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“We should not — and cannot — trust this man." A CIA vet on Trump's feud with US spies.

“We’re facing the gravest threat to our institutions and our government since 1861."

Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing At The White House Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked during his afternoon press briefing yesterday if he could still confirm that “nobody on the Trump campaign, not even Gen. Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election.” His answer was, well, awkward: “I don’t have any — there’s nothing that would conclude me — that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.”

Thanks to a report by Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo for the New York Times, we now know that Spicer got it wrong. In the year before the election, several Trump “associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials.” As yet, there is no definitive evidence of collusion between the Russians and members of Trump’s team, but leaks from within the intelligence community show that there were sustained contacts.

Much of the news today will (rightly) focus on the political implications of this story. This interview is about the escalating tensions between President Trump and the American intelligence community. My interviewee is Glenn Carle, a 23-year veteran of the CIA and a former deputy officer on the National Intelligence Council. Here, I ask him if we’ve truly entered uncharted territory, and if he believes Trump’s ties to Russia have compromised our national security.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

The president of the United States just tweeted that “Information is being illegally given” to the New York Times and the Washington Post “by the intelligence community.” Are we witnessing a shadow war between President Trump and the intelligence community?

Glenn Carle

Well, I think the talk of a "shadow war" diverts from the real issue because it focuses attention on some coherent, organized bureaucratic or institutional campaign to oppose the president. But none of that's the case. The issue is that Trump and his entourage, for a long period of time, have been associating with, meeting with, involved with, or working somehow with Russian intelligence.

Now, I've been aware of this for about a year. I've been jumping up and down, and I'm not the only one. And if I can figure it out as a professional intelligence officer who's no longer in service, then obviously active intelligence officers can figure it out too.

Sean Illing

So how would you characterize this rift?

Glenn Carle

What's happened is that the organs of government sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States have been trying to do their jobs. Intelligence professionals take their responsibilities seriously. Whatever they do, they do it because they believe it is necessary, because they believe duty demands it. They’re not playing political games.

Sean Illing

Have we entered uncharted territory?

Glenn Carle

The narrow answer is yes, but it's much more than that. The real issue is what I've been saying [here and here] in public for many months: We are facing the gravest threat to our institutions and our government since 1861, since the country broke in half. This is a graver crisis than Watergate, which was about corruption, not the usurpation of our laws and our checks and balances. It's graver than World War II, when Hitler never actually threatened our institutions or occupation of Washington.

So this goes back to 1861. It's a huge societal and institutional crisis. We're dealing with a man in Trump who doesn't accept a fact-based reality, who only acts for his own self-aggrandizement, and who views any action that does not serve him as a threat that must be destroyed. And, on top of that, his team appears to have been colluding with Russian intelligence services.

This is a massive crisis for our norms and our Constitution, and we have to say so.

Sean Illing

Republicans like Rep. Devin Nunes, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, seem to be more concerned with the source of the leaks than with the revelations themselves. Perhaps there is a belief that these leaks are an act of retaliation by the intelligence community. How do you see it? Are intelligence officials pushing back out of a sense of obligation? Do they think he’s dangerous?

Glenn Carle

These sorts of accusations are outrageous and part of the problem. It's shocking to see such a betrayal of the oaths these people took to serve the nation. With only a handful of exceptions, nearly every Republican has marched in lockstep to protect their leader because it allows them to pursue their agenda — tax cuts for the rich, increasing voter restrictions on minority districts, the elimination of entitlement programs, etc.

So they have clearly put personal professional advantage ahead of their oaths.

Sean Illing

Now the talking point seems to be that we should be more concerned about the leaks than the actual revelations.

Glenn Carle

Again, that's totally outrageous. To say that the leaks are the real issue is like saying the guy who reported that he saw someone set fire to a building had dirty shoes. It's an egregious misdirection of attention.

Sean Illing

Do you think people in the intelligence community trust Donald Trump? Should they trust him?

Glenn Carle

No, of course not. We all should know this man very well at this point: If something seems to create an issue for him, he will denounce, denigrate, and attempt to destroy the person or the entity responsible for creating it. That's it. The law doesn't count for Donald Trump. Social convention doesn't count for Donald Trump. Institutional practices don't count for Donald Trump. Only Donald Trump counts for Donald Trump. Nothing else matters.

So no, we should not — and cannot — trust this man.

Sean Illing

There was a recent report by the Observer’s John Schindler that the CIA and the NSA are withholding information from the Oval Office out of fear that the Russians might have ears inside the White House Situation Room.

Do you buy that? If true, what does this mean?

Glenn Carle

I don't know for a fact that this is true, but I absolutely buy this as a possibility. I have publicly talked about the crisis that this circumstance poses to the national security establishment. What do you do if you think the officer in charge of you is the one who's betraying the oath and the obligations to protect the Constitution and the country?

If you resign, then someone else will take your place. If you report the information, it will be tabled or used against you rather than acted upon. If you go in-house, you risk having the information passed up the chain of command. So if I were put in this dilemma, I would do what I thought was necessary to protect the nation's secrets.

Sean Illing

So what’s left to do if you’re someone on the inside who understands the stakes and can see what is happening?

Glenn Carle

The only thing you can do is what is now happening: an aroused populace can protect democracy. You fight darkness by casting light upon it. So one should not characterize leaks, as the cowardly and self-interested Republicans have, as the issue. Leaks are the only option that one has in this existential crisis to protect the Constitution.