OPINION: How Could The Intelligence Community Fail So Badly?

REUTERS/Leah Millis

J. Michael Waller Center for Security Policy
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Far more than a failure of journalism, the Russia collusion narrative was, at its core, a monstrous failure of U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence.

All criticism of the news media aside for the moment, the bottom line is that professional journalists received fake intelligence information from U.S. government leakers whom they trusted.

The entire Russian collusion debacle shows that the American intelligence and counterintelligence processes have broken down.

Emphatic former CIA director John Brennan, a main engine behind spreading the Russia collusion story through the intelligence community and into the media, suddenly doesn’t sound so certain about himself. The day after Attorney General William Barr released the special prosecutor’s finding of no collusion, Brennan confessed to MSNBC, “I don’t know if I received bad information but I think I suspected that there was more than there actually was.”

This is a shocking admission from the man who was, at the time, the nation’s highest-ranking professional intelligence officer.

Brennan wasn’t indicting just himself. He inadvertently accused the entire CIA. Whatever quality control systems it has, the CIA failed to prevent “bad information” from making its way up the chain to the national strategic level.

Brennan’s “bad information” polluted the entire intelligence community. Some claimed, at one point, that it represented the consensus view of 17 separate U.S. intelligence agencies. The bad information polluted the National Security Division of the FBI, if not the entire Bureau itself.

The FBI leadership is equally to blame. Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who had been FBI director between 2001 and 2013, centralized the FBI bureaucracy inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building. FBI veterans complain that he rewarded brown-nosers by promoting them into the extra layers at headquarters that distanced the leadership from the professionals in field offices around the country. This diluted the normal give-and-take between headquarters and the eyes and ears on the ground, and arguably contributed to an echo-chamber effect at the top where the sycophants and climbers could rule.

This empowered the now-disgraced characters like then-deputy director Andrew McCabe and counterintelligence deputy chief Peter Strzok under Mueller’s successor, James Comey. Strzok abused his position and FBI resources for wrongful political purposes. His personal habits violated core Justice Department ethics rules and basic security practices that arguably exposed him, as the nation’s top spy-hunter, to enemy blackmail. Strzok rejected that concern. But it was clear that sheer unprofessionalism was rotting away the FBI leadership on several fronts, sapping Bureau morale, that would have continued had the perpetrators not overstepped.

This terrible experience can have a purgative effect for the whole intelligence community and the nation it serves.

Brennan’s behavior exposed fatal flaws in the CIA’s collection and analysis practices, and now, by the former CIA chief’s own admission, revealed unforgivable quality-control failures.

The actions of Comey, McCabe, Strzok and others unveiled the raw unprofessionalism at the top of the FBI. The lack of former senior FBI officials who publicly took issue with the collusion conspiracy theory shows a post-professional culture of covering up for the team, not of national service. Since the trio’s departure, FBI Director Christopher Wray has been trying quietly to fix some things in the Bureau but has not publicly shown a sense of urgency. He is going to need a lot of help.

What we have learned is that neither the CIA nor FBI have effective dissent channels to allow professional analysts to express differing opinions — or raise alarms — when they have sound reason to disagree with leadership.

The mess showed the public the shocking reality that paid political operatives, during election season, can pay a foreign former intelligence officer in London to take secondhand stories from Russian contacts and use other unverified information to concoct a conspiracy theory which the FBI and CIA “collect” and “analyze” and leak to the press as credible intelligence and counterintelligence products.

The standards of excellence are that low.

Which brings us back to fatally flawed journalism. This scandal has revealed to the public just how dependent journalists have become on leaks from the intelligence community. It’s a two-way problem: Government officials sworn to protect classified information illegally reveal it with impunity, while journalists whose job is to report the facts become addicted to the secret hands that feed them.

This leads to the most dangerous conclusion of all. The Russia collusion debacle has shown that the FBI and CIA leadership are not effectively under the oversight of elected officials, but instead are capable of tampering with the American democratic process and constitutional governance.

All this must stop. President Trump should assemble a team of solid intelligence and counterintelligence veterans to dig deep into the FBI and CIA leadership, discover the real nature of the problems and devise solutions before our system self-destructs.

J. Michael Waller (@JMichaelWaller), Ph.D., is vice president of the Center for Security Policy. His 1994 book, “Secret Empire: The KGB In Russia Today,” predicted the rise of a leader like Vladimir Putin.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.