What the Brennan Affair Really Reveals
Valorizing an ex-CIA director and bashing Trump obscures what is truly ominous.
By Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fifth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Ever since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, every American president has held one or more summit meetings with the Kremlin leader, first and foremost in order to prevent miscalculations that could result in war between the two nuclear superpowers. Generally, they received bipartisan support for doing so. In July, President Trump continued that tradition by meeting with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, for which, unlike previous presidents, he was scathingly criticized by much of the US political-media establishment. John Brennan, CIA director under President Obama, however, went much further, characterizing Trump’s press conference with Putin as “nothing short of treasonous.” Presumably in reaction, Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance, the continuing access to classified information usually accorded to former security officials. In the political-media furor that followed, Brennan was mostly heroized as an avatar of civil liberties and free speech, and Trump traduced as their enemy.
Leaving aside the missed occasion to discuss the “revolving door” involving former US security officials using their permanent clearances to enhance their lucrative positions outside government, Cohen thinks the subsequent political-media furor obscures what is truly important and perhaps ominous:
Brennan’s allegation was unprecedented. No such high-level intelligence official had ever before accused a sitting president of treason, still more in collusion with the Kremlin. (Impeachment discussions of Presidents Nixon and Clinton, to take recent examples, did not include allegations involving Russia.) Brennan clarified his charge: “Treasonous, which is to betray one’s trust and to aid and abet the enemy.” Coming from Brennan, a man presumed to be in possession of related dark secrets, as he strongly hinted, the charge was fraught with alarming implications. Brennan made clear he hoped for Trump’s impeachment, but in another time, and in many other countries, his charge would suggest that Trump should be removed from the presidency urgently by any means, even a coup. No one, it seems, has even noted this extraordinary implication with its tacit threat to American democracy. (Perhaps because the disloyalty allegation against Trump has been customary ever since mid-2016, even before he became president, when an array of influential publications and writers—among them a former acting CIA director—began branding him Putin’s “puppet,” “agent,” “client,” and “Manchurian candidate.” The Los Angeles Times even saw fit to print an article suggesting that the military might have to remove Trump if he were to be elected, thereby having the very dubious distinction of predating Brennan.)
Why did Brennan, a calculating man, risk leveling such a charge, which might reasonably be characterized as sedition? The most plausible explanation is that he sought to deflect growing attention to his role as the “Godfather” of the entire Russiagate narrative, as Cohen argued back in February. If so, we need to know Brennan’s unvarnished views on Russia.
They are set out with astonishing (perhaps unknowing) candor in a New York Times op-ed of August 17. They are those of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover in their prime. Western “politicians, political parties, media outlets, think tanks and influencers are readily manipulated, wittingly and unwittingly, or even bought outright, by Russian operatives…not only to collect sensitive information but also to distribute propaganda and disinformation.… I was well aware of Russia’s ability to work surreptitiously within the United States, cultivating relationships with individuals who wield actual or potential power.… These Russian agents are well trained in the art of deception. They troll political, business and cultural waters in search of gullible or unprincipled individuals who become pliant in the hands of their Russian puppet masters. Too often, those puppets are found.” All this, Brennan assures readers, is based on his “deep insight.” All the rest of us, it seems, are constantly susceptible to “Russian puppet masters” under our beds, at work, on our computers. Clearly, there must be no “cooperation” with the Kremlin’s grand “Puppet Master,” as Trump said he wanted early on. (People who wonder what and when Obama knew about the unfolding Russiagate saga need to ask why he would keep such a person so close for so long.)
And yet, scores of former intelligence and military officials rallied around this unvarnished John Brennan, even though, they said, they did not entirely share his opinions. This too is revealing. They did so, it seems clear enough, out of their professional corporate identity, which Brennan represented and Trump was degrading by challenging the intelligences agencies’ (implicitly including his own) Russiagate allegations against him. It’s a misnomer to term these people representatives of a hidden “deep state.” In recent years, they have been amply visible on television and newspaper op-ed pages. Instead, they see and present themselves as members of a fully empowered and essential fourth branch of government. This too has gone largely undiscussed while nightingales of the fourth branch—such as David Ignatius and Joe Scarborough in the pages of the The Washington Post—have been in full voice.
The result is, of course—and no less ominous—to criminalize any advocacy of “cooperating with Russia,” or détente, as Trump sought to do in Helsinki with Putin. Still more, a full-fledged Russophobic hysteria is sweeping through the American political-media establishment, from Brennan and—pending actual evidence against her—those who engineered the arrest of Maria Butina (imagine how this endangers young Americans networking in Russia) to the senators now preparing new “crippling sanctions” against Moscow and the editors and producers at the Times, Post, CNN, and MSNBC. (However powerful, how representative are these elites when surveys indicate that a majority of the American people still prefer good relations with Moscow?) As the dangers grow of actual war with Russia—again, from Ukraine and the Baltic region to Syria—the capacity of US policy-makers, above all the president, are increasingly diminished. To be fair, Brennan may only be a symptom of this profound American crisis, some say the worst since the Civil War.
Finally, there was a time when many Democrats, certainly liberal Democrats, could be counted on to resist this kind of hysteria and, yes, spreading neo-McCarthyism. (Brennan’s defenders accuse Trump of McCarthyism, but Brennan’s charge of treason without presenting any actual evidence was quintessential McCarthy.) After all, civil liberties, including freedom of speech, are directly involved—and not only Brennan’s and Trump’s. But Democratic members of Congress and pro-Democratic media outlets are in the forefront of the new anti-Russian hysteria, with only a few exceptions. Thus a generally liberal historian tells CNN viewers that “Brennan is an American hero. His tenure at the CIA was impeccable. We owe him so much.” Elsewhere the same historian assures readers, “There has always been a bipartisan spirit of support since the CIA was created in the Cold War.” In the same vein, two Post reporters write of the FBI’s “once venerated reputation.”
Is this liberal historical amnesia? Is it professional incompetence? A quick Google search would reveal Brennan’s less-than-“impeccable” record, FBI misdeeds under and after Hoover, as well as the Senate’s 1975 Church Committee’s investigation of the CIA and other intelligence agencies’ very serious abuses of their power. Or have liberals’ hatred of Trump nullified their own principles? The critical-minded Russian adage would say, “All three explanations are worst.”