The Trump White House and the U.S. intelligence community moved closer to open warfare in the wake of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s spectacular downfall — and the fallout is unnerving key American intelligence partners around the world, according to several high-level national security sources.
European and Middle Eastern agencies that have information-sharing relationships with the U.S., already wary of the Trump team’s perceived closeness to Russian officials, are now watching with increased trepidation as a vicious fight boils over in Washington over intelligence leaks surrounding the Flynn case, current and former officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday.
“Our foreign partners are deeply alarmed and unsettled by what they’re seeing in Washington,” said one senior Republican national security source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The source, who meets regularly with senior foreign intelligence and security officials from several nations, spoke just hours after President Trump escalated the battle Wednesday by doubling down on his accusation — on Twitter and at a White House press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the nation’s intelligence agencies were behind the classified leaks to certain news organizations out of retaliation against him for defeating Hillary Clinton in the November election.
“From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked, it’s criminal action, a criminal act,” Mr. Trump said, with Mr. Netanyahu standing nearby. “It’s been going on for a long time, before me, but now it’s really going on. People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”
Mr. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly argued that it’s the illegal leaks — not the content showing Mr. Flynn’s contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington — that is the real scandal, in some cases explicitly comparing the leaks to abuse of private information under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Critics says the president and his team are simply trying to deflect attention from the scandal engulfing the administration.
“I think the leaks are an important issue, but [focusing on them] is like shooting the messenger,” Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told CNN on Wednesday.
But Mr. Trump was not mollified.
“I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to Gen. Flynn, the way he was treated, and documents and papers that were illegally, I stress that, illegally leaked,” Mr. Trump told reporters.
He dispatched a flurry of furious messages on Twitter, asserting that The Washington Post and The New York Times, specifically, are being misled by intelligence community leaks, and outright denying that any improper or illegal communications have ever occurred between Russian officials and Mr. Flynn, or anyone else on the Trump team.
“This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign,” the president tweeted early Wednesday morning, adding the following, confusingly worded addition moments later: “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia.”
But the president has stopped short of naming individuals who he believes are behind leaks relating the conversations between Mr. Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. A range of current and former officials are believed to have — or have had — access to such information, including FBI Director James B. Comey, former acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and former CIA Director John O. Brennan, among others.
Mr. Brennan, who retired as CIA director when Mr. Trump took office, was particularly scathing over what he said was the president’s unfair attacks on the work of the country’s spies.
“I think Mr. Trump has to understand that absolving Russia of various actions it has taken in the past number of years is a road that he needs to be very, very careful about moving down ,” Mr. Brennan lectured then-President-elect Trump on Fox News Sunday last month. “If he doesn’t have confidence in the intelligence community, what signal does that send to our partners and allies as well as our adversaries?”
When Mr. Trump made a visit to CIA headquarters on his first full day as president, Mr. Brennan denounced his remarks, which mixed tributes to the professionalism of the nation’s intelligence agents with political remarks, attacks on the media and a review of the debate over the size of his Inauguration Day crowd.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Brennan called the speech a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement” and that Mr. Trump “should be ashamed of himself.”
Focusing on the leaks
The fight may now be shifting to Capitol Hill, where debate is raging over how to handle a probe into the White House’s Russian ties, charges of Russian meddling in the presidential election and the role that intelligence agency leaks played in the controversies.
Key Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have said the events leading up to Mr. Flynn’s dismissal should be added to the focus on any such probe. But some Republicans have pushed back, suggesting the true focus of any congressional investigation should center on the issue of classified information leaks.
“The leak of highly classified information by a number of individuals inside our intelligence community is the illegal act that I think we need to review,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, Louisiana Republican and a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
“We’ve got to find out if we have a problem internally. That could be a serious threat to the country going forward. And these are very serious implications,” he told NPR.
Mr. Johnson added that “it’s illegal for the CIA, for example, to spy, even incidentally, on Americans unless strict parameters are met. And it just simply doesn’t appear that that happened in this case.”
His comments targeted a deeper fear of an open break between the commander in chief and the foreign and domestic intelligence agencies charged with providing him the unbiased best information on which to make decisions of war and peace.
Even some key Democrats have acknowledged the damage that current and former American spies can do to undermine a president they do not feel supports them.
“They have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, warned during an early-January interview on MSNBC.
One former senior official with close ties the highest echelons of the intelligence community said Mr. Trump “has been hugely foolish” by “systematically, consciously and intentionally insulting everyone who can or should hold him accountable: his party, more broadly the Congress; reporters and more broadly the [press]; the director of the FBI; judges, and more broadly the courts; the CIA, and more broadly the intelligence community.”
“I wouldn’t for a second propose they’re now out to get him, but there will be less and less benefit of the doubt given as time passes,” the former official said. “And time is passing extraordinarily fast for him and his actions. His flawed judgment and his character flaws are collapsing in on him.”
The senior Republican national security source who spoke with The Times said tensions are running high on Capitol Hill over the Flynn affair.
“We feel like this could be just the tip of the iceberg, and that’s what’s making Republicans nervous behind closed doors,” the source said. “In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard so many Republican operatives saying privately that, if this thing got to the level of high crimes and misdemeanor, there wouldn’t be a lot of love lost if Trump had to go and be replaced by [Vice President Mike] Pence.”
Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who teaches at Georgetown University, said Wednesday that “we have probably the worst relationship between U.S. intelligence agencies and the White House during the first month of an administration that we’ve seen in recent memory.”
The situation harks of the acrimony that swept Washington in 1969, when President Nixon arrived with an outspoken grudge against the CIA, dating back, historians say, to Nixon’s anger that the agency failed to debunk Sen. John F. Kennedy’s claims of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union in the 1960 presidential election.
Mr. Pillar said the current circumstances make it “much more difficult for the intelligence community to perform its functional mission of informing the president on U.S. foreign policy.”
While Mr. Trump may have real distrust of the intelligence community, there are also worries and distrust among intelligence officials over the relationships that Russian officials appear to have with high levels of the administration, Mr. Pillar said.
“To the extent that people are concerned about what information might be compromised to the Russians, that just adds to the problem of the sort of free communications between intelligence officers and senior administration officials,” he said. “Friends and allies with whom for many years we’ve had good relationships are also worried about that.
“It is definitely impacting information-sharing with our partners,” added the senior Republican national security source. “Our interlocutors are more nervous to convey their perspective and much more cautious about being candid. They’ve seized up.”
Stephen Slick, who spent 28 years in the CIA’s clandestine service and now heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, added that “few outsiders understand the range and significance of relationships U.S. intelligence maintains with foreign counterparts.”
“These relationships are long-standing and highly resilient, but foreign security partners will be watching closely to learn how sensitive information they may share is being used and protected, and also to confirm that their non-public contributions are appreciated by the chief executive,” said Mr. Slick.
“The American public and our foreign security partners need to learn the facts regarding leaked claims that Russian intelligence maintained contacts with the president’s campaign staff,” he said. “Most U.S. security partners harbor a deep and well-founded distrust of the Russian government and its security services. Our intelligence partners will be reassured when the administration conveys a clear-eyed, objective and historically grounded assessment about Russia’s malign intent toward the U.S. and its allies.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.