President Donald Trump’s declassification order Thursday night has set up a showdown between his own Justice Department and the intelligence community that could trigger resignations and threaten the CIA’s ability to conduct its core business — managing secret intelligence and sources.
Trump’s order directed intelligence agencies to fully comply with Attorney General William Barr’s look at “surveillance activities” during the 2016 election — a probe that Trump’s allies see as a necessary check on government overreach but that critics lambaste as an attempt to create the impression of scandal. Numerous former intelligence officials called the move “unprecedented,” saying it grants the attorney general sweeping powers over the nation’s secrets, subverts the intelligence community and raises troubling legal questions.
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“There’s nothing CIA or NSA, for example, guards more jealously than sources and methods,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year intelligence veteran who served as the chief of staff to CIA Director Michael Hayden. “It is not hyperbole to say that lives are at stake.”
“I doubt any of the [CIA directors] or [directors of national intelligence] that I worked with would have sat by silently if their president contemplated or made such a decision,” added Pfeiffer, who also served as senior director of the White House Situation Room.
It’s the latest chapter in Trump’s rocky relationship with his own intelligence community. During the election, Trump cast doubt on Russia’s role in hacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign. As president, Trump has publicly disagreed with his own intelligence agencies on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the threat posed by the Islamic State, the situation in Afghanistan and whether the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The two sides have usually papered over their differences, but national security veterans said this time might be different.
“I could see something of a showdown happening here, where the CIA says, ‘We’re not comfortable with the declassification of this material and we won’t provide it without the assurance that you won’t declassify it,’” said a former senior Justice Department official who served under both Trump and President Barack Obama, and requested anonymity to discuss the directive more freely. “They feel that these are their sources, their connections.”
If that happened, Trump’s order leaves it unclear who would prevail.
Trump on Friday defended his decision as a pro-transparency move that will give the public insight into nefarious government activity. And he praised Barr as the ideal person to judge what should be released.
Barr is “a great gentleman and a highly respected man, so everything that they need is declassified and they’ll able to see how the hoax or witch hunt started and why it started,” Trump told reporters before leaving for a trip to Japan. “It was an attempted coup, an attempted takedown of the president of the United States.”
Later on Friday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a carefully worded statement, confirming that his agencies will turn over “all of the appropriate information” for the DOJ review. But, Coats added, “I am confident that the Attorney General will work with the [intelligence community] in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk.”
Numerous national security veterans did not share Coats‘ confidence. They said Trump’s order has challenged those “long-established standards” and raised questions about how the government’s legal power structure might shift in the months and years ahead.
Under the National Security Act, a post-World War II overhaul of the country’s military and intelligence structure, intelligence agencies are legally required to protect the unauthorized declassification of their secretive sources and information-gathering tactics. But Trump’s directive seemingly gave the attorney general the power to determine what should be declassified, potentially upending decades of precedent.
“The president’s memo effectively revises the executive order on classification and gives the AG the authority — previously assigned to the head of the agency that originated the information — to declassify information related to the election inquiry,” said Steven Aftergood, a classification expert who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.
While the order includes a caveat that the directive should not impair “the authority granted by law” to agency heads on classification, it also notes that Barr has to consult these agency heads only “to the extent he deems it practicable” about declassification decisions.
And if intelligence chiefs and Barr disagree on what to reveal, Trump retains final say.
“Does an agency head or the DNI have any recourse? Sure — a direct appeal to the president … or threatening to resign over a bad decision,” Pfeiffer said. “Neither is good governance.”
April Doss, who served as the head of intelligence law at the NSA from 2003 to 2016, said she hoped Barr would consult with the intelligence community heads and heed their advice. “But under this memo he is not required to,” she noted.
And that has created a once-unthinkable situation for intelligence professionals — they could lose control of what remains a secret.
“I can’t remember a time when a non-IC officer was given declassification authority over intelligence information,” said Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA under Obama.
The result, Morell added, is a loss of faith in the U.S. intelligence system. “It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us,” he said.
Particularly curious to many intelligence veterans and experts is the fact that Barr asked for this new authority from the president, as well as the breadth of the directive. The memo targets not only the FBI — which Trump has repeatedly accused of hatching a “deep state” plot to overthrow him — but also the CIA, which is fiercely protective of its sources and methods. In particular, Barr is seeking more information about the foreign sources the FBI used in 2016, according to a New York Times report.
The result is a shifting perception of the attorney general’s role.
Since Watergate era, the DOJ chief has been seen as the legal check on intelligence agency overreach, said David Kris, a former Obama-era head of DOJ’s national security division who also held a high-ranking DOJ position during the George W. Bush administration.
“Now,” he added, “many observers have the opposite fear; that the AG, rather than the IC, is the real danger, the real threat to apolitical intelligence under law. Whether or not that fear is entirely valid, it is deeply concerning because it threatens the foundations of intelligence oversight that has protected us for more than 40 years.”
Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russian operations, said Trump’s actions are likely to have a chilling effect on the government’s ability to recruit both agents and informants.
The revelation that longtime Cambridge University professor Stefan Halper, for example, was used as an FBI informant in 2016, and the microscopic focus placed on former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele — another longtime FBI source — has made the intelligence community, and its sources, extremely wary.
“Put yourself in the position of considering working for CIA at this moment,” Hall said. “You’d probably want to wait until this all blows over.”