The raging battle over the secret Republican-drafted memo claiming political bias at the FBI and Department of Justice will likely have a chilling effect on foreign allies’ willingness to share sensitive intelligence with the U.S., intelligence experts and former FBI and CIA officials told VICE News.
Against the advice of the FBI and the Department of Justice, President Donald Trump approved the release of the Republican-drafted memo Friday, capping weeks of hysteria that’s convulsed Capitol Hill and captivated conservative media. In a rare public appeal, the FBI has warned it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
But the impact of Trump’s decision could be immediate, potentially hurting efforts to coordinate with allies to thwart Russian interference in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, intelligence and law enforcement professionals said.
“I wouldn’t trust the United States with secrets at this point,” said Alex Finley, a former officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who served in West Africa and Europe. The memo fight, she said, is “just another example of how the U.S. government can’t keep a secret.”
Trump’s decision brings with it a litany of fresh questions about how to counter any misinformation contained in the memo without releasing even more detailed and sensitive intelligence, said Julian Sanchez, an expert on national security and surveillance at the Cato Institute think tank.
Regardless of what comes next, former FBI and CIA officials told VICE News that damage has already been done.
“The notion that the people who oversee the intelligence community will misuse intelligence is really dangerous,” said John Sipher, a former clandestine CIA officer who spent 27 years in the agency, including a posting in Moscow.
Friendly governments were already nervous about Washington keeping their secrets safe, said Sipher, who retired in 2014.
“Before the Nunes memo, this was a problem. I guarantee that allies are now passing us less than they normally would,” Sipher said.
Other intel experts offered a similar outlook: Foreign intelligence agencies are increasingly likely to see the U.S. as a leaky sieve for sensitive information, they said. And that could have real-world implications in the near future, as even Trump’s own CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, warns that Russia will likely try to disrupt the U.S. 2018 midterm elections.
A “train wreck that’s about to happen”
The U.S. has long relied on foreign partners’ intelligence sharing, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But now foreign governments have grounds to worry that sensitive information shared with the U.S. could unexpectedly burst into public view in the partisan fight that’s broken out on Capitol Hill, intelligence professionals said.
General Michael Hayden, CIA Director under President George W. Bush, railed against the memo in an interview on NPR as “an injection of hyper partisanship,” adding: “I just fear the great damage that will be done to institutions including oversight committees in the Congress, including the presidency and of course, obviously, the FBI.”
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has rattled America’s allies by publicizing secret information. In May, Trump revealed details of an ISIS terrorist plot to Russian officials in a White House meeting, information that was later reported to have been supplied by Israel. Trump’s disclosure raised concerns that the information could be passed on to Russia’s ally, Iran — Israel’s top regional adversary.
But the memo drafted by the staff of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes may be the most publicized example to date. Nunes has said the memo contains explosive information. The document reportedly claims the FBI misused its power to begin surveillance of Carter Page, a former foreign policy advisor to Trump’s campaign. Democrats, however, dismiss the memo as a political ploy to discredit the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump team colluded with Russia. CNN reported Thursday that Trump has been telling friends that he sees the memo as a way to undermine the Russia investigation.
“The train wreck that’s about to happen through the politicization of intelligence is going to scare off U.S. partners’ willingness to share intelligence with the United States,” said Ryan Goodman, former special counsel to the Pentagon and founding co-editor-in-chief of the national security forum Just Security. “I think they’d have to think twice, to put it mildly.”
Robert Deitz, a senior advisor to General Michael Hayden when he led the CIA under Bush, said releasing the memo may have a negative impact on both foreign and domestic audiences.
“My concern about this memo is that it’s the pointy edge of the spear as a means of undermine two very important institutions in this country: the FBI and the intelligence community,” Deitz said. “Depending upon what it reveals, this may make our foreign partners reluctant to deal with us. And that is extraordinarily damaging.”
Milan Patel, former chief technology officer for the FBI’s cyber division, said the FBI’s statement on the memo was indicative of how much damage its release could do.
"The reality is that the FBI would not be taking this stance if they didn’t think it was serious," Patel told VICE News. "You’re undermining their ability to conduct investigations using sensitive methods."
One specific intelligence operation that could be hurt: collaboration over monitoring Russia’s use of social media to influence foreign elections.
The sheer volume of activity on social media platforms makes it difficult for anyone, including governments or the companies themselves, to effectively police those platforms, experts have said.
“In this Russia probe, we likely have partners around the world sharing Twitter handles, Facebook accounts, IP addresses, domains,” Patel said. “We want our partners to share that type of data with us, to help us figure out what the Russians are doing in real time. If that information’s not shared with us, or arrives late, it could jeopardize our ability to investigate the threat and respond quickly.”
A ripple effect on intelligence operations
Foreign operatives have already provided significant pieces of intelligence into the current Russia investigation.
Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier, took his findings to the FBI out of fear that then-candidate Trump “was being blackmailed,” according to the Senate testimony of the man who hired him, Glenn Simpson of the political intelligence company Fusion GPS.
The Dutch government revealed to the U.S. that its own domestic intelligence agency, AVID, had monitored the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear as they penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 2016 campaign, according to recent Dutch press reports. The agency even tapped into a security camera and captured the faces of the individual hackers as they showed up to work.
After spending a night getting wasted in an upscale London wine bar with Australia’s High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer, a young foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, revealed that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Two months later, Australian officials shared that information with their U.S. counterparts.
That exchange may have had an impact on U.S.-Australian relations — and even been one of the factors behind Trump’s notoriously hostile phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shortly after Trump took office. Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald has reported “annoyance and frustration” among the country’s officials over the public exposure of Downer’s role.
Robert Anderson, a former national security executive with the FBI who spent 20 years inside the bureau, said the true damage of the memo fight remains to be seen, but that it would likely be felt across all the U.S. intelligence agencies that rely on foreign collaboration.
“Will it lead to any potential compromise of information that they provided to the FBI, or jeopardizing sources or methods that other partners have?” he said. The partisan feuding “could lead to potential loss of intelligence, or partner-sharing intelligence, not just with the FBI, but a myriad of other intelligence organizations.”
Cover: Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (R-CA) on Capitol Hill. January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts