Friday, January 13, 2017

Tinker. Tailor. Mogul. Spy?

Feliks Dzerzhinsky
The following is my article published in Washington Monthly, January 13, 2017

Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police – the Cheka – said, “The fact that you are free is not your achievement, but rather a failure on our side.” A clear-eyed killer responsible for the summary executions of tens of thousands during the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror, Dzerzhinsky knew of what he spoke and he didn’t mince words. Fortunately, a heart attack took him down at 49, but his ilk lives on. We Americans should never let our guard down in face of freedom-phobic adversaries like Vladimir Putin. But I fear we are now doing so.

The United States has just endured a carefully planned, well-orchestrated assault against its democratic form of government in the form of a grand cyber-theft of information and targeted release of that information. After a thorough scrub of available intelligence, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies concluded unanimously that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

In my twenty-five years in the service of Uncle Sam as a diplomat, I was a daily consumer of intelligence reporting. Information produced by spies is just one stream in a flood of facts, speculation and analyses that cross the desks of policymakers, others being press reports, think tank pieces, university research papers and personal conversations. All sources have their flaws as well as their benefits. Key to a report’s value is corroboration from other sources and reliability of the sources of the information being given.

While I have not had the privilege of reading the classified version of the report by the Director of National Intelligence on the Russians’ active measures, it is clear to me from the conclusions that corroboration and source reliability are at a very high level given CIA’s, NSA’s and the FBI’s stated “high confidence” or “moderate confidence” in their conclusions. This is “intellese” meaning reliable multi-source information has been corroborated at multiple levels, leading the vast majority of analysts to conclude with little doubt that Moscow launched an influence campaign against the U.S.
But if Russia’s role in the 2016 election is basically undisputed, we’re still left with a separate, more troubling question for which there isn’t yet a clear answer: Could Donald Trump actually be a Russian intel asset?

The U.S. intelligence chiefs steered clear of this hot potato conjecture. Supporting the case in favor is Trump’s bizarre screeds against the U.S. intelligence community and his equally head-scratching and consistent praise of Vladimir Putin even as his nominees to head the CIA and Defense Department describe Moscow as a threat. “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” former acting CIA Director Michael Morell wrote in the New York Times. An “unwitting agent” or “asset” in spy parlance is an individual who serves the interests of a foreign government without fully realizing it, or, what Lenin liked to call, a “useful idiot.” A “witting” asset is one who knows fully what he is doing.

This gets us to the other report making waves. The self-described “social news and entertainment company” BuzzFeed released an opposition research report on Donald Trump that has been in the possession of many journalists, members of Congress and executive Branch agencies for weeks now. Its leakage was inevitable. The 35-page document is a compendium of spot reports put together from June to December 2016 by a former British MI-6 officer named Christopher Steele. Former American intelligence officers who know Mr. Steele describe him in favorable terms, a well-connected case officer with years of service inside Russia. Steele now heads a private intelligence firm in London. A retired CIA officer who knows Steele told a Russian journalist contact of mine, “It is probably not all accurate but there is clearly some real information there.”

Well, real or not, there sure is. Steele reports a methodical effort by Putin’s intelligence operatives to suborn and recruit Trump over a period of years by means of surveillance, sex and lucrative business offerings. For the salacious details, read the document yourself. But here’s my take.

While news reporters fault the reports based mostly on superficial minor errors, e.g., English spelling of Russian names; proper description of a certain affluent Moscow neighborhood, my problems with Steele’s account go deeper, that is, into how they are formulated. The most egregious flaw in Steele’s reporting is that he appears to rely on a single Russian source for most of his dirt on Trump and official Russian players – a certain “trusted compatriot.” This is a Russian who claims to be in contact with various Putin officials, what is termed in the espionage business an “access agent.” I discern no corroborating sources, which is central to solid intel reporting. Equally troublesome is Steele’s failure to “rate” his source. Standard procedure in any spot reporting is to briefly describe a source’s past reliability: “Source whose information has been confirmed in past reporting,” or “who has a record of providing reliable information over years.” Steele’s single “trusted compatriot” source can conjure up the notorious Ahmed Chalabi, whose bogus reporting on non-existent weapons of mass destruction fooled U.S. policymakers into invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

In some of his reporting, Steele fails to identify any sources for his information. For example, in “A Synopsis of Russian State Sponsored and Other Cyber Offensive (Criminal) Operations,” he writes, “The former intelligence officer reported…” and “a senior government figure reported…” with no elaboration. “Reported” to whom? Himself? The ethereal “trusted compatriot”? A news reporter? Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost)? In any intelligence agency worth its name, an officer would be sent back to the drawing board by his or her supervisor after turning in such reporting. It is for all of these reasons that news organizations, except for BuzzFeed, chose to sit on Steele’s unverified allegations. A final question is whether Steele paid for his information, which is what spies often do. Cash for information too often provides incentives for sources to fabricate. Hence, the need to rate their past reporting.

Nonetheless, Russian intelligence routinely surveilles even low-ranking U.S. diplomats in their country. At a minimum, I would assume that the Russians targeted prominent American Trump for surveillance during his visits to their country. This is standard operating procedure for them. One goal is to acquire kompromat, or compromising material potentially to use against a subject. Whether the material Russian intelligence might have on Trump is the kompromat Steele describes in his dossier, it’s a good bet Russian intelligence has something.

Years ago, ex-KGB operative Vladimir Putin told a Russian journalist, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.” That journalist, incidentally, died in a still unresolved plane accident shortly after writing a scathing expose on the Russian leader. Over the years, others would meet similarly untimely deaths after crossing Putin. He and his kind play for keeps.

Whether therefore Trump is a witting or unwitting asset of the Russian Federation, the bottom line is this: by turning away intelligence briefings, by inexplicably attacking his country’s intelligence agencies and by his open bromance with Putin, the President-elect is putting the nation’s national security at grave risk. Or, as “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinsky said, “Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows.”

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Advice for Trump on Post-Fidel Cuba

Following is my article published in Washington Monthly Magazine, January 2017:

At his rallies, Fidel Castro was fond of bellowing, “Socialismo o muerte!”—Socialism or death! Death finally caught up with the dictator last November, and Cuban socialism’s days are likely numbered as well. The Cuban people soon will enter the post-Castro period after President Raúl Castro steps down in two years, as he has promised. What comes after that is anyone’s guess. To be able to have any influence in this transition period, Washington will need to identify which Cubans are in the best position to steer events.

As the United States goes through its own transition, the Trump administration will have to decide whether to continue President Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba or to slam on the brakes, demanding that Havana cease oppression of political dissidents and pursue concrete steps toward democratization.

In our approach to Cuba, we first have to understand what makes official Cuba tick. The reality is that the Communist Party may indeed be history, but one major player is likely not only to stick around, but to keep calling the shots. That player is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), Cuba’s armed forces. The FAR play a role outsized to their numbers, now around 90,000, down from double that during the Cold War years.

The FAR are widely considered to be Cuba’s best-managed and stablest government organization and are held in respect by Cubans generally. They run the economy and control politics. Since he succeeded his brother as president eight years ago, Raúl, who had commanded the FAR since the revolution, has expanded their role. More than half of the Communist Party’s Politburo members have a military background, while the Council of Ministers is likewise dominated by active-duty or retired FAR officers.

The Cuban military controls 60 percent of Cuba’s economy and takes in 40 percent of foreign exchange revenue. The FAR’s so-called “entrepreneur soldiers” manage a wide docket that includes sugar and cigar production, tourism, information technology, and aviation. One in five Cuban workers is employed by the FAR’s holding company, GAESA, which is headed by Raúl’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, an army brigadier who speaks English with a proper upper-class British accent.

I got to know Cuban military officers as the State Department’s representative at monthly military meetings on “The Line”—the border between U.S. and Cuban territory—at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. I found them to be professional, constructive, and amiable. The general who headed the Cuban side even offered to find me “a beautiful Cuban wife,” which I politely declined, having a beautiful American wife already. For years our respective militaries built up a modest level of mutual trust through collaboration on migration matters, sea-air rescue, counternarcotics, oil pollution response, and firefighting. Once, on flying into the naval base, the pilot of our small aircraft had to perform a corkscrew landing to avoid clouds of billowing black smoke kicked up by a brush fire sparked by exploded land mines on the Cuban side as firefighters from both sides of the fence worked together to put out the blaze. Since normalization under Obama, bilateral contacts and cooperation have been growing.

Occasionally, indications surface of tension between old-guard Fidelista officers and younger technocrat/entrepreneur officers. The future lies with the latter group, who are eager to build trust with Washington in hopes the United States won’t “pull an Iraq” on them by encouraging the FAR’s dismantlement in a postcommunist new order and opening the gates to chaos. In order to have the most impact on change, the U.S. needs to get to know and cultivate the pro-reform elements within the FAR.

I visited scores of Cuban families in their homes as a U.S. diplomat with the task of monitoring the human rights conditions of those who tried and failed to flee their country. I was struck by how Cubans always had one eye on the dinner table and one eye on the clock—meeting the daily challenge of how to feed their families while patiently awaiting the time when they could join the globalization wave. Their fretting fed the Cuban proclivity for dark humor. One example:
Student: “Before the revolution, the government took this country to the edge of an economic abyss.”
Teacher: “And after the revolution?”
Student: “Now our government has taken a big step forward.”
Change has been slow in coming. After retiring in 2008, Fidel hovered over Cuba as an éminence grise, second-guessing his younger brother’s decisions. While Fidel grudgingly went along with Raúl’s cautious economic reforms, he had little to say about rapprochement other than that he didn’t trust the U.S. Now that his big brother is gone, will Raúl feel freer to liberalize the Cuban economy and accelerate normalization? If so, time is running out. The eighty-five-year-old revolutionary has said he will retire in 2018. His designated successor, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, is a dour Marxist apparatchik with questionable political staying power. For the first time since the 1959 revolution, Cuba will not be led by a Castro. How will the U.S. deal with it?

Trump has issued conflicting signals. He told CNN earlier this year that he would “probably” maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, but added vaguely that he would insist on “much better deals than we’re making.” But he took a tougher line in a campaign stop in Miami several weeks ago, saying, “All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” Vice President–elect Mike Pence repeated that position on Twitter, asserting that Trump would rescind President Obama’s executive orders without “real political and religious freedom” in Cuba.

With the news of Fidel’s death, Trump issued a statement denouncing his legacy “of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” That tough talk caters to the anti-Castro political right, which includes many, mainly older, Cuban Americans. Polls show, however, that a large majority of Americans and now most Cuban Americans favor normalization.

So does the U.S. business community. According to the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), Cuba, which imports 80 percent of its food, is a $1.7 billion market for agricultural products. Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department issued approvals for business transactions worth $4.3 billion, up by a third from the previous year. Tourism will doubtless surge in the years ahead regardless of the fifty-six-year-old official ban that is still in place. Remittances from the United States, estimated at $3 billion for 2015, play a significant role in Cuba’s state-controlled economy.

USACC, whose membership includes agricultural conglomerates Cargill, Smithfield Foods, and Sun-Maid, is devoting serious money to lobby Congress to lift the embargo and fully normalize relations. So is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Cuba Opportunity Summit will hold its third convention next spring at NASDAQ headquarters to explore expanded business opportunities with Cuba. Tickets go for between $995 and $1,695, and interest in the first two conventions was so strong that applicants had to be waitlisted.

How will Trump respond to this kind of commercial momentum? Will we see the pro–tourism development, hotel-building Trump, or the right-wing appeaser Trump? American leverage can be a carrot or a stick. The latter approach was pursued by ten presidents, starting with Dwight Eisenhower, and accomplished little more than allowing the Castros to use the U.S. as a scapegoat for Cuba’s mismanaged economy. The former approach, however, enables the U.S. to gain leverage by being involved with Cuban society at multiple levels, ranging from trade and investment to cooperation on migration and law enforcement to people-to-people contacts. It was easier for Havana to thumb its nose at American interests when there was near-zero U.S. economic and commercial involvement in the island. Major American involvement in Cuba’s economy, in particular, will deepen Cuba’s integration into the global economy, raising the stakes for both sides and tempering political relations. The Trump administration needs to realize that allowing Cuba policy to be haunted by Fidel Castro’s ghost is a bad idea. American business interests will resist it, and both the Cuban and American people deserve better.

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Conversation Between Donald Trump and His KGB Handler, Part II

SHPIONOV: I don't like having to be your caddy. I am a professional, an important man back in Moscow. And being exposed for the world to see us on these golf links is very bad tradecraft.

TRUMP: You kiddin' me? Why, this is great cover for you. After all, I'm meeting Tom Jones, sales rep for Golf Balls International, aren't I? By the way, did you see the ass on that cocktail waitress? We have a strict hiring policy here at Mar-a-Lago. The babes must all be hot. And no broad serving the public over 35. We're doing the same policy at the White House when I take over. And I'm making sure Andy Puzder gets the message so he's prepared when confirmed as Labor Secretary.

SHPIONOV: (speechless - mouth agape) Uh, let us stay on track, shall we? We have important business to discuss. And, besides, I hear thunder in the distance.

TRUMP: I've gotta get the ball over that hill. A Michael Barrymore please.

SHPIONOV: I'm sorry. I don't understand.

TRUMP: You Russkies really are dumber than dirt, aren't you? I'm saying, hand me a 4-iron.

SHPIONOV: (fumbles in golf bag) Here.

TRUMP: (holding club - checking distance) “Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air.” Who said that?

SHPIONOV: (shrugs)

TRUMP: Jack Benny.

SHPIONOV: (shrugs again)

TRUMP: Like I said about Russkies... (swings - watches ball - stomps foot) Shit. A Rock Hudson.

SHPIONOV: (shakes head)

TRUMP: You really need to improve your English, Boris. Thought it was straight but it wasn’t. Get it?

SHPIONOV: (ignores comment - looks at watch) My name is Sergei. You see that Vladimir Vladimirovich has not retaliated to Obama's stupid order to expel 35 of our diplomats.

TRUMP: Spies.

SHPIONOV: Embassy personnel.

TRUMP: Whatever.

SHPIONOV: So, Moscow has asked me to ask you what you will do when you take office?

TRUMP: You mean, about the spies?

SHPIONOV: Diplo- ...Whatever.

TRUMP: I'll pull a Mulligan.

SHPIONOV: (scratches sunburnt bald head).

TRUMP: A second chance. I'll let them all come back.

SHPIONOV: Well, Vladimir Vladimirovich has another idea. Since your fellow Republicans in Congress likely would not go along with that, he was thinking of a bigger idea, one that would put relations between our two countries on a better footing.

TRUMP: (handing back the 4-iron) Okay, I'm game.

SHPIONOV: We propose a comprehensive U.S.-Russia Friendship Treaty.

TRUMP: Okay, Boris. Sounds good. But also acey-deucy (climbs in golf cart).

SHPIONOV: Please stick to standard English. That thunder is getting closer. Shouldn't we...?

TRUMP: Climb in Boris. Gotta pull off an Adolf Hitler before the storm arrives.

SHPIONOV: Hitler?! What?!

TRUMP: Two shots to get out of the bunker. Get it?

SHPIONOV: Ah, yes. Funny. So, this treaty. America will recognize Crimea belongs to Russia. NATO will kick the Baltic countries out. And you will accept that Ukraine will again be a, I mean a republic within the Russian Federation.

TRUMP: I'm married to a Slovenian. The women there are like their food. Once you've had a sample, you don't want any more.

SHPIONOV: (speechless again)

TRUMP: Meaning you ever see Miss Ukraine win a Miss Universe Pageant?

SHPIONOV: I don't know.

TRUMP: Take my word for it. No. You guys can have the Ukraine. (thunder clap) Okay Boris, time to run like a sailor's dick.

SHPIONOV: (exasperated). давайте убираться отсюда!

See also:

A Conversation Between Donald Trump and His KGB Handler, Part I

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Conversation Between Donald Trump and His KGB Handler

SHPIONOV: I told you we can no longer meet like this. Trump Tower is too visible. And the Secret Service has to vet me. Sooner or later they'll find out I'm not the sales rep for Golf Balls International.

TRUMP: Don't sweat it. The Secret Service are stand-up guys. Not losers like the rest of the government slugs. They like me. I cop them time at the Mar-a-Lago links. And, besides, I'm a people person. Like to make deals face-to-face.

SHPIONOV: But I am sweating it. This sauna is very hot and I can't take it for too long. In Russia, after some time in the banya, we go outside to roll in the snow or take a dip in a lake to cool off.

TRUMP: Go jump in the lake then! In fact, take a flying leap while you're at it. Then you'll be out of my hair.

SHPIONOV: Let me remind you, Mr. President-elect, that we have a partnership. And not like one of your many flim-flam deals where you stiff your business partners. If you fail to keep up your end of our "contract," all this...everything...will end. What hair?

TRUMP: Don't remind me. You didn't get me with the babes you sent. I can grab any broad by the p---- and get away with it. Nice try, but it didn't work. I wasn't born yesterday.

SHPIONOV: No, but I don't need to remind you of the "loans." Without those millions from us back when Trump Enterprises was teetering toward bankruptcy, you would be selling golf balls today.

TRUMP: (Shrugs) Just another deal.

SHPIONOV: (Points finger) And, by the way, you will not release your tax returns! Understand?

TRUMP: (Nods)

 SHPIONOV: Another thing. What is this about refusing to receive daily briefings from the CIA?

TRUMP: I'm, like, a smart person. I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years...I don't need that.

 SHPIONOV: (Exasperated) Do I have to draw pictures? Don't you get it?

TRUMP: Get what?

SHPIONOV: We need to know. We need you to tell us what your intelligence community is saying about us not to mention the rest of the world.

TRUMP:(Shrugs) I'll see what I can do.

SHPIONOV: Just do it. (Presents a sheet of paper) Here are your talking points. Keep saying them at every opportunity:
  • "I don't believe they interfered... it could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey."
  • "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."
  • "What proof does anyone have that they effected the outcome because I've heard zero. Show me what facts have actually shown that anything undermined that election."
  • "It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond. I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect."
TRUMP: Yeah. No problem.

SHPIONOV: And continue to instruct Flynn, Kellyanne and the others to also follow this line.

TRUMP: Flynn. You made me appoint him. But the guy scares even me. Like some of those made guys I had to deal with in Jersey on the casinos. They melted the gold glitter off the gargoyles.

SHPIONOV: He is a special friend of Vladimir Vladimirovich. We've cultivated him for many years. He is a good man. Retain him.

TRUMP: I'll let Pence deal with the prick. But Bolton is even scarier. Reminds me of Freddy Krueger.


TRUMP: You know. Wes Craven. Friday the Thirteenth?

SHPIONOV: (Shakes head with incomprehension)

TRUMP: Never mind. And you made us float Rohrabacher as a candidate for Secretary of State.

SHPIONOV: Also a "special friend." But Vladimir Vladimirovich prefers Mr. Tillerson. He even awarded him a medal for that special friendship. We prefer him.

TRUMP: Me too. I'll take a fellow deal-maker over another wing nut.

SHPIONOV: (Pats Trump on the arm) You are doing a great job, Donald. One day, we will also award you a medal.

TRUMP: As long as it's gold.

See also:

A Conversation Between Donald Trump and His KGB Handler, Part II

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Oxymoron That is Donald Trump and Intelligence

Most countries have intelligence agencies. They collect information on other countries in order to protect their own national interests. Just as a savvy investor gathers and considers data and information on companies and the markets before making strategic business decisions, national political leaders do the same in relation to other countries. Leaders who dismiss intelligence facts and analyses do so at their own peril.

After World War I, the State Department set up a “Cipher Bureau.” It was the United States’ first code-breaking agency, a forerunner of today’s National Security Agency. This “Black Chamber,” as it was called informally, had some extraordinary successes. Among them was having broken Japan’s official communications code. The intelligence gleaned from Japanese government intercepts gave Washington invaluable insights on Tokyo’s naval plans. Armed with this intelligence, American negotiators succeeded in getting Japan to reduce its naval ship building program in the 1920’s.

Secretary of State Henry Stimson, however, shut down the Cipher Bureau in 1929, stating naively that “Gentlemen do not read each others' mail.” It was one of the biggest blunders in American national security policy. While the government subsequently revived signals and communications intelligence activities and broke the Japanese naval code during World War II, other flaws in America’s indications and warning system prevented us from either anticipating or effectively countering Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Years later, another president’s lack of attention to key intelligence resulted in an enemy attack resulting in greater casualties than at Pearl Harbor. President George W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, ignored warnings from intelligence agencies of an imminent al-Qaeda attack against the United States. In June 2001, the CIA warned the White House that Qaeda strikes inside the U.S. could be “imminent.” The August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing warned, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S.” The report even stated that terrorists could attack the homeland using hijacked aircraft. America and the world paid a heavy price for the White House’s failure to heed this key intelligence.

President-elect Trump has declined daily intelligence briefings, stating, “I'm, like, a smart person. I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years...I don't need that.” For his part, President Obama commented, “It doesn't matter how smart you are. You have to have the best information possible to make the best decisions possible.” He added, “Without them (briefings), you’re flying blind.”

When he assumes office in January, President Donald Trump jeopardizes the security of the nation if he continues to insist on “flying blind.”

"A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration"

The following excellent commentary by Lt. Gen. David W. Barno (ret.) and Nora Bensahel in War on the Rocks, Nov. 29, 2016, lays out the moral dilemma facing many working in national security of serving in the Trump administration. I have also written on this in Washington Monthly as well as in this blog. I welcome feedback from active duty federal workers. Anonymous comments are fine.

Ever since the surprise election of Donald Trump, a debate has flared within the national security community about whether or not to serve in his administration. This is one of the most important dilemmas to challenge our profession in years, if not decades. The president-elect’s character, policies, and campaign rhetoric as well as the divisive views of his close advisors makes the decision to serve in a Trump administration agonizingly difficult for many dedicated and principled national security professionals — including a number of our friends.

Why is this debate hitting our community so hard? Unlike our counterparts who work on domestic policy, national security practitioners have long enjoyed a largely bipartisan consensus about the core principles of what makes America strong and secure: an open, liberal international order guaranteed by American leadership and power. Democrats and Republicans have fought long and hard about specific policies for decades, but those arguments have, for the most part, been about ways, not ends — how to best realize broadly shared principles, not whether they were the right principles in the first place.

Donald Trump was the first major party candidate in 70 years who did not share those principles. He campaigned against free trade, questioned the value of longstanding U.S. alliances, and praised Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Yet, Trump’s most vociferous opponents within his own party emerged not just in response to his rejection of long-standing American interests but from the threat he represented to fundamental American values — from his calls to ban all Muslims from entering the United States to seeing the Geneva Conventions as a “problem” to advocating waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Furthermore, many of the most respected national security veterans of both parties condemned candidate Trump’s prospective policies and called him unfit to be president. Republicans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates categorically rejected Trump’s fitness to be commander-in-chief, as did Democrat and former Secretary of Defense and CIA director Leon Panetta. And the open letters signed by most well-known members of the Republican national security establishment meant that much of the party’s experienced talent publicly rejected the candidate and many of his foreign policy positions. If the Trump transition team chooses to ostracize all of these past critics, the bench of qualified Republican foreign policy experts will become paralyzingly small.

As a result of these unprecedented clashes, many national security professionals are wrestling with the moral and ethical dimensions of serving in a Trump administration. Within hours of the election results, the debate was already underway about whether Republican national security experts who opposed Trump had an obligation to serve in his administration despite any misgivings. On November 9, Richard Kohn wrote that even Republicans who strongly opposed Trump “must serve” in his administration if given the opportunity. The next day, Eliot Cohen made a similar argument. Both counseled that there were ethical and moral limits to such service. Cohen suggested, for example, that all appointees keep an undated letter of resignation handy in a desk drawer — but that until those limits were crossed, Republican national security experts needed to serve the nation by contributing their expertise and offering their best possible advice. Brent Scowcroft concurred, arguing that country should come before party and that the new, inexperienced president would need sound guidance. Ross Douthat of The New York Times also acknowledged the difficult choice facing those who fear how Trump would govern but concluded that “precisely because they fear how Trump might govern, there is a moral responsibility to serve.”

Those views were countered, however, by those who believed that serving in a Trump administration would involve too much moral compromise. Eliot Cohen made headlines when, five short days after publishing the article mentioned above, he publicly recanted those views. After speaking with a member of the Trump transition team and seeing Republican leaders support Stephen Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s chief strategist, Cohen reversed course, arguing that serving in the early days of the new administration “would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation” because they “would probably make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible.” David Luban, a professor of law and philosophy, offered a powerful warning about the dangers of choosing the “lesser evil,” rejecting the notion that trying to change policies from the inside and limit their damage is somehow better than remaining on the outside.

This important debate has nevertheless been too limited and binary, focusing only on the choices facing prospective political appointees. That formulation is far too narrow for the very real moral and ethical questions facing all of those who serve, including those who are already in government. Career public servants in the executive branch and military personnel will automatically begin serving under President Trump on January 20. Like lots of other Americans, many of these public servants were deeply unsettled by Trump campaign rhetoric that advocated for more extreme means of torture against terrorists and other messages tinged with racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-Islamic themes. They must now determine whether their strong commitment to serving the nation crosses their own personal moral and ethical boundaries — and when their role might make them complicit with policies that they cannot support.

Some people will have no problems accepting positions in the Trump administration with nary a second thought. But there are many others out there who have deep concerns and are asking themselves questions that they may never have considered before any other newly arriving administration, regardless of party. These public servants must now pause to think about their personal moral and ethical boundaries — what administration decisions or policies would be so personally unacceptable that they would feel required to resign. It is impossible, of course, to know exactly what President-elect Trump will do once in office. It also remains unclear just how much he actually believes in much of the divisive and unsettling rhetoric he employed relentlessly during the campaign (and after the election as well, such as his baseless claim that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”). Nevertheless, Trump’s wide array of troubling comments mean that every responsible public servant should think about just what level of affront to their principles would simply be too much to tolerate — when choosing to serve or remaining on the job means becoming an enabler to policies or actions that they find deeply unethical or immoral. And this will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire administration, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new policies and decisions unfold.

There are no easy answers to these incredibly difficult questions, and we do not presume to tell others where those personal boundaries should lie. What we can do, however, is identify seven questions that public servants should consider as they search for their own individual answers.

  • Do you believe that your service will help improve policies and decision-making? No appointee or civil servant wins every argument all of the time, of course. But do you believe that you will help make things better on balance or at least prevent some truly bad decisions from happening? Will your presence lend an informed contrasting voice to what might otherwise might be an echo chamber of groupthink?
  • Do you believe that the policies or values that you find objectionable are rooted primarily in the new administration’s inexperience and lack of knowledge or in its core ideology? If you believe the former, then the case for serving is stronger, since you can help educate the new team. But if you believe that the administration is operating more from an ideology that fundamentally violates your deeply held beliefs (such as promoting torture or indiscriminate bombing), then the moral decision bends the other way.
  • Who specifically will you work for? Do you believe that person is guided by ideals and values that you respect? Will that person stand up to their bosses for the principles that you deeply believe in? Will they act as a bulwark of decency, shielding you and your colleagues — and maybe even the country — from the worst of politics going on above your pay grade?
  • Are the people you most respect choosing not to serve for a principled reason? Or, if later in the administration, have they resigned for cause? In each case, do you know what factors shaped their decisions? How does their logic align with or differ from your thinking? Understanding their experiences can serve as useful guideposts.
  • When would choosing to serve (or to remain in government) do more to advance the ideas and values you believe in most? Declining the opportunity to serve or leaving the civil service at the outset of an administration runs the risk of being seen as presumptive rather than principled, assuming the worst before the new administration arrives. Moreover, as Benjamin Wittes (who was early to this debate) writes, “resignations in response to illegal orders are far more powerful than preemptive resignations.” The same logic applies to moral and ethical principles as well.
  • When would choosing not to serve (or to leave government) do more to advance the ideals and values you believe in most? How will you carry your commitment to principle into action from the outside? If you elect not to serve now, what might change your mind? Who would you find sufficiently principled to work for that might convince you that serving is the right thing to do?
  • If you choose to serve (or to stay), how frequently do you plan to reassess your decision? Failing to do so runs the risk of the “boiling frog” syndrome, where every small uptick in the water temperature, or new policy that modestly erodes that which you deeply believe in, becomes slowly, inexorably acceptable until the whole is invisible and no longer objectionable.
In this challenging new world, we can all hope that those many members of the national security community who do serve will become a critical mass of moral and ethical influence in the early days of the Trump administration. In the best circumstances, their considered advice can offer principled options that better serve the nation and support our enduring values. At worst, their moral arguments will provide an uncomfortable rebuttal to those who might seek to undermine principles that have long represented America’s better angels to the rest of the world. That is a worthy goal for all of us who work to keep America safe, inside government or out.

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. 

See also:

 With President Trump Now a Reality, Will Federal Employees Jump Ship? 

Trump: The Anti-Diplomat

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A "Novel" Idea: Write a Tale About a Crazy President in Moscow's Pocket

I've taken a couple of years off from fiction writing in order to devote myself to political and foreign affairs commentary, mainly with POLITICO and Washington Monthly. But I'm getting the itch again to immerse myself in story telling. But I need ideas. I've been tossing some around. I've come up with one I'm really excited about and thought I'd throw it out there for your feedback. So, here goes!

There's this rich, narcissistic business tycoon who wants badly to be president of the United States. He'll even lie about everything under the sun, including how he demeans women, loathes minorities, has no real policies...

What's that you say? There's already a guy out there who fits that description? Well, wouldn't you know it? Okay, okay, I need to work on character development more.

So, anyway, here's this rich twit. Let's call him Bump. So, Bump runs this populist campaign, flouting his profound ignorance on just about everything to appeal to millions of uneducated fellow ignoramuses who don't give a flying fudge about the future of the country, who view democracy as some form of reality TV because that's all they know, never having read a book in their lives. And here's where I strain suspension of disbelief: Evangelicals (yes!) overwhelmingly support Bump, who has been married multiple times, is an adulterer, lies incessantly, never goes to church, gropes women...

What? That other guy is already exactly all of these things? Boy! Am I out of practice, alright. Better hit my fiction writing texts again. But meantime...

This charismatic idiot, Bump, actually wins the election! And because of our 18th century electoral system designed by effete powder-wigged aristocrats, wins despite losing the popular vote by close to 3 million votes...

Been there, done that, you say? Well, bless my soul. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction sometimes. Blame it on House of Cards. I guess I need to brush off my plotting skills as well. But just bear with me.

This president-elect Bump is actually an agent of the Russian intelligence service known these days as the SVR. You can't tell me that that other guy fills this description.

You're scratching your head. Not sure, eh?

Good. Let me continue with this preposterous yet plausible scenario. Bump was suborned years ago by the old KGB. In my novel, I'm going to lay out a sex-and-money trap. Falling upon tried and true Russian spy tradecraft, Moscow set up a honey trap for Bump. Being stupid and a slave to his impulses, Bump fell for it lock, stock and barrel. To close the deal, the KGB put their best case officers to work providing a trove of cash to Bump at a time when, because of his gross mismanagement, his businesses teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Bingo! Trapped. Classic recruitment spycraft. As a result, Bump refuses to divulge his tax returns. Green eye-shaders might just turn up clues to a Russia connection. Nuts, isn't it?

Yeah, so? Any real-life individual fit that profile? Hah! But "no comment" isn't acceptable.

Alright. So, Bump's puppet masters in Moscow not only instruct him to lavish praise on Russia's autocratic leader, but - get this! - also to discredit the solid work of 17 U.S. spy agencies who conclude that the latter-day Russian czar blatantly interfered in our elections to ensure Bump won. Crazy, isn't it? Well, my story gets even better. Bump fills his entire foreign policy team with more agents of Moscow, men the KGB/SVR has groomed for years to first become access agents, followed by agents of influence, ultimately active agents to do their bidding. Grist for a best seller!

So, you say this scenario may be just too outlandish, that the reading public won't buy onto it, that literary agents will reject it as too over the top? Hm.

Well then, how about if I add the following twist to the plot: Bump gets Congress's collective noses so out of joint that they impeach him...

See also:

Is Donald Trump the Siberian Candidate?