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Security in an ‘alt-facts’ world

Tim Weiner / Thomson Reuters Foundation No Comments Share:
Donald Trump speaking, about Donald Trump, at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters last week. AFP

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a senior Central Intelligence Agency officer standing at attention for President Trump at CIA headquarters. (Remain standing. Trump, against protocol, never said: “Please be seated.”)

You think on your feet. You weigh what you know to be true against the evidence of your eyes and ears.

Here’s what you know: the CIA is looking into ties between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Trump, in return, has compared the CIA to Nazis. Not a fine how-do-you-do.

You focus on what Mr. Trump is saying. He is unlike previous presidents who have addressed the agency’s officers and analysts in the woods outside Washington. He’s not talking about their sacrifices, their patriotism. He’s talking about Trump.

He stands before 117 stars on a marble wall, each for someone killed in the line of duty. He is watched over by a verse from the Gospel of John inscribed in gold on the facing wall: And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

“Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me,” he is saying. “I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks.” If so, it’s a very broad band.

“They say, is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, I’m like a smart person. I feel like I’m 30, 35, 39. I think I’m young.” Mr. Trump is 70.

“Did everybody like the speech?” Mr. Trump is talking like a carnival barker, touting his inaugural. “We had a massive field of people. You saw them. Packed.

“I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks and they show an empty field. I say, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, the field was – it looked like a million, million and a half people.”

You’ve seen the pictures of the crowd. And meanwhile, a half-million people were converging on the White House in a counter-inaugural.

You are an intelligence officer and you live in a world where facts are a matter of life and death, where information is power, where the United States has spent trillions of dollars in the past 70 years on the CIA and its cohorts, trying to gather military and intelligence secrets from abroad and turn them into breaking news the president can use.

If the president pays more attention to CNN than the CIA, you’re doomed.

This president now has the power of life and death through the CIA and its partners at the Pentagon. Forget about the nuclear codes. He has power over killer drones, spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping, covert operations.

He can listen in on anyone in the world, order a coup to overthrow governments, write secret laws governing national security, unleash commando raids and make these decisions regardless of what the CIA thinks.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, is listening. He is mightily militant on the subject of Islamic jihad. He doesn’t like the CIA much.

You’ll be dealing with him almost every day. And you know something the average citizen doesn’t clearly grasp.

Mr. Putin and Lt. Gen. Flynn got cozy in Moscow after the general was deposed as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for his crackpot theories (then known at the DIA as “Flynn facts,” now known to one and all as “alternative facts”).

Lt. Gen. Flynn received money from RT, Mr. Putin’s propaganda outlet. He chatted up Mr. Putin’s man in Washington during Mr. Trump’s transition. The NSA and the FBI were keeping tabs on him.

He’ll be Mr. Trump’s intelligence gatekeeper at the White House, the filter on the secrets the president receives from the CIA.

The president is now talking about Iraq, where the CIA has fought many a battle. Mr. Trump wants to win: “We’re going to start winning again, and you’re going to be leading the charge.”

“To the victor belong the spoils,” Mr. Trump says to his intelligence chiefs. “If we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, should have kept the oil.”

The prospect of sending the CIA to take “another chance” in Iraq – and seizing its oil as the spoils of war – sends chills up your spine. Bruce Riedel, a highly respected ranking CIA veteran, has warned that this would require an endless occupation “surrounded by enemies, without allies, and isolated hopelessly from the Islamic world. It would reinvigorate the global jihad, and it would disgrace our fundamental values as a nation.”

That represents a consensus view at the CIA.

Mr. Trump took a parting shot at his favorite enemy – the media. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth. And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.”

The truth, he said, was “exactly the opposite – exactly.” Given Mr. Trump’s infamous tweet, apropos the Putin investigation, which compared America’s premier intelligence agency to the Gestapo, the CIA’s officers now confront an Orwellian world in which the truth is what The Party says it is – and it will not make them free.

Another CIA veteran, Yael Eisenstat, wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Trump’s speech was “a terrifying display of the dangerous way in which he will govern.” In week one of the Trump administration, among other dangers, the CIA and the FBI are embattled with the White House and American national security is in uncharted waters, the unknown depths where medieval mapmakers warned: Here Lie Monsters. Thomson Reuters Foundation

Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” The opinions expressed are his own.

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