A former top CIA official who served as the agency’s station chief in Moscow is sharply criticizing his former boss, John Brennan, accusing him of doing Vladimir Putin’s “bidding” through his harsh attacks on President Trump.
In an interview on the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” CIA veteran Daniel Hoffman charged that Brennan’s public comments and tweets in recent weeks have played into Putin’s hands, helping the Russian leader stoke political divisions within the country and thereby undermine U.S. national security.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen something like this,” said Hoffman about Brennan’s public comments about the president. “Gosh, I can’t remember ever seeing an instance of this in our history where a retired director of the CIA went as far as he did.”
Hoffman was reacting to a series of tweets and public statements the former CIA director has made in recent weeks after signing a contract to be a commentator for NBC News.
In one tweet on March 17, Brennan reacted to Trump’s apparent gloating about the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (the president called it a “a great day for Democracy”) by writing about the president: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.”
Then, in a March 21 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Brennan said of Trump: “I think he is afraid of the president of Russia. One could speculate as to why. The Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult.”
Brennan declined to comment for this story. But shortly after his “Morning Joe” comments, he emphasized to the New York Times that he had no hard evidence that the Russians had blackmail material on Trump, notwithstanding the contents of a still-uncorroborated dossier prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele making similar allegations. “I do not know if the Russians have something on Donald Trump that they could use as blackmail,” he told the Times.
But Hoffman, who served as CIA station chief in Moscow during President Barack Obama’s first term and later worked under Brennan as chief of the agency’s Near East operations, was not dissuaded.
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“Sometimes, the president can bring out the worst in his enemies or his opponents, for all that entails,” said Hoffman in his “Skullduggery” interview. Even though Brennan appeared to back away from his “Morning Joe” comments, “the damage is done.”
“I found it quite disconcerting that he went as far as he did,” Hoffman said on the podcast. “Basically, accusing the president of being subject to blackmail by Vladimir Putin is an extraordinarily strong statement to make and carries with it a lot of damage.
“The people hearing that — the viewers, not just in our country but worldwide — would presume that John Brennan, based on his former position, would actually know the answer to that [Russian blackmail] question.”
“There’s no speculation there. He was the director of the CIA. He knows a lot. The nuance is lost on those who heard John Brennan’s statements.”
Hoffman first detailed his discomfort with Brennan’s public comments in an article he wrote this week for the Cipher Brief, a website that specializes in coverage of the U.S. intelligence community. The article got attention because Hoffman is the first CIA insider to publicly call out Brennan over his postgovernment comments. He wrote in the piece that Brennan’s tweets were “cringe worthy” and that, in his public statements, “partisanship reached a new low — and they were shocking to intelligence officers, who expect former and sitting CIA directors to carefully parse their words, especially when speaking to the media.”
Hoffman expanded on the critique in his “Skullduggery” interview, saying that the former CIA director appears to have been “blinded by his antipathy towards the president.”
To be sure, Brennan is not the only former U.S. intelligence official to publicly criticize Trump. Many of these officials were offended when, in one of his first acts as president, Trump visited CIA headquarters and, while standing in front of the Hall of Stars honoring former officers who died in the line of duty, devoted much of his talk to boasting of the crowd size at his inaugural speech.
“Look, freedom of speech is something we all value in this country,” Hoffman said. “But I think, if I could be so presumptuous to say, that as a retired director of the CIA — and Russians like to say there’s no such thing as a former intelligence officer, that just doesn’t exist for them — you almost want to say that you almost take the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm to our national security when you’re exercising your freedom of speech.”
Hoffman noted that a principal goal of Putin’s influence operations against the United States was to stoke partisan tensions within the country and undermine the public’s faith in the government, including the intelligence community. In that sense, he argued, Brennan inadvertently aided Putin in his goals.
“What Vladimir Putin wants is what John Brennan delivered,” said Hoffman. Brennan, he said, “drove the partisan wedge between the two parties that much deeper. Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats over just about everything. It’s hard for them to agree on anything. When you have a retired director of the CIA immersing himself in this dialogue in a not-so-productive way, … that’s going to drive that partisanship to a new low.”
And, he added, it will “cause the president, frankly, to be concerned, and his team to be concerned, that maybe, yes, the Obama administration intelligence community team was in some ways biased against him.”
What Brennan should have done, he said, is hold his fire and “trust the process.”
“Go to the special counsel [Robert Mueller] and explain to the special counsel what your concerns are, if there are any, and avoid the damage that you would cause by the public statement that he made against the president.”
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