The CIA's Newest Attack on Trump Is Just Brutal

Former director Michael Hayden calls the president's latest comments "outrageous," "troubling" and "partisan."

Michael Hayden, CIA director 2006-2009
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The unprecedented power struggle between the CIA and the White House flared again Thursday with a withering attack on President Trump by the agency’s former director, Michael Hayden.

In a New York Times op-ed, Hayden dismissed as “outrageous” Trump’s charge that President Barack Obama ordered the National Security Agency to tap phones at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. Hayden, who served as director from 2006 to 2009, denounced the president for comparing his espionage services to “Russians, Nazis and WikiLeaks."

Never before has a former CIA director criticized a sitting American president in such broad or harsh terms. While top agency officials had major differences with presidents Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those power struggles were waged mostly in private via secret meetings, classified orders and anonymous leaks to news reporters, not in public forums.

The current struggle shows no sign of abating. While Trump and his advisers see a “deep state” of liberals and CIA officials out to undermine his presidency, Hayden depicts the commander-in-chief as a menace to U.S. intelligence operations.

Trump's administration, Hayden said, has “questioned [CIA] officers’ integrity, has been casual in its use of intelligence and is not above calling on intelligence professionals to provide political cover.”

Hayden complained that Trump had not consulted with his intelligence agencies before the “chaotic rollout” of his original executive order banning visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (Hayden signed a friend-of-the-court brief that said the order made America less safe.)

Hayden expressed a yearning for another Barack Obama or George W. Bush, incoming presidents who made minimal changes at the agency when they took office. But Trump has repudiated that bipartisan tradition, at least rhetorically.

What he intends to do with the agency is less clear. While Trump and adviser Steve Bannon have floated (and pulled back) the idea of reorganizing the intelligence community, no plans have been announced.

Trump has acted on his policy impulses with the agency. Last year, current and former top CIA officials assured anybody who would listen that the agency had no intention of heeding Trump’s campaign call to “bring back [interrogation techniques] a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

But last month, CIA director Mike Pompeo brought in as his top deputy Gina Haspel, a career undercover operator who operated an agency “black site" in Thailand under President Bush. Suspected terrorists were frequently waterboarded at the facility run by Haspel, according to Newsweek’s Jeff Stein.

Trump sees Russian president Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and potential partner of the United States. The CIA views Russia as a threat whose interference in the 2016 election harmed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with whom the CIA had a good working relationship.

Ultimately, Trump’s differences with the CIA seem less about specific policies and more about power generally.

The agency’s former directors such as Hayden (and John Brennan and Mike Morrell) view Trump as a threat to the power and influence the agency has long wielded in presidential deliberations about national security issues. Trump and Bannon view the CIA as a rival power center whose daily briefings are worthless and whose political loyalties are suspect.

Hayden wrote that Pompeo’s “personal closeness and access to Mr. Trump has helped the intelligence community get over some of the hard feelings” created by Trump's rhetoric. There are few other signs of mutual accommodation or compromise in a public power struggle the likes of which Washington has never seen.

If the chief of state and intelligence service of any other country were feuding like this, Americans would say that country was "unstable." The word applies to Washington today.

Also by Jefferson Morley

Why the Wikileaks Revelations Are So Important (March 8)

Human Rights Abuse: Trump's Plan Will Separate Immigrant Children from Their Parents (March 6)

Who Wins? Trump v. Koch Brothers on Jobs (March 1)

Three Hard Truths that Trump Is Facing (Feb. 28)

What Is the Deep State and Why Is It After Trump? (Feb. 16)

A Professor's Lesson: 'American Democracy Is Now Confronting an Abyss' (Feb. 16)

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. He is the author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press).

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