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Spy Agency Shakeups, and More, on the Way
Biden intends a thorough fumigation of Trump's national security contraption
Imagine, if you will, President-elect Joe Biden dispatching John Brennan, Andrew McCabe and Alexander Vindman to the White House to run his national security transition team.
A fever dream, to be sure, but it’s one Biden and his aides would be forgiven, considering how Donald Trump demonized those three—a former head of the CIA, a deputy director of the FBI, and a White House National Security Council aide who blew the whistle on Trump’s Ukraine extortion effort. Throw in James Comey, Robert Mueller, Dan Coats and H.R. McMaster for the transition team, and Biden could send a veritable platoon of ghosts of Christmas past to haunt Trump and begin restoring some sense of normality to the U.S. national security apparatus.
Biden, a creature of continuity and tranquil by nature, isn’t likely to opt for such crowd-pleasing fanfare, no matter how tempted. The President-elect’s demeanor has been appropriately solemn and assuring throughout the vote-counting process. But he’s certain to assemble a familiar cast of Obama-Biden administration veterans to take back control of the intelligence, homeland security and counterterrorism agencies, not to mention a Pentagon where Trump installed yes-men (no women) to carry out his political whims and revenge fantasies.
One exception: Don’t be surprised if he keeps Christopher Wray at the FBI, not only because the former Justice Department prosecutor resisted Trump’s importunings to call Russiagate a “witch hunt” or arrest former Obama administration officials who he claimed “spied” on him: Biden is likely to follow the post-Watergate law and honor the remaining seven years of Wray’s 10-year year term. Keeping Wray, a Repubican, also helps bolster Biden’s claim that he intends to heal partisan wounds and represent “all Americans.”
The CIA is another story. If Gina Haspel hasn’t typed out her resignation letter already, she should consider doing it soon while the getting’s good. The first woman to head the spy agency, Haspel’s nomination to succeed Mike Pompeo at CIA won the plaudits of many agency stakeholders, like former director Michael Hayden, who hoped she would tame the president’s worst instincts and protect it from manipulation. But it wasn’t long before they soured on her, when she failed to stand up publicly against Trump’s continuing attacks on the intelligence agencies and word leaked that she was tailoring her briefings on Russia to avoid the president’s wrath.
The presumed front runner for her replacement: Michael Morell, the former CIA deputy director and acting director (twice) during the Obama administration. Unlike Brennan, who has led a crusade against Trump on social media, TV and in a memoir, Morell has largely kept his powder dry, quietly serving on the boards of bipartisan think tanks and consulting firms and hosting a noncontroversial CBS radio podcast, “Intelligence Matters.” Such would serve his nomination well in a Senate controlled by the obstructionist extraordinaire Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).
Although the CIA remains the tip of the spear of the nation’s espionage and counterterrorism efforts, it hasn’t been in charge of U.S. intelligence since shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, when Congress created the Office of National Intelligence. Biden has several good choices to replace DNI John Ratcliife, the completely inexperienced Republican political hack brought in to blunt reports of continuing Russian interference in U.S. elections. The leading candidate to succeed him has to be the highly respected Sue Gordon, a nearly 40-year CIA veteran and the ODNI’s former number two, whom Trump forced out to prevent her statutory ascension to the top job after Dan Coats resigned under pressure because of his different assessments of Russia, Iran and North Korea .
Since Biden owes a lot to women for his election, look for him also to consider Avril Haines, already a member of his senior transition team, and who served as an Obama administration deputy national security adviser, to come back in a top NSC job. But she’ll likely be reporting to either Antony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser and a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, or Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president as well as director of policy planning at State under Hillary Clinton.
Blinken could also end up as secretary of state, close observers say. Speaking of which, Susan Rice, another former Obama administration national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations, whom Biden vetted as a possible running mate, has also long been touted as a future top diplomat in a Democratic administration—and just as long dismissed because of her troubling missteps during the 2012 Benghazi debacle. She may well have to settle for something like heading the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which does not require Senate confirmation. Biden may also relish the thought of appointing Rice, renowned as a vicious bureaucratic infighter with a cutting tongue, as ambassador to Russia to match wits with Vladimir Putin. There also seems to be a movement afoot to send Fiona Hill, the acerbic former White House Russia expert who offered blunt testimony on Trump’s Ukraine machinations, to Moscow. The same goes for Victoria Nuland, the blunt spoken former top State Department European hand and Russia hawk.
“Insiders in Eastern Europe would be delighted, no, thrilled by the possibility of Victoria Nuland” as ambassador to Russia, one fan tells SpyTalk.
Another former ambassador, Wendy Sherman, who was also undersecretary of state during the Obama administration, and emerged as a sharp Trump critic, also has to be considered for a senior diplomatic slot under Biden, if not the top job.
Another no-nonsense woman has long been rumored as the leading candidate to run the Pentagon. Michéle Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said she turned down an offer to be deputy secretary of defense under James Mattis in 2017 because her conscience wouldn’t have it, according to a contemporary account in Politico. An undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, Flournoy was a top contender to run the Pentagon had Hillary Clinton been elected. Her sharp criticism of China as a repeated source of virus pandemics, and her advocacy of more U.S. drones for Saudi Arabia to combat Iran, would certainly be welcome in a Senate controlled by Republicans. But appointments like hers annoy the hell out of anti-establishment critics, especially on the left. What Trump and his crowd call the Washington “swamp,” many foreign policy locals call—and not without affection—’”the blob”
“Michele Flournoy,” said one leftwing critic, “may be the epitome of the Return of the Blob.” He called her a ”quintessential, imperial functionary of ...MICIMATT (the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank complex).”
But the desire in non-Trump Washington for a return to something akin to normalcy is palpable and widespread. After the constant chaos of the past four years, in particular Trump’s coddling of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, his attacks on America’s traditional allies, and his abrogation of hard-won deals like the Paris Climate Accord and Iranian nuclear agreement, “the Blob” wants back in.
Meanwhile, look to see at least some of the Trump administration dissidents to be returned to grace. People like Alexander Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, also an NSC aide fired by Trump, even though he played no role in the Ukraine revelations, deserve some kind of restitution.
So, too, Brian Murphy, the former Homeland Security intelligence official who stepped up to tell how he was demoted for refusing to alter reports in line with White House talking points. Russell Travers, fired after he reported intelligence lapses to his inspector general, also might be lured back out of his forced retirement to resume his job as acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center.
There are plenty of other upstanding candidates for Biden to choose from. In September, nearly 500 former national security officials endorsed the Democrat over Trump.
And then there’s the national security health professionals, like Rick Bright, forced out of his job heading the HHS agency responsible for preparing the U.S. for a pandemic or a bioterrorism attack. And Olivia Troye, the White House COVID task force adviser who refused to write a report for Vice President Pence saying the pandemic was “over.” Anthony Fauci would no doubt welcome a job in an administration that values science.
“No more cronies,” Ronald Marks, a former senior CIA official, pleaded in an email to friends on Saturday. Marks, a former agency liaison to Congress, raised a fervent “wish” to see “no more” national security officials in the front row at a State of the Union address applauding a president’s speech, as Gina Haspel did.
“I’m not naive enough to think politics dies with this”—the departure of Trump, Marks wrote. “But at least it tones it down some.” And in Washington, most people would settle for that, at least for now.