With members of the CIA and NSA leaking materials on Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials, we are witnessing a slow boiling domestic coup that will transform American governance and the Executive Branch’s relationships with intelligence agencies. It remains to be seen whether these moves signal broader attacks on the Presidency by agencies long accustomed to taking out administrations threatening the Agency’s perceived interests.
This moment tells us more about the CIA revolting against a particular administration than it does about Trump’s people engaging in unusually diabolical-illegal activities designed to undermine an outgoing administration. We know enough about Reagan’s pre-election dealings with Iran to know that the CIA and NSA knew about these transactions, yet these agencies were content to remain silent; apparently glad to see Carter ousted and welcoming a new era of unparalleled “peace time” military and intelligence spending. Similarly, American intelligence agencies knew of Nixon’s efforts to sabotage the Paris peace talks before the 1968 election, and the CIA did nothing to undermine a new president who was going to give the agency the war it wanted. The leaking of Flynn’s information tells us little new about how incoming administrations act, but it suggests something new about US intelligence agencies willingness to take out an administration not to their liking.
To be clear: I see nothing wrong with the leaks themselves. I like intelligence leaks. I think they are generally good for democracy and reveal important truths about power. I am not worried about leaks, I am worried about the CIA and other intelligence agencies making a significant power grab that is not being critically considered. This is a move that no future president will soon forget, and that will make him or her think twice before crossing these agencies.
The left’s widely shared disdain for Donald Trump makes the current rushing national wave of schadenfreude understandable, yet there are few on the left who appear worried about what this domestic CIA coup portends for American democracy. Because of the long history of liberals’ attractions to using the CIA, perhaps we should not be too surprised at this elation, but we need to cautiously think beyond this moment.
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