Republican candidates have come to expect biased press coverage of their presidential campaigns. But GOP candidates now must also overcome a growing trend of U.S. intelligence officers abusing their professions to sway presidential elections. Over the last few months, the mainstream media has admitted it ignored (some would say suppressed) an October 2020 New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop, alleging that emails from this laptop linked President Biden to his son’s shady international business dealings. Now some members of Congress want answers about a letter signed by 51 intelligence officers, which made the baseless claim that the laptop story was Russian disinformation to affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections.
As a former CIA analyst, I believe this politicized behavior by intelligence officers is highly unethical and undermines U.S. national security. It must stop.
When current and former intelligence officers abuse their intelligence expertise and reputations to meddle in political campaigns with groundless and false accusations, they significantly damage the intelligence profession and U.S. national security. Such political interference undermines the American people’s trust in the objectivity and integrity of U.S. intelligence. It also could cause future presidents and senior members of their team to ignore crucial intelligence analysis on threats to our nation.
Unfortunately, it has happened before. There were serious instances of intelligence officers meddling in the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
In 2016, former CIA Director John Brennan tried to undermine Republican candidate Donald Trump by promoting a false narrative to government officials and Congress that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia. This included giving the fraudulent Steele Dossier to the FBI and convincing it to open an investigation of the Trump campaign.
One senior intelligence official told a Washington Post reporter in the summer of 2016 that he would refuse to brief candidate Trump because of what he claimed was Mr. Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Trump’s “seeming uninterest in acquiring a deeper or more nuanced understanding of world events.” Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell, who was advising the Clinton campaign, went even further when he accused Mr. Trump in an Aug. 5, 2016, New York Times op-ed of being “an unwitting agent of Russia.”
The letter just before the 2020 election, signed by 51 former U.S. intelligence officers, came at a critical time when the mainstream media and the Biden campaign were trying to discredit the New York Post story. Then-candidate Joe Biden seized on this letter in the final presidential debate, saying: “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plan. They have said this is, has all the — four, five former heads of the CIA. Both parties say what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage.”
Now that it has been established that the New York Post story was accurate and the Hunter Biden laptop was not Russian misinformation, most of the intelligence officers who signed the letter won’t comment. The few who have spoken out refuse to apologize.
This is why Republican Members of Congress have begun to look into the letter by the 51 intelligence officers to find out who was behind the letter and how these officers should be held accountable.
Former President Trump pulled the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan in response to his partisan activity and interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump also wanted to pull the clearances of other former intelligence officers for inappropriate political activity.
Mr. Trump’s approach to this problem was right. A security clearance is not a right. It is a privilege that comes with serious responsibilities. Holding security clearances enables former intelligence officers to access to high-paying jobs with private firms after they leave the government. Many are rehired as contractors by their former government agency. Some return to government after a few years in the private sector. A few former senior intelligence officials continue to receive classified briefings and are consulted by their former agencies.
Protecting the integrity of U.S. intelligence is crucial to our national security and the trust of the American people. Presidential candidates and presidents need to know that the U.S. intelligence officers who brief and support them are nonpartisan, objective and trustworthy. Obviously, current intelligence officers who violate this trust should be fired.
But former intelligence and current officers who abuse their profession to meddle in presidential elections also must be held accountable. If these former officers mislead the American public during an American presidential election by falsely claiming their partisan views are objective assessments based on their intelligence careers, there should be severe consequences: They will no longer be part of the intelligence profession or permitted to benefit from it.
• Fred Fleitz served in national security for 25 years with the CIA, DIA, State Department and House Intelligence Committee. In 2018, he was chief of staff of the Trump National Security Council. He is currently vice chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security.