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An ex-CIA officer explains why intelligence officials “absolutely can't trust” Trump

“Not one agency in the United States government would grant Trump a security clearance — ever. He's too much of a risk.”

MAY 10, 2017: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and President Donald Trump of the United States meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House.
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Last month, President Donald Trump shared classified intelligence about ISIS with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in the Oval Office.

For Glenn Carle, a 23-year veteran of the CIA and former deputy officer on the National Intelligence Council, this report fits into a concerning pattern he’s witnessed in the president.

“It's not surprising that he has no idea how to distinguish what information should or should not be shared,” Carle told me.

As a result, intelligence officers face a dilemma. They have a duty to serve the president, and yet: “They can’t trust him. They absolutely can’t trust him.”

Against the backdrop of Attorney General Sessions testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, I ask Carle if the president of the United States has become a serious national security risk, and if the people charged with protecting the country are now obliged to withhold information from him.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Sean Illing

You’ve been fairly outspoken about Trump since he launched his presidential campaign, particularly his tense relationship with the intelligence community. What was your reaction to this story?

Glenn Carle

I'm not surprised; I truly am not. I’ve been public for well over a year with my concerns about Trump's association with Russian Intelligence. It's very obvious to anybody who watches public events with any remote degree of objectivity or insightfulness that Trump is utterly and absolutely incompetent as a leader, as a public official, as a man of judgment. Frankly, he's a willful ignoramus.

So it's not surprising that he has no idea how to distinguish what information should or should not be shared, and how to handle it, and how to conduct professional business. Even more nefarious, to my mind, is that he appears to have treasonous associations with the Russians.

Sean Illing

Is that to say you consider sharing this information with Lavrov an act of treason?

Glenn Carle

This specific episode of sharing classified information in the Oval Office is not necessarily treason, though it is very likely a crime. There is a clear line between a crime and treason. Sharing classified information, as he appears to have done in the Oval Office, certainly is illegal in my view. If it was willful, then it is treasonous.

[Author’s note: According to the Washington Post report, as president, Trump has the authority to declassify government secrets at will, in which case he likely didn’t technically break the law.]

Sean Illing

But you’re saying that if we zoom back and look at Trump’s general orientation to Russia and the numerous connections between Russia and his campaign, the case for something close to treason is pretty compelling?

Glenn Carle

It’s hard to prove treason, but Trump’s behavior for years, in multiple ways, has absolutely compromised him. And I have said so for over a year, and I say this carefully, not one agency in the United States government would grant Trump a security clearance — ever. He's too much of a risk. The evidence, from multiple sources, multiple kinds of information over a long period of time, that he has compromised relations with Russian intelligence is overwhelming.

Sean Illing

I want to be clear on this point: If that is true, then the president of the United States is himself a grave national security threat.

Glenn Carle

That's absolutely true. But you understate the calamity of the situation, because again — and I'm not the only one, but I have been out front on this — I think it's worse than simply a compromising situation. There is overwhelming evidence that Donald Trump has multiple ties and multiple associations with Russian intelligence and Russian leadership. And even if he is not conscious of these connections, he is still compromised.

I’m aware of many more allegations concerning even deeper and more direct ties to Russian intelligence, but these reports have not been substantiated. But there are ongoing investigations, and I suspect we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.

Sean Illing

This is an extraordinary situation. Every morning, the CIA rides over to the White House to give the president his daily security briefing, but how can they trust him at this point with sensitive information?

Glenn Carle

They can’t trust him. They absolutely can’t trust him. I wrote extensively about this existential dilemma in my book about the torture issue, but this is far graver for the nation.

If you’re an intelligence officer and you fulfill your oath to serve the executive, you betray it. And if you don’t fulfill your oath to serve the president, then you betray it as an American intelligence officer. So what do you do? And that explains why there have been many leaks, because it is an impossible situation. And if you're only passing information up [the] chain of command, it will be suppressed or distorted or not used because a lot of it discredits or raises questions about the chief executive.

So the patriotic choice is that somehow you have to shed light on the darkness; otherwise the darkness prevails.

Sean Illing

Let’s circle back to this particular story before I let you go. Based on the reporting we now have, it appears Trump didn’t reveal sources and methods but he did divulge raw intelligence. Still, that information can be reverse-engineered back to the original source, right? And if so, does that not compromise both the source’s life and this stream of intelligence?

Glenn Carle

Absolutely. With respect to Syria or ISIS, our policies are not those of Russia, our objectives are not those of Russia. The Russians have dropped a couple firecrackers onto ISIS, but they haven't done anything significant against ISIS. Their actions have been to support the Assad regime. That is not the same objective we have. Indeed, it's fundamentally at odds with us, and with our aims.

So now they have information on highly sensitive, potentially lethal operations where American blood, lives, and treasure are involved. You never want a hostile party to know such things — or any party, for that matter — unless you decide they need to know. But the Russians certainly did not need to know this, given our divergent objectives.

Sean Illing

Is this likely to get someone killed?

Glenn Carle

It might get someone killed; it might not. I believe the information is about an ISIS plot or an operation that we’re conducting against ISIS. So now we know roughly the time, the place, the individuals involved, and their objectives. So perhaps we conduct an operation to prevent this attack from occurring. We might deploy special forces or our air forces or intelligence officers to that place at that time to neutralize the threat. But now they will be less anonymous in preparation than they otherwise would have been, and that can certainly endanger their lives.

Sean Illing

And that, in brief, is what Trump compromised when he passed this intelligence along to the Russians.

Glenn Carle

Absolutely. It’s a disqualifying act. People who do things like this in the CIA, at low levels, where everything is fraught with possible life-and-death consequences, are brought home immediately.

Sean Illing

Given everything you’ve just said, do you think intelligence officers are morally or constitutionally obliged to undermine this president, or at the very least withhold information from him?

Glenn Carle

I believe they are. That sounds like I’m calling for an insurrection — I’m not quite doing that. But I believe this man is disqualified to serve and endangers the republic. And that any patriotic civil servant should take steps immediately, and should have taken steps long ago, to remove the man from office immediately. He's not just a public danger; he's an existential danger to the fabric of our republic. And I've said for a long time, and I mean this literally, that he presents the greatest crisis to American institutions and democracy since 1861, since the Civil War.

Sean Illing

Where does that leave us?

Glenn Carle

What is going on in the White House now, with respect to our institutions, to the separation of powers, to the functioning of the intelligence community, to foreign policy, to relations with Russia — all of it is tearing our society apart. And even if Trump dropped dead tomorrow, the lasting consequences of this will be with us for the remainder of our lifetimes.

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