed domestic CIA operations, and helped to institute the FISA system. His DCI, Stansfield Turner, would have instituted a radical overhaul of the entire intelligence community, had Carter won a second term. (If memory serves, Bob Woodward's Veil
goes into this.)
W vs. CIA.
People now forget that, under George Tenet, the CIA did not agree
with George W. Bush's false assertions that Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities posed an "imminent" threat. Tenet tried not to tell outright lies about Iraq, but he did stay more-or-less silent while the administration lied.
"In January 2003, he allowed President Bush to include the fraudulent claim about yellowcake uranium from Niger in the State of the Union address," Markey said in a written statement. "In February 2003, he sat behind Colin Powell as he systematically presented intelligence on Iraqi WMD that was alarmist and untrue. Later in February 2003, he did not clarify the CIA's intelligence position when the on-the-ground U.N. weapons inspectors reported their negative findings."
Also see here
CIA Director George Tenet on Tuesday rejected recent assertions by Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq cooperated with the al-Qaida terrorist network and that the administration had proof of an illicit Iraqi biological warfare program.
Tenet's comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee are likely to fuel friction between the White House and intelligence agencies over the failure so far to find any of the banned weapons stockpiles that President Bush, in justifying his case for war, charged Saddam Hussein with concealing.
Because the CIA could not be controlled, the neocons set up ad hoc
groups within military intelligence. In this demimonde, obvious disinformation gained traction. As the Downing Street memo confirmed, intelligence was fixed to conform with policy.
Why Trump is different.
I could go on, but the point is made: Last night, Lawrence O'Donnell offered his viewers a skewed history lesson. Precedents do
exist. Previous presidents have indeed clashed with the intelligence community -- and some of those clashes were quite a bit sharper than what we are seeing now.
What is truly without precedence is the brazen, vulgar, and childish way in which Donald Trump has expressed himself in public. In the past, presidents had to perform a balancing act: Even when they were at loggerheads with intelligence officials, acrimony could not be allowed to undermine the public's confidence in American institutions.
Trump doesn't care about that. Trump cares only about himself.
That's the difference.