Why you should care
Because we live in explosive times.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.
Former CIA director John Brennan’s testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about Russia’s possible influence on last year’s U.S. election is keeping the home fires of controversy burning while President Donald Trump enjoys his first international diplomatic tour. But as this week’s tragedy in Manchester reminds us, these are serious times in need of serious leaders. How will America move forward? We sat down with OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin to discuss the latest twists and turns.
What impact do you think Brennan’s testimony will have on the collusion investigation and the future effectiveness of Trump’s White House?
John McLaughlin: I think Brennan’s testimony establishes some important points without being conclusive. He was careful to say he could not, based on what he had seen, establish collusion between Russians and any Americans. But he was quite clear in saying he had seen information that showed contacts of some uncertain nature between Russians and people associated with the campaign. His point was that by the time he left government, there were unresolved questions in his mind, and he felt that this should be followed up. So a senior intelligence official has testified that some kind of contact occurred between Trump campaign–related people and Russians, although of an undetermined nature.
What did you find most intriguing about Brennan’s testimony?
In many ways the most important thing he said was that people going down a treasonous path may not realize it until it’s too late. What he’s referring to is something unsurprising to anyone who’s followed Russian espionage: When they seek to recruit an individual, the recruiter — who may or may not identify himself/herself as a Russian — seeks to establish a relationship with the person and gradually get them to commit small compromising acts that may seem quite innocent at the time but can later be put in a context that looks illicit. What Brennan’s saying is that some of these people in touch with Russians may not have even realized at first that they were in touch with Russians, nor that the relationship was moving in a direction that could ultimately look compromising.
Would it be hard to prove whether there’s a Russian agent within the White House?
Espionage is always hard to prove, particularly in a counterintelligence case. That is, where you are trying to establish culpability and move to prosecution. In my experience, you have to actually catch somebody in the act of passing information or committing an act that is illegal or have hard evidence that that has occurred. It’s not enough to just have had a conversation with a Russian intelligence officer, particularly when no one knows the content of the conversation, and the parties involved may not have known it was a Russian intelligence officer. There’s a very high bar for proving espionage.
You’ve spoken before about the terror risk in Europe. In light of this week’s bombing in Manchester by a native Mancunian, what types of terrorism risks does the Continent face?
Unfortunately, Europe is subject to twin dangers. In most of the countries, they have a large indigenous population that is disaffected because they’ve not been fully integrated into society. This is particularly true in Britain, and part of it flows historically from the dissolution of the empire. Many of its subjects migrated to the U.K., but for whatever reason remained in ethnic enclaves without fully integrating into society. This doesn’t mean that there are not vast numbers of loyal British citizens of foreign descent, including Pakistanis. But it does mean there are some portions of that population who are disaffected.
At the same time, most of the foreign recruits to ISIS have come from Europe. Currently in the U.K., I’ve read reports that they are monitoring about 400 individuals who have returned from the war zone and another 600 who have tried to go. That tends to overwhelm intelligence services in a small country and, therefore, the danger of one of those people being radicalized and slipping through is great. So they have that twin problem to a much greater degree than the United States. The other thing that strikes me about this bombing is that this individual had traveled to Libya and Syria, which increases the possibility that he had some external encouragement and training.
Has anything about Trump’s first big international trip surprised you thus far?
The interesting part to me was his visit to Israel. I think he tried to improve at least the atmospherics for some sort of peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. But I emphasize atmospherics because those two parties are about as far apart as they’ve ever been on concrete issues, to the point where surveys show that Palestinians have lost some of their enthusiasm for what’s called the two-state solution, in which they would gain an independent state in the West Bank. And that solution enjoys diminished support also within Israel. So any progress in that direction is going to have to start with basic confidence-building measures — getting the two sides to agree to baby steps that can be verified in order to establish enough trust to make larger steps.
What other global hot spots concern you? Have there been any positive developments?
Obviously, things are continuing to churn in Syria. The battle goes on in Yemen, and we got news this morning that American special operators carried out a successful attack on AQAP — the powerful Yemeni affiliate of al-Qaida. Meanwhile, we need to be aware that in South Korea, the leader of the new government taking hold is on record as saying he’d like to re-engage the North Korean regime in talks. And Venezuela, in our own hemisphere, continues its downward slide into what appears to be chaos.
But in Iran, Rouhani’s re-election is an affirmation that a strong majority of Iranians welcome re-engagement with the external world, as symbolized by the nuclear agreement reached by the U.S., Iran and other powers. Rouhani is still outweighed by other elements of Iran, such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps, that possess more hard power than he does as president. But he can have substantial influence on domestic policy and gradually nudge foreign policy in a direction for more responsible engagement with the world.
How serious is it to have a White House mired in controversy?
I’m sure White House staff are appreciating this trip because it takes them out of the domestic maelstrom and puts them among people who are — by requirements of protocol — being welcoming, polite and noncritical. When they return to Washington, they’ll step right back into a storm, largely of their own making. And my concern is that a White House in crisis has trouble dealing calmly, deliberately and effectively with crisis situations. Fortunately they have a strong and capable national security adviser in H.R. McMaster and a strong national security team, which to some extent can insulate them. But inevitably when the president himself is involved in controversy and distracted, it drains energy and focus from the process.