Spies on Flynn-Trump Coup Talk
'Horrifying...embarrassing.' It's 'white knuckle' time, says one former top CIA officer
Reports that disgraced former Army General Michael Flynn urged President Trump to declare martial law and “re-run” the election drew harsh reactions Saturday from intelligence veterans, who worry that foreign adversaries could use the chaos at the top of the government to “take advantage of us,” as one former top CIA spy put it.
Flynn reportedly urged Trump to mount what would essentially be a military coup in a “raucous” Oval Office meeting Friday night, where Flynn and the conspiracy-minded lawyer Sidney Powell accused others of “quitting” on the president’s campaign to overturn the election results.
“At one point in the meeting on Friday, Mr. Trump asked about that idea,” the New York Times reported.
“It was heated, people were really fighting it out in the Oval,” a source told CNN.
Veteran intelligence officers told SpyTalk they were appalled at the coup talk.
“Many former intelligence officers, myself included,” retired CIA presidential briefer David Priess told SpyTalk, “are shocked that the using-the-military-to-interfere-in-democratic-processes, things we used to collect on and analyze regarding other countries, are reportedly being discussed by the U.S. president about the US political process!”
Former CIA chief of staff Larry Pfeiffer called the coup talk “very disturbing.” He virtually cringed at the thought of foreign embassies in Washington filing reports on the possibility of martial law in the United States.
“This is the kind of behavior that gets intelligence officers at embassies writing cables home about impending coup plotting,” he told SpyTalk. “Usually those are Americans writing the cables. Not this time.”
Even before the coup talk, said former senior CIA operations officer Marc Polymeropoulos, foreign diplomats at embassy receptions in Washington were openly worrying about the president’s mental state. “The subject was, is the American president acting like Kurtz,” he told SpyTalk.
(Kurtz is the fictional mad colonel in the 1979 Vietnam War drama Apocalypse Now, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)
And now the CIA’s foreign counterparts are bringing it up in bilateral meetings with others around. “My friends overseas are embarrassed,” Polymeropoulos said. “We represent America.” It looks like “we’re crazy town.”
“The bottom line is Trump’s nuttiness is super embarrassing. There is not so much worry that this is real coup plotting, as we know the U.S. military is loyal, but ultimately a president acting like Kurtz is dangerous for America,” he added. “And our adversaries see this crystal clear.”
A member of Congress who said he had been talking with career intelligence agency employees said they are “horrified. But they believe Trump lacks the competency to carry out a coup.”
“We are so lucky they are idiots,” tweeted former senior CIA executive John Sipher.
But Polymeropoulos, who served as a CIA station chief battling terrorist insurgents and Russians alike during his 28-year career, worries that “our adversaries going to take advantage” of the apparent chaos at the top of the government. He calls it “white knuckle” time.
[Update: In an early Sunday morning Tweet, Trump called reports of his interest in a coup, “fake news. Just more knowingly bad reporting.”]
Last week reports surfaced that Russia had massively infiltrated and possibly compromised a wide range of U.S. government and corporate computer networks. It has been trying to foment coups in states of the former Soviet Union and backed neo-Nazi movements in Eastern Europe. China has been throwing its weight around in the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan. Iran has vowed retaliation for Israel’s assassination of the father of its nuclear program. North Korea keeps building nuclear weapons and missiles.
Amid all this, Trump, backed by many congressional Republicans, is still rallying his followers in a campaign to invalidate the presidential election.
But Flynn’s advocacy of a military coup will go nowhere, even if he and Trump actually call on some units to mutiny, intelligence veterans agree. He’s already shooting himself in the foot by refusing to sign the national defense budget, passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress, noted a member of Congress. “Not exactly the way to get military support,” he said on terms of anonymity in exchange for freely discussing national security issues.
“Certainly the fact that the President would even briefly consider using the military to overturn an election is appalling,” says former State Department and CIA officer and historian Mark Stout.
“But those of us who have worked for and alongside the military know that he is barking up the wrong tree. The U.S. military is not going to do this sort of thing for any President, ever.”