Michael V. Hayden, a principal at the Chertoff Group and visiting professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, was director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009.
In November, a few days before the election, I tried to parse Donald Trump’s strange affection for Vladimir Putin and the various contacts that members of his campaign had had with folks in Russia.
The best explanation I could come up with was something the Russians call polezni durak, the “useful fool.” That’s a term from the Soviet era describing the naive individual whom the Kremlin usually held in contempt but who could be induced to do things on its behalf.
Six months later, it is disappointing to report, the term “useful fool” still seems a pretty apt description.
President Trump continues to resist the conclusion that Russia meddled in the American electoral process. As recently as last week, the best he could muster was a conditional “if Russia” interfered.
Understandably, that attitude led to a strained relationship with the intelligence community, a state of affairs not helped by the president’s unfounded, yet continuing, accusations that the community spied on his campaign.
Now the Russians are front and center in another controversy, this one fully of the president’s making. Last week, according to The Post, the president disclosed highly sensitive intelligence on the Islamic State to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an Oval Office meeting.
The information reportedly derived from another country’s intelligence service, so its revelation would have violated the near-sacred third-party rule of intelligence: Information from one country cannot be shared with another without the agreement of the originator. Break that rule often enough and your intelligence begins to dry up.
The administration contends that neither sources nor methods were discussed. That may be true enough, but I have had many arguments with journalists trying to explain that revealing the “fact of” something often points the way to the “fact how” — to the very sources and methods they claim they are not threatening.
Of course, the president has absolute declassification authority and, in practice, should have great leeway in what he wants to share with other nations. The issue here is not the power of a president but the performance of this president.
Governing is new turf for Trump. He is one of the least experienced presidents in the nation’s history. There is no evidence of scholarship or even deep interest in the processes of U.S. government. He has little international knowledge beyond real estate and business.
But even with such a thin portfolio, he seems incapable of humility in the face of such inexperience. By all accounts, the president is impatient with process and study, preternaturally confident in his own knowledge and instincts, and indifferent to, and perhaps contemptuous of, the institutions of government designed to help him succeed.
We saw this coming in the transition when a self-confident president-elect contacted foreign leaders without benefit of briefings from, or even the knowledge of, the State Department.
So, little wonder that an impulsive president appears to have gone off script to warn his Russian visitors in dramatic fashion. Or was it to impress them with the prowess of his intelligence services?
Once again, the White House circled the wagons. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy adviser Dina Powell, both of whom I know and regard highly, stated that the president had not specifically revealed sources and methods and asserted that the Post article was “false.”
Debates over what exactly the president said or did not say were made moot, though, when the president tweeted that he could damn well do what he pleased in these circumstances.
McMaster and Powell could not have been comfortable being thrust into this position. One hopes that they are not put there very often.
Indeed, there is a creeping corruption near the president as his spokespeople are frequently forced to defend that which should not be defended. The national security team can’t allow itself to be touched by that.
Then there is the question of the leak itself. Who told The Post — and, very quickly, other news organizations — about the meeting? The president’s defenders are already pointing to dark elements of the deep state or to holdovers from the Obama administration.
Maybe, but there are alternative explanations. There may have been more here than just malice or obstructionism.
Reportedly, National Security Council staffers were concerned enough about the revelations that they felt compelled to warn the CIA and the National Security Agency. Clearly, someone in government was concerned about potential damage. Once that word was out, it’s not hard to imagine the alarm among government professionals increasingly uneasy about managing the consequences of what they see as presidential missteps.
The administration will probably try to hunt down some of those folks, at least those who talked to The Post. Leaks are leaks, after all. But one hopes they also turn considerable attention to making our president more knowledgeable and prepared — and more open to the processes and protocols that have governed the behavior of others who have held that high office.