Donald Trump has authorized Attorney General William Barr to sift through the classified documents of every U.S. intelligence agency looking for material he can use against anyone he perceives as an opponent. This action represents a weaponizing of the entire intelligence network, in essence turning all of the FBI, CIA, NSA and more into an opposition research organization.
Not only does this action threaten the integrity of our government, it also challenges the security of the services involved. In presenting unilateral authority for Barr to declassify material as he pleases, Trump places in danger both the processes and the assets of the agencies involved. From techniques, to technologies, to sources, to the most sacred item of any intelligence agency—the names and locations of agents in the field—there is no aspect of national security unchallenged by the action Trump has taken.
When Representative Devin Nunes attempts to persuade Trump to selectively declassify a much smaller set of material in order to support the pro-Trump report he was writing at the time, directors of every service involved appealed to Congress to prevent their release, warning against the dangers the action could create. But Republicans greased the path that Trump has now taken, voting repeatedly to allow the release of material that the agencies believed a hazard to existing and future operations.
One of the greatest impacts of that action has been a rapid decline in trust by agencies of allied nations. From the Nunes fiasco, to watching Trump hand over classified information to the Russian ambassador, to Jared Kushner’s multiple trips to Saudi Arabia to gift Mohammed bin Salman with a list of those people he most needed to murder, agencies around the world have been given reason after reason to restrict the flow of information from their agencies to the United States. With the action now taken by Trump to end the discretion of agencies in the name of revenge, that door will slam shut. This is the end of the “five-eyes” agreement. The end of open, active cooperation. The end of multi-national operations.
Trump’s actions have just endangered the services, they’ve endangered Americans. In a single executive order, he has done more to put the American at risk than every intelligence operation mounted by our enemies for decades.
Multiple authorities have pointed out that Trump cannot legally devolve the executive’s authority to declassify documents onto the attorney general. Says who? In normal times, a rank violation of security protocol might have been forward to … the attorney general. Trump’s weaponization of the intelligence services won’t be taken up as a cause by anyone inside the DOJ. It won’t be touched by any U.S. attorney. If any action is to be taken, it will have to be taken by the Congress, and with the Senate continuing to be compliant to Trump’s every move, that means that the best that can be done is a subpoena from the House. Which will move through the courts with all the speed and force demonstrated by current congressional subpoenas.
Barr is smirking already, thinking of the jokes he can tell the next time someone votes to hold him in contempt. Because he is in contempt. Or at least, he certainly has nothing but contempt for the entire democratic process and constitutional authority of congress.
And anyone who wants to move against Barr now will have to remember—he’s reading their emails. He has access to their background. Maybe they’ve done nothing wrong. nothing at all over their whole lives they wouldn’t like to see unrolled on Fox News day, after day, after day. Nothing that they wouldn’t mind being the focus of a fresh investigation. But … what about their son? What about their parents? What about … When Barr has the authority to selectively declassify any document from anywhere, who is going to line up to challenge him? Trump has handed Barr the political equivalent of nuclear weapons.
And, since Barr has already demonstrated that he can take just fractions of a sentence to weave any narrative he wants, only to have that narrative taken up by both Republicans in Congress and the splashed on the front page of the Times, it’s not as if he needs to find anything. He only needs to behave as though he has.
Don’t consider the way Barr’s three-page distortion of the Mueller report became the “truth” as a one-off. Consider it the trial run for the stories Barr is going to tell about James Comey. And Andrew McCabe. And Peter Strzok. And James Clapper. And John Brennan. And, of course, Hillary Clinton. It’s going to be a long list. They may even get around to you.
This is not a step toward authoritarian rule, it’s the definition. With this order, Donald Trump has converted the existing intelligence agencies into the Secret Police as certainly as if he ordered up Stasi signs for every building at Langley.