In her congressional testimony on Friday, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch detailed how a conspiracy-minded president and his freelancing personal attorney undercut and severely compromised the institution of American diplomacy. By removing her as ambassador based on false claims and a desire to pursue dubious conspiracy theories, she said, President Trump and his enablers had broken a “sacred trust” — namely, that the U.S. government will have the backs of its diplomats serving overseas and protect them from attacks by foreign interests.
“That basic understanding no longer holds true. Today we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within,” Yovanovitch said in her prepared statement. The great harm, she noted, will come when “private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain,” and when bad actors in countries around the world “see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system. In such circumstances, the only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia, that spread chaos and attack [our] institutions.”
Yovanovitch’s outrage is understandable, and the damage to American diplomacy may last for years. But it may be easier to repair than the disruption in relations between U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies and their counterparts in allied countries. Ambassadors serve at the president’s pleasure, and relations with other states are subject to any administration’s foreign policy priorities and political needs. But at the professional, bureaucratic level, the sharing of information among law enforcement and intelligence agencies, founded on mutual trust built up over decades, is meant to be permanent and above politics. And the Trump administration seems indifferent to that pact of nonpartisanship among professionals, if not actively hostile.
In the phone call at the center of the House impeachment inquiry, Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and advanced several conspiracy theories that cast doubt on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The president also directly implicated Attorney General William Barr in the campaign.
“I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine,” Trump said, referencing a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was actually behind the hacking of the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee in 2016, and that Clinton’s private server has been hidden in Ukraine. “I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people, and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
While the House’s impeachment inquiry to date has focused largely on the overseas activities of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and State Department officials, it is the close involvement of Barr that many intelligence experts find far more troubling. The attorney general has traveled overseas and reached out to several closely allied countries seeking help in the Justice Department’s investigation of another conspiracy theory favored by Trump, this one positing that the Russia probe had corrupt origins and was a setup job perpetrated by a cabal of “deep state” intelligence operatives to deny Trump the presidency.
Those advancing this theory have failed to explain why, if that was the plan dating back to long before the election, most of the findings of Russian interference became public only after Trump had won.
The very fact that the top law enforcement official in the nation is personally involved in an outside-normal-channels outreach to allied nations in order to substantiate a largely debunked conspiracy theory could potentially damage critical U.S. intelligence relationships worldwide.
“Getting ensnared in another country’s domestic political dispute is heresy for an intelligence agency, especially when that country is the United States and the most important intelligence partner for all our allies,” said Paul Pillar, who spent 28 years at the CIA, including stints as executive assistant to the director of central intelligence and deputy director of the agency’s counterterrorism center. “Now along comes Attorney General Barr as America’s senior law enforcement official, trying to dig up dirt overseas to serve the president’s domestic political purposes. That’s not only highly objectionable, it’s outrageous.”
Zelensky’s likely resentment over pressure to intercede in a domestic political controversy in the United States, Pillar noted, is probably shared to varying degrees by officials in Great Britain, Italy and Australia after Barr requested help from those countries. “Intelligence liaison relationships are by nature delicate, because they involve sharing sensitive information and national secrets that can put lives in danger,” Pillar told Yahoo News. “Barr’s efforts to advance right-wing conspiracy theories in order to throw up smoke and protect Trump risk damaging the essential trust at the core of these intelligence relationships. The result is likely to be greater reticence to share intelligence with us. That’s a threat to our national security.”
Certainly Trump has made clear to foreign counterparts that he views the efforts of both Barr and Giuliani as complementary in the administration’s globe-spanning campaign to substantiate conspiracy theories that are widely dismissed in intelligence circles in the United States and abroad. In his telephone conversation with Zelensky, Trump announced, “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call, and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call, and we will get to the bottom of it.”
Despite reports that he is angry at having his investigation lumped in with Giuliani’s efforts, Barr has made no secret of his own conspiratorial view of the FBI’s Russia investigation. Even before becoming attorney general, and not coincidental to his appointment, Barr called the probe “fatally misconceived.” In testimony before the Senate in April, he shared his belief that “spying did occur” against the Trump campaign, a characterization rejected by his own FBI director, Christopher Wray. Barr told CBS News that the facts he learned about the Russia probe “don’t hang together with the official explanation of what happened.”
Besides pressing Ukraine to “get to the bottom” of the origins of the Russia probe, Trump asked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to help Barr’s investigation. Barr’s review has also taken him to the United Kingdom and twice to Italy to speak with senior officials there. The Justice Department has confirmed that U.S. Attorney John Durham, whom Barr has named to lead the investigation, has accompanied him on some of these trips, which are provoking consternation bordering on alarm in several foreign capitals because they are taking place outside normal and carefully established intelligence-sharing channels. Australia and Great Britain are two of the so-called “Five Eyes” (along with the United States, Canada and New Zealand), an intelligence-sharing partnership dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War.
“We’re in a very surreal situation now where the attorney general of the United States is on this world tour seeming to promote the counter-narrative that the Russians really didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, and it was all a conspiracy to frame Trump, which, quite frankly, strikes British intelligence officials and many others as disturbing and kind of delusional,” Dana Allin, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic affairs at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Yahoo News. “All aspects of U.S. national security policy seem subordinated to American domestic politics at the moment, and an erratic President Trump continues to spout provably false conspiracy theories even as he retains the power to declassify and release top secret intelligence on a whim. That puts allied intelligence services in a very delicate position, and under those circumstances they might well hesitate to share sensitive intelligence on, say, Russia.”
In fact, Trump’s behavior and the House impeachment inquiry it has provoked raise numerous yellow flags for allied intelligence services. Their governments are desperate to avoid Ukraine’s predicament, being dragged into the middle of a hyperpartisan domestic political dispute. Norms and protocols for the sharing of classified information have also been routinely ignored by the Trump administration, as evidenced by Barr’s unprecedented end run around his own intelligence services. Allied intelligence services are also undoubtedly concerned that sensitive information they share will be caught up in the political tug of war between the White House and the House during the impeachment inquiry, risking its exposure, as happened with the summary of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.
Robert Baer is a former long-serving CIA case officer. “If President Trump doesn’t trust his own intelligence community, then he should fire his FBI and CIA directors, but to send the attorney general overseas to help dig up dirt on his own intelligence services based on a totally implausible conspiracy theory without evidence is flat out nuts,” Baer told Yahoo News. “If I were head of Britain’s MI5 or MI6 [intelligence services] and the president and attorney general of the United States said they don’t believe it was actually Russia behind the election interference, despite all the forensic evidence and human intelligence pointing towards Moscow, I would never share sensitive intelligence about Russia with the Americans. Trump is likely to blurt it out as juicy gossip in his next private conversation with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
There has already been significant pushback in overseas capitals against the Barr and Giuliani narrative mixing politics, conspiracies and intelligence sharing, and it suggests the damage being done to close intelligence relationships. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has even been summoned by a parliamentary oversight committee to explain his role in the discussions with the U.S. attorney general.
Barr’s inquiries are centered on Joseph Mifsud, a Rome-based university professor with Russian ties, who initially shared the news that Russia had hacked damaging emails from the Clinton campaign with Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos in turn confided that information to an Australian diplomat in London, and the tip eventually reached the FBI by way of Sydney, kicking off the investigation. Barr reportedly is seeking evidence to show that Mifsud was working on behalf of Western intelligence agencies as part of the “deep state” conspiracy to undermine Trump. In a recent letter to Australian officials personally asking them to cooperate with Barr’s investigation, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a key Trump ally, wrote that the Australian diplomat had been “directed to contact” Papadopoulos. That characterization feeds into the conspiracy theory favored by Trump’s defenders that Papadopoulos was actively set up by Western intelligence officials.
“In your letter you made mention of the role of an Australian diplomat,” Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, wrote back to Graham in a blunt letter dated Oct. 2. “We reject your characterization of his role.”
Trump’s continued obsession with undermining the Mueller report and its findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election on his behalf has only heightened concerns in intelligence circles over the president’s peculiar affinity for Putin. Western intelligence officials have not forgotten Trump’s performance at the July 2018 Helsinki summit, when he held a no-notes private meeting with the Russian leader, and later at a press conference accepted Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of interference in the 2016 election, over the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Before the Helsinki summit was the infamous Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak in May 2017, the day after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Trump told the Russians that getting rid of Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him over the 2016 election investigation. He also reportedly disclosed classified intelligence about an Israeli operation to penetrate the senior ranks of the Islamic State group, an enormous breach of security involving a close ally. The Washington Post recently reported that Trump told Lavrov and Kislyak he was not bothered by Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election “because the United States did the same in other countries.”
“U.S. intelligence officials remain concerned and suspicious over President Trump’s inexplicable relationship with Putin and the Russians, because they don’t understand what’s behind it,” said a former very senior U.S. intelligence official with decades of experience inside the intelligence community, speaking on background. “Meanwhile, the intelligence services of our closest allies are on terra incognita, because they have carefully structured arrangements and protocols established over many years for sharing sensitive information with our intelligence professionals, and Attorney General Barr comes along and tells them the U.S. Justice Department doesn’t trust our own intelligence agencies. That’s about as close to an unnatural act as you can imagine in the intelligence business. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Meanwhile, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released a report just last week once again reaffirming the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community and Mueller that Russia prosecuted a broad campaign to interfere in the 2016 election to advantage Trump. Similar Russian interference continues to this day.
“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election. Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the committee, said at the report’s release. “By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
By all indications, Russia’s disinformation campaign targeting the United States and attempting to undermine U.S. governmental institutions continues to bear bitter fruit.
James Kitfield is senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and author of “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War.”
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