The lightning rod on Trump Tower, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, has been fried. As a result, the political storm in the United States provoked by the long-rumoured pre-election contacts between Team Trump and Russian officials (including the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and intelligence officers) has just shifted closer to the president, where it properly belongs. All the signs are that this storm will make the burglary of the DNC headquarters in the Watergate building in 1972, that eventually brought down President Nixon, look like a minor political blip; after all, not even his worst enemies, I believe, ever accused Nixon of treason. Robert Reich is well worth following on this subject.
While studying documents on the ‘treaty of friendship’ signed between the State Department and the CIA in 1977, which – by providing assurances that Agency operations would no longer cause nasty surprises to diplomats – was designed to improve relations between CIA station chiefs and the US ambassadors who gave them diplomatic cover, I came across a particularly interesting memo. This revealed that Arthur Hartman, a senior Department of State officer, had told the CIA that, in embassies where the ambassador was a political appointee, station chiefs should not brief this individual on operations, as provided in the State-CIA treaty – but instead the Deputy Chief of Mission, a Foreign Service Officer. Of course, FSOs dislike political appointees, so this opinion is hardly surprising. But there was no suggestion in this document that the CIA officer, Richard Lehman, dismissed it as simply special pleading. Indeed, in light of the Agency’s firmly rooted belief that great care has to be taken over what can be divulged to ambassadors in part because they are not trained to detect expert probing for information by hostile intelligence agencies, it is likely that it would have been even more nervous than the State Department’s professionals about briefing political appointees, who are invariably lacking even in diplomatic experience.
Assuming that nothing much has changed since the 1970s in the unavoidably difficult relationship between ambassadors and CIA station chiefs, it would be amazing should the latter not to be turning white at the thought of trusting sensitive information to many of the people Donald Trump is seeking to make chiefs of mission – and, should they refuse to divulge it, re-kindle the serious trouble between the Agency and Team Trump caused in the transition by the furore over the Russia dossier (see blog below). The rumour that ambassadorships were being offered to disbelieving talent scouts if they could deliver ‘great’ singers for the President-elect’s inauguration might have been fake news. So might the comical story that Sarah Palin is even now being seriously considered as Ambassador to Canada, as Canadians are fervently praying (if it’s true, Trump might as well follow the idea to its logical conclusion and just send a stuffed moose to Ottawa). But other dangerous candidates are only too serious. Among these is David Friedman – Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer, whose experience has evidently given him no understanding of bankrupt foreign policies – who is close to Senate confirmation as new US Ambassador to Israel.
Post scripts: (1) During his visit to the White House in mid-February, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was assured that Sarah Palin would not be the next US ambassador at Ottawa, according to the Globe and Mail. (2) Friedman was confirmed by the Senate as US Ambassador to Israel on 23 March 2017 on a vote of 52 to 46. There is plenty of press comment on this controversial appointment.
Radical changes of government have in the past often led to tension between the new regime and at least some of the state’s diplomatic servants at foreign posts, even on occasion resulting in two envoys claiming to be the legitimate representative, as in the case of appointees by the Crown and the Commonwealth at Constantinople during the English civil war in the mid-seventeenth century. However, the scale of what has been described as a ‘major bureaucratic uprising’ on the part of American diplomats against President Trump’s contemptible and typically impetuous executive order on refugees seems without precedent. It takes the form of a cogently argued memo demolishing the White House order and is being circulated for signature among Foreign Service Officers (FSOs); it has reportedly already received the support of almost 1,000 of them. It is to be sent to the top echelons of the State Department via the ‘dissent channel’. I gather from the press coverage that more than one version is circulating but at least one of them can be read here. No doubt the memo will fall on deaf ears, for there is no more unconquerable arrogance than the arrogance of the ignorant. Team Trump’s reaction – already foreshadowed by its so-called ‘press secretary’ – will no doubt be to conduct a McCarthyite witch-hunt to identify and fire the courageous diplomats concerned, even though formally any users of the dissent channel are protected against reprisals.
Postscript: On the predictably low level of morale in the State Department as of early March 2017, see this much cited article in The Atlantic by Julia Ioffe.
CIA documents already released have now been made accessible online via CREST (CIA Records Search Tool). I learned of this here and have just completed a fairly quick sift through the 247 documents produced by an Advanced Search using the term ‘diplomatic cover’ (inverted commas included, of course). The majority are ‘open source’ (press clippings, and so on) but there are also some interesting in-house papers (letters. memos, reports, etc), albeit inevitably redacted in places. As a result of what I have read, I am in the process of adding to the Updating Page for the chapter on Secret Intelligence in my textbook. I should add that I realised belatedly that a search using the term ‘official cover’ would be more productive, and indeed this turns up 659 documents, with a much greater preponderance of those generated by the CIA itself. (I have now, 6 Feb., sifted these as well.) A serious student of the interface between diplomacy and secret intelligence should certainly look at these as well. Have a look.
Published by BuzzFeed here, if this is fake news it was drafted by a master forger. On balance, I am inclined to think it authentic. It is said by doubters to have a few mistakes, but what documents don’t have them? Also, I disagree with the common press view that it should not have been published because it is ‘unverified and unverifiable’. On this argument, secret intelligence reports that turn up would never be seen by the public. Such documents obviously cannot cite their human sources for fear of jeopardizing careers and even lives. But those that come to light can be tested for veracity in some degree on the basis of their provenance* and internal evidence. On both of these counts, the Trump dossier cannot be dismissed lightly. The pity is that US-Russia relations should be improved and this will not help that cause.
*The author is the former SIS officer, Christopher David Steele, who had cover as Second Secretary (Chancery) in the British Embassy in Moscow from 1990 until 1993 and later as First Secretary (Financial) at the Paris embassy from 1998 until 2003, according to The Diplomatic Service List 2006. According to The New York Times, he then became SIS’s ‘top expert on Russia’ at its London headquarters at Vauxhall Cross, until retiring (early) in 2009 to become what an earlier era called an ‘intelligencer’, an intelligence-gatherer for hire, and one with a good reputation among his peers. In the latest edition of my textbook (see above), I have a new chapter, ‘Secret Intelligence’, that gives particular attention to the question of diplomatic cover for intelligence officers.
See also ‘UK’s former Moscow ambassador in spotlight over Trump dossier: Sir Andrew Wood says he rates judgment of report author Christopher Steele, who “would not make things up”’, Guardian, 13 January 2017
UPDATE: PARTIAL CORROBORATION REVEALED HERE BY CNN ON 10 February