John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He was deputy director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, serving as acting director in 2004.
People frequently ask me why so many former intelligence officers are commenting these days on matters that seem essentially political. The question usually goes “Shouldn’t you stay neutral — above the fray? Isn’t that the tradition for intelligence professionals, both former and still serving?”
The short answer is yes, that is the tradition. Neutrality has certainly been our ethic on political issues, which gave us credibility when we gathered or delivered information that presidents might not want to hear. It goes against every instinct to wade into domestic politics by openly criticizing the president on personal actions or behavior. And make no mistake: Those of us who have chosen to speak out are outside our comfort zones.
This leads people to fairly ask a second question: Do our actions mean that, in the future, intelligence officers will not be believed when they claim to be thoroughly professional and nonpolitical? Are we raising doubts about our ability to provide balanced assessments, free of political spin?
These questions must be taken seriously. If we lose the trust of those who receive our information and analyses, the intelligence community will be seen as just another calculating player in the Washington political game — and our national security will suffer.
So what has pushed us out of our comfort zone? How can we ensure that our claims of objectivity and neutrality are believed in the future? Let’s take these one at a time.
First, we are reacting to today’s extraordinarily unprecedented context, one that transcends traditional party politics. (Most of us have served administrations led by both parties.) For many of us, keeping our mouths shut about what we see in our own country would be akin to not alerting our government to a threat from abroad.
Failure to warn is the ultimate sin in the intelligence world. It feels equally sinful in the world of citizenship.
A colleague from another field said to me recently: “For you and others the normal rules no longer apply, because we are all in upside-down-world today” — a world where most of the normal rules of civic discourse no longer work. Witness the unnamed Trump administration insider who just let loose in the New York Times about the president’s dangerous behavior.
Of course, we would all love to be back in right-side-up world, where it would be unimaginable for a president to advocate jailing an election opponent, assail the Justice Department and the FBI, call a free press “the enemy of the people,” insult allies, and, most important, refuse to combat a well-documented covert foreign attack on U.S. elections — in the process weakening efforts by others to do so and encouraging Russia to keep it up. And although all politicians spend time in the spin room, how wonderful it would be if our president’s basic truthfulness were not automatically suspect.
All of us in intelligence have been shaped by careers assessing societies where free speech, democratic institutions and rule of law don’t exist or are under attack — places such as Russia and China. We have also seen how fragile democracy can be and how it can be eroded almost imperceptibly — consider Turkey and parts of Central Europe. So our senses are finely tuned to the classic warning signs: attacks on institutions, neutralization of opponents, cowed legislatures, publics numbed by repeated falsehoods.
All those are now visible here to various degrees. While others may say our democracy can’t erode that way, we know we’ve heard that before, somewhere else. The stakes are too high for complacency here.
Second, how can intelligence professionals come through this still meriting trust in our objectivity? Many people will just conclude we can’t. But we have to hope most people will understand why we reject silence: It’s because this is a threat that we cannot combat silently, as we have been able to do with foreign threats — overseas and out of the public’s eye. Those who don’t see a threat will of course reject that argument, and there’s nothing we can do about that.
Meanwhile, we should take care, as we would in foreign intelligence assessments, to limit our comments to what the facts can reasonably support in the minds of most Americans — what we can all indisputably see, hear and document.
And if and when assaults on our institutions cease, you can expect most of us to just slip quickly back into our traditional comfort zone, stepping away from domestic politics and, with relief, returning our attention mainly to the world beyond our shores.