From Criminals to Heroes

Top intelligence officials like John Brennan have been posturing as Trump critics to obscure their own scandalous pasts. And many liberals are buying it.

John Brennan speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on July 25, 2011 in Washington DC. Alex Wong / Getty

In many ways, it’s been a good couple of years for intelligence agencies. Aided by a combination of the Russiagate scandal and Donald Trump’s disrespectful attitude toward them, the nation’s spies are enjoying a renaissance in their public standing, particularly among Democrats, a major shift from the years and decades prior.

Trump’s decision yesterday to withdraw former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance is a perfect illustration of this dynamic. Brennan was one of six former intelligence officials whose security clearances Trump threatened to revoke due to their criticisms of the president. He’s now the first that Trump has followed through on, prompting paeans to Brennan’s years of public service by establishment journalists and politicians, while Brennan has assumed the role of courageous dissident speaking truth to power (“My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent.”)

Incidents like these have bolstered a canny PR campaign carried out by Brennan and two other high-profile former officials in particular: former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA) head Michael Hayden, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. For two years, the trio has been ubiquitous in media coverage of Trump, doing TV appearances, interviews, and plugs for their books, criticizing Trump and insinuating that he’s a Putin asset. Big-name #Resistance liberals like Rob Reiner (“When you libel James Clapper and John Brennan you libel America,” he wrote) have cheered on these figures — sometimes literally, as when they’ve appeared on liberal talk shows to insult Trump in front of whooping crowds.

As liberals have fallen in love all over again with the intelligence agencies they previously distrusted, the Left has cringed. Why? There are, of course, the ignominious histories of such agencies, which since their inception have fought against movements devoted to expanding the rights, protections, and freedoms of ordinary people in the US and abroad.

But there’s also the personal histories of the former intelligence officials themselves. Brennan, Clapper, and Hayden have, in the space of a couple of years’ worth of Trump criticism, seemingly erased the massive scandals that once clung to their names — scandals that should make anyone who fears Trump’s serial dishonesty, undermining of norms, and latent authoritarianism think twice about turning these men into folk heroes.

“Lying Routinely to the American People”

Brennan, Obama’s homeland security advisor and (later) CIA director, has been vocal in his criticisms of Trump, starting with relatively subdued pushback over Trump’s comments on Obama’s body language and the president’s plan to scrap the Iran deal. This intensified following Trump’s incoherent address to the CIA shortly after his inauguration. Brennan has since begun heavily implying that he knows Trump has been compromised and, as of this year, has outright accused him of being blackmailed or in some way controlled by Putin. This June, he published an op-ed criticizing Trump for “lying routinely to the American people without compunction, intentionally fueling divisions in our country and actively working to degrade the imperfect but critical institutions that serve us.” Indeed, Trump’s dishonesty is a theme Brennan has returned to often.

All of this has conveniently helped wipe public memory of Brennan’s own misdeeds, which bear a striking resemblance to this same rap sheet.

Before Trump’s election provided an opportunity for Brennan to rebrand, he was perhaps best known for his role in the CIA’s covert spying operation against the Senate staffers who had compiled that body’s damning report on CIA torture. In 2014, months after discovering that CIA officers had breached and snooped through a secure computer network used by staffers compiling the report, Brennan — who initially refused to apologize for it — publicly lied about it. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean we wouldn’t do that,” he said, shaking his head and smiling in a show of exasperation. Then he did it again.

This casual, flagrant lying helped create a mini constitutional crisis. An investigation was launched, senators called for Brennan’s resignation, and then–Senate majority leader Harry Reid wrote the attorney general about “serious separation of powers implications.” Even Dianne Feinstein, one of the Senate’s most stalwart boosters of the CIA and the national security state more broadly, excoriated the agency over its actions. The Washington Post called on Obama to fire Brennan.

Brennan was, of course, personally tied up in the very torture that the Senate had been reporting on. He was deputy executive director of the CIA when it was “torturing folks” between 2001 and 2003, and he enthusiastically defended both torture and the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” policy, claiming (falsely, as the report determined) that they were crucial to providing intelligence.

The CIA under Brennan continued to be supremely uncooperative with the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the report, attempting to undermine it by misleadingly claiming it had “significant errors,” while Brennan fed information about its progress to former CIA director George Tenet, who was already crafting a counterattack. Feinstein said that Brennan was acting to protect the “brotherhood” of the CIA and that he “wanted to destroy the report.” An unnamed former intelligence official told the Sunday Times something similar: “He’s got to defend his building and rightfully sees [the report] as not just an attack on the so-called torture program but as an attack on the CIA as an institution.”

According to Connie Bruck, Brennan told different stories to different senators about his feelings on the report: that he was alternatively shocked at the report’s contents, or that it was merely a “prosecutor’s brief” trying to find problems. When it was finally released, he personally decried it as “flawed” and pointedly refused to refer to the abusive interrogation techniques outlined within as “torture.”

Besides his work torturing people and covering it up, there is perhaps no figure who bears more responsibility than Brennan for turning Obama’s drone program into what it is today: a secret, unaccountable assassination program across the Global South that visits death and destruction on poor, non-white communities, habitually targets US citizens, and fosters anti-Americanism by frequently killing innocent people. Brennan claimed in 2011 that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision” of the drone program, a claim that stretched credulity at the time, and was later proven to be a lie.

Other lies Brennan has fielded include claiming the CIA doesn’t “steal secrets” (prompting mockery from former CIA officers, though only because they were worried it would discourage CIA officers from further stealing) and claiming that Osama bin Laden had “engaged in a firefight” and used his wife as a “human shield” when he was killed, both of which turned out to be false.

Brennan’s testimony that he hadn’t been involved in setting “the parameters” of the torture program, and that he had expressed his “personal objections” about it clashed with the recollections of his colleagues. Despite reportedly being a prolific leaker himself, he attacked leaks by others and, according to a leaked email from geo-intelligence firm Stratfor, was “behind the witch hunts of investigative journalists learning information from inside the beltway sources.”

According to former CIA officer and torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, Brennan was “up to his neck in the torture program.” “How is it that one day he’s a George W. Bush neocon, and the next day he’s a Barack Obama neoliberal?” Kiriakou asked. “That is what a survivor John Brennan is. He’s a chameleon, and he can morph into anything.” Including, it seems, into a wise elder statesman standing between democracy and dictatorship.

“An Assault on Truth”

Former director of national intelligence James Clapper is another ex–intelligence official who’s found himself in Trump’s crosshairs for his criticism of the president and has been rewarded with flattering interviews, favorable headlines, and a job with CNN. For those just tuning into US politics, Clapper is merely another sober, serious US statesman warning that democracy is “under assault” by Trump, calling the Russiagate scandal bigger than Watergate, charging that Trump is literally Putin’s “asset,” and warning that the White House’s lies constitute an “assault on truth in this country.” It’s all been highly beneficial for Clapper, who not only has a book to sell, but a past scandal to expunge.

Before his rebranding, Clapper committed a felony when he perjured himself before the Senate Intelligence Committee in order to shield the NSA’s mass collection of data from public knowledge. Asked — twice — by Senator Ron Wyden if the NSA “collect[s] any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper emphatically answered “no sir” and “not wittingly,” not even choosing to give a non-answer based on the program’s secrecy, as previous lawmakers had.

When the Snowden leaks proved that was untrue a few months later, Clapper went on a spree of dissembling, first claiming he thought Wyden had simply asked about email (even though Wyden had asked about “any type of data at all”), then saying it was the “least untruthful” answer to a “when are you going to stop beating your wife” question, then seemingly admitting it was “clearly erroneous,” before claiming he was caught unaware by the question.

But it turned out that Wyden had sent Clapper the question a day in advance, and had even offered him the chance to revise his answer after his “erroneous” testimony, which Clapper declined to do — until the Snowden leaks forced his hand. As of May this year, Clapper’s story has changed again. He now claims he “made a mistake” and was thinking of a different surveillance program.

Though it’s easy to forget, now that Clapper is a leading light of the #Resistance, this was a big scandal at the time. Clapper not only committed a serious crime, but one that, as Wyden complained, undermined the Senate’s oversight of the intelligence agencies, one of those democratic norms people now worry are under threat from Trump. Multiple Republicans demanded Clapper’s dismissal and even prosecution.

This wasn’t the only time Clapper misled on the issue. Going on the offensive against reporting on the Snowden leaks, he baselessly charged that they undermined Americans’ security, that they were filled with “numerous inaccuracies” (unspecified, of course), and that the disclosures caused “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence gathering. The claims were unsubstantiated, and in many cases, ultimately contradicted. Wyden accused officials under Clapper of going on a “deception spree” regarding surveillance. Clapper also ominously referred to journalists reporting on Snowden’s leaks as “accomplices,” while warning against passing legislation to rein in government surveillance.

When the French daily Le Monde reported that US spies collected 70 million French phone calls and bugged French diplomats to sway a United Nations vote, Clapper called the reports “false” and full of “misleading information.” Under oath, however, Clapper didn’t deny the US spies on foreign leaders, and even called it a “basic tenet” of what intelligence agencies do.

Amid all the noisy outrage over Clapper being “oppressed” by Trump’s decision to revoke his security clearance on the grounds that Clapper had been monetizing it, it’s easy to forget that, well, Trump was actually right about that (albeit for entirely self-serving reasons).

Clapper, who started his military career assisting the bombing of Laos and Cambodia, is the poster boy for the DC revolving door. He left the military in 1995 with his security clearance intact and went to work for defense contractors Booz Allen Hamilton and SRA International, all the while serving as a consultant for the Pentagon and on various government boards and panels, before joining the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in 2001. After departing that position in 2006, he went to work for several NGA contractors (“It’s like hiring Colonel Sanders if you’re selling fried chicken,” one of the companies’ executives gushed), before reentering government again.

Clapper has long been an anti-Russia hawk, labeling Russia, along with China, “mortal threats” to the US. Of course, that was in 2011, long before Democrats started using the Russia bogey as a campaign issue. Consequently, alarmed Democrats went out of their way at the time to have Clapper “revise” his statement.

“Normalized Lying to an Unprecedented Degree”

Arguably no former intelligence figure in the Trump era has achieved the level of media saturation attained by former NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden. Hayden is television news’s go-to source for explaining the limits of US surveillance. He writes op-eds for major newspapers, frequently weighs in on the Trump-Russia issue and the president’s conflict with intelligence agencies, and is flattered by obsequious talk show hosts in front of hooting crowds. Like the others on this list, he’s been conspicuously critical of Trump, drawing praise for his pro-immigration stances; he has compared Trump’s immigration policy to Auschwitz.

Like the others, Hayden throughout his career has displayed an unhesitating propensity to lie to the public and to Congress, out of two principal motives: to protect the reputation of intelligence agencies and to defend the use of torture.

Hayden is such a serial liar that the 2014 torture report features a thirty-eight-page-long section devoted to documenting and debunking the many false statements that he personally has made about the torture program to Congress over the years. These include claims that a terrorist suspect had to be tortured because he was uncooperative and resisting, that those carrying out interrogations were “carefully chosen and carefully screened,” that no CIA personnel objected to torture, that “bruising” was “the most serious injury” sustained by detainees, and much, much more. All of these are flatly contradicted by the documentary evidence gathered for the report.

Lying to Congress is a crime, one Hayden was allowed to commit because it’s legally all but impossible to prove. As with Brennan, however, one can only credit the idea that he really believed what he was saying if you assume that he was extraordinarily incompetent at his job. There’s also the fact that less than two years after the release of the report, Hayden simply repeated many of these same false claims in his memoir.

“To say that we relentlessly, over an expanded period of time, lied to everyone about a program that wasn’t doing any good, that beggars the imagination,” Hayden once said, in a quote that reads very differently once you know that the CIA did indeed do this very thing.

Hayden didn’t just personally lie, however. According to the report, he ordered others to lie to Congress, directing a CIA officer to find a way to erroneously report a smaller number of CIA detainees than there actually were (“pick whatever date i [sic] needed to make that happen but the number is 98,” the officer said Hayden told him). As late as 2007, according to the report, Hayden wrote Bush a letter asking him to sign an executive order interpreting the Geneva Conventions in such a way as to allow the CIA to use its “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspect Muhammad Rahim. Bush dutifully did so.

So it’s no wonder that Hayden opposed any investigation of the program after Bush left office, cosigning a 2009 letter with six others urging then–Attorney General Eric Holder to end a Justice Department probe into the matter. It’s also no wonder that Hayden has endlessly defended the use of torture, calling its (again, nonexistent) success an “inconvenient truth,” positing that “taking techniques off the table” has made the US less safe, and claiming that “in the real world . . . the agency has nothing to gain from hiding things from Congress.”

Bill Maher’s audience, too busy clapping and cheering for Hayden as he appeared to rebuke Trump’s promise to reinstate torture, probably didn’t notice Hayden’s subtle caveat that he only really opposes the use of torture as a punishment (something the CIA did anyway). Most recently, Hayden, Clapper, and Brennan all fiercely supported former black site operator Gina Haspel’s appointment to head the CIA.

Before all this, Hayden was best known for heading the NSA at the time of its failure to detect the September 11 plot, despite having intercepted alarming messages from two of the hijackers one day earlier. In the wake of this failure, Hayden pushed to expand NSA spying into the domestic sphere, helping design (as he explained in 2006) both Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and the agency’s collection of Americans’ metadata and emails.

The eventual revelation of these programs in 2005 and 2006 was hugely embarrassing to Hayden, who had spent years insisting the NSA only targeted foreigners. Meanwhile, outraged members of Congress complained that they’d been kept in the dark, stopping just short of calling Hayden a liar.

“I now have a difficult time with your credibility,” Senator Ron Wyden told him in 2006, pointing to Hayden’s false statements to Congress over the years about the extent of NSA spying and complaining that he and Bush hadn’t “kept the committee fully and currently informed of all appropriate intelligence activities.” In 2006, former US official Mort Halperin argued that, as with his later statements on CIA torture, Hayden had broken the law by lying to Congress about the scale of NSA spying.

And yet, eleven years later, Hayden would be invited to speak at an event titled “The Future of Truth,” where he would complain about Trump’s “straight-out attempt to delegitimize the bearers of the facts.” Just a few months ago, he lamented that Trump had “normalized lying to an unprecedented degree.” He continues to be treated uncritically as an authority on how spy agencies operate, even though he’s demonstrated a well-documented willingness to lie about this very topic, even breaking the law to do so.

Those fearing for the survival of the rule of law and democratic norms in America may be interested to learn that Hayden, who spent years defending the legality of the NSA’s surveillance, emphatically denied that the Fourth Amendment featured “probable cause” as a legal standard, even though the words are written in the actual amendment. “Believe me, if there’s any amendment to the Constitution that employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it’s the Fourth,” he said, according to the Charleston Gazette.

This issue came up again when it was revealed that the CIA had destroyed incriminating interrogation tapes, which Hayden justified on the grounds of protecting agents’ identities. Contrary to Hayden’s public statements, Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican, said that he had “never [been] briefed or advised that these tapes existed, or that they were going to be destroyed.” A few days later, Hayden admitted the CIA hadn’t informed Congress.

One could put so much more on this list — Hayden’s defense of, and fear-mongering over, NSA spying at the very same moment he was personally profiting from it, his casually joking about assassinating a US citizen, the irony of his receiving plaudits for excoriating Trump’s plans to kill terrorist families while the drone program he champions does that very thing on a regular basis — but his record of mendacity is enough.

Deep State Dissidents

Brennan, Clapper, and Hayden are not dispassionate guardians of democratic ideals and decency. They’re the former executives of what Matt Taibbi has accurately called “an authoritarian state-within-a-state,” who created and promoted illiberal programs of torture, assassination, and spying, and have brazenly, and often illegally, lied to the public and the lawmakers who are supposed to hold them to account.

We should be deeply suspicious of their motives in coming out so conspicuously against Trump, particularly when these figures share some of his authoritarian views. It’s painfully clear that criticism of Trump from figures like Brennan, Clapper, and Hayden is motivated at least as much by their abiding loyalty to the intelligence apparatus he disdains, their longstanding hawkishness when it comes to Russia, and the need to distract from their own checkered histories, as it is by high-minded principles of democracy and patriotism. Every time one of these men does an interview, writes an op-ed, or goes on a talk show, we shouldn’t forget that until very recently, their names were associated with scandal and censure.

It’s rational to be concerned about a slide toward authoritarianism. But that slide hasn’t happened under Trump; it’s been happening for years in the background, with officials like these three creating a sprawling, unaccountable architecture of oppression under liberal and conservative presidents alike. Ensuring the survival of American democracy will eventually require taking on this shadow government, too — a task made all the more difficult when liberals turn its architects into idols.