The damaging leaks against the Trump administration have come at a dizzying rate during his first month in office, prompting the president to suggest that members of the intelligence community were involved in a politically motivated attack against him and his administration.
Last week, communications leaked to the Washington Post by current and former intelligence officials revealed extensive contact between Gen. Mike Flynn and the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The report, then corroborated by the New York Times, contributed in no small way to his forced his forced resignation on February 13.
The intelligence community paid close attention to Flynn's Russian contacts after a joint report concluded that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election in a way that favored Donald Trump. However, while some applauded the take-down of Flynn, the leaks did raise some eyebrows, as they referred to transcripts of intercepted communications between Flynn, at that time a private U.S. citizen, and Ambassador Kislyak but did not provide any of that information.
Additional leaks followed, with the Wall Street Journal publishing a story claiming that members of the intelligence community were not providing Trump with a complete intelligence picture out of concern that the information would be compromised. Again, the report relied on accounts from current and former intelligence officials.
Both the CIA and Director of National Intelligence denied the claims made in the report. CIA issued a strong statement denouncing the report, stating, "The CIA does not, has not, and will never hide intelligence from the president, period."
More important than the content of the leaks, Trump said over Twitter that, "The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by 'intelligence' like candy. Very un-American!"
During his most recent press conference, Trump vowed that his team would aggressively pursue the source of these "illegal" leaks, including bringing in an outside expert from Wall Street to assess the state of the 16 intelligence agencies. Trump went on to imply that the leaks were politically motivated and would taper off after the holdovers from the Obama administration are out, and "our people" take over the leading positions in the agencies.
While some have blamed Trump for instigating a war with the intelligence community, others who watched the take-down of Michael Flynn by unnamed intelligence officials are increasingly concerned over the balance of power in Washington, namely the power of a group of un-elected institutional forces over the new president.
In a story praised by President Trump, Bloomberg national security correspondent, Eli Lake reported that Flynn had been "thrown under the bus" by the intelligence establishment figures who were concerned about his historic role trying to reform the intelligence community.
Lake commented on the way the Flynn was brought down, noting it is "very rare that reporters are ever told about government-monitored communications of U.S. citizens, let alone senior U.S. officials."
Those types of intercepts are among the most tightly held government secrets and for good reason, Lake continued. "Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do."
Trump seized on the conclusion in the article, comparing the leaked communications targeting Flynn to Soviet Russia.
Others have suggested that the Trump administration has been the target of a "soft coup" by the institutional forces in U.S. government, intelligence in particular, that typically outlast any administration, the so-called "deep state."
Colleen Rowley is a retired FBI special agent and a whistleblower who brought to light major lapses in intelligence prior to 9/11. Rowley sees officials within the so-called deep state weighing in against the Trump administration, a move that is not without historical precedent. These institutional figures, she argued, have been strongly opposed to both the Trump campaign and now presidency because of his threats to upset the status quo in Washington.
"Trump is not conforming at all to the Washington D.C. playbook, so its understandable and natural that he's going to get a lot of resistance, because he is going against a lot of what has been the long-term consensus," Rowley stated.
Trump has taken an unorthodox approach to policy, and foreign relations especially, from questioning the value of NATO to suggesting a counterterrorism alliance with Russia. These positions, along with his stated opposition to continued U.S. involvement in foreign wars, flew in the face of a lot of establishment figures, Rowley suggested, and could have helped fuel the desire to discredit the new administration.
"A war requires two sides," Rowley said of the ongoing feud between Trump and the intelligence agencies. But with the attacks coming from both sides, there is still a question of which side is to blame.
With the initial onslaught against Trump in the press, from the day he started campaigning, Rowley believes it was likely the intelligence community and the press that "might have been the party that started this. She clarified, "It's not just the intelligence community. It's the intelligence community aligned with the press."
There are growing concerns in some quarters over attempts by un-elected intelligence or other government agency officials to tear down the new administration. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist famous for publishing top secret NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden, spoke out on social media saying that while he believes the Trump presidency is "dangerous," the "CIA/DeepState abuse of spy powers to subvert elected Govt is dangerous."
On the other side, there are those who see Trump as the instigator against the intelligence professionals, and he should should have seen this rift coming.
Before taking office in January, a questionable intelligence dossier surfaced and was reported on by Buzzfeed and CNN. The dossier, compiled by an independent analyst, presented an argument that Russian intelligence had extensive and damaging information on Trump that could be used to blackmail or otherwise compromise the new president.
Trump shot back at the media for reporting on the unverified report and then turned against the intelligence agencies who allegedly leaked to document, asking "Are we living in Nazi Germany?"
On his first day in office, Trump visited CIA headquarters to show that there was no ill-will and that the media reports of his feud with the intelligence community were nothing but "fake news." Trump stood before the CIA's memorial wall and delivered a speech that received both cheers and deep criticism from members of the agency. While officers could be heard clapping and shouting approval during Trump's speech, after it was over former CIA Director John Brennan described his anger at sadness at what he described as Trump's "despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA's Memorial Wall of Agency heroes."
In a rare, accurate prediction about the Trump administration, Dartmouth professor and former counterterrorism expert at the State Department Daniel Benjamin warned that Trump's denigration of the intelligence community would soon come back to haunt him. From his long-time rejection of intelligence reports of Russia's responsibility for hacking the Democratic party to claims of "politicization" of the intelligence agencies, to reports that he didn't want to get his daily briefing every day, it all spelled trouble for the new president.
"Leakers and whistleblowers won’t hesitate," Benjamin said back in January. Though most former intelligence officials wouldn't discuss it, Benjamin explained that "Trump's treatment of his spies will also come back to bite him in the form of leaking and whistleblowing. The intelligence community doesn’t leak as much as the Pentagon or Congress, but when its reputation is at stake, it can do so to devastating effect."
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) further warned that the intelligence community would strike back against Trump for his statements on the campaign and during the transition. "You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you," the top Democrat said, adding that Trump is "being really dumb" by criticizing the agencies.
In the near-term it is entirely possible that Trump could begin an investigation and prosecution of whoever is found to have leaked classified or sensitive information to the press, or release documents to verify whether or not the leaks are even true.
Under the Espionage Act, an individual is prohibited from the unauthorized dissemination of classified or sensitive information. Historically, very few people have been charged under the Espionage Act, though under President Obama nine people were charged and prosecuted under the Act for passing on information about national security to the press or a foreign power. The use of the Espionage Act under Obama could very well have set a precedent.
Unlike spies or leakers, whistleblowers who release information to the press or the public are, in theory, afforded legal protections if their actions clearly meet the criteria for whistleblowing, namely, that they are reporting government waste, fraud and abuse in the public interest. But based on the leaks against Trump, Rowley strongly doubts that the culprits were engaged in whistleblowing.
"I am in the group that thinks this is more politically motivated from the Deep State," Rowley concluded. "I don't think its low-level, I do not think it's whistleblowing. I think it's leaking and I think it's high-level people in the Obama administration who were given the green light to do it."