Augury was an ancient religious practice used by the Romans, probably introduced to them by the Etruscans, that sought to determine the omens from the flight patterns of birds. The augur would watch the birds and “take the auspices” to determine whether the omen was favorable or not. The practice had died out by the end of the Roman Empire, but it seems to be making a comeback in our current media. When the media and not a few politicians—egged on by ex-intelligence and FBI officials such as John Brennan, James Comey, Jim Clapper, Andy McCabe, and other former government officials—spun the collusion narrative or, at a minimum, insinuated the probability of collusion, they thought they had taken a favorable auspice. But the problem is that you may not read the signs right. Turned out the omens were not so favorable.
John Brennan, former director of the CIA who had a long and distinguished career at the agency, has been one of the fiercest critics of President Donald Trump and adamant that the president was going to be indicted for “collusion” or conspiracy with the Russians against the United States government. Only a few weeks ago, Brennan appeared on MSNBC to declare the Trump would indeed be charged on multiple accounts of conspiracy against the American government. Of course, Robert Mueller determined otherwise.
Brennan at one point called Trump’s behavior treasonous and clear examples of “high crimes and misdemeanors” as laid out as grounds for impeachment in the Constitution.
To Brennan’s credit, he went on Morning Joe to face the music that he had indeed been wrong. He said he was happy that Mueller had concluded that Donald Trump was not an agent of the Russian state. When Joe Scarborough, seeking to exculpate himself, asked Brennan if he too had received “bad information like so many of us,” Brennan was refreshingly candid: “Well, I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was. I am relieved that it’s been determined there was not a criminal conspiracy with the Russian government over our election.” Brennan apparently thought the auspices were favorable. Hard to blame him for not being able to read the signs accurately.
Robert Mueller’s conclusion was not that Trump did not commit acts that rose to the level of criminality, which many of the revisionists who are back peddling now are claiming. What he said, very specifically, was that there was no collusion between Trump and the Russian government. But that does not stop our experts, many of them from our intelligence and national security agencies, from offering more endless speculation about potential undiscovered ties between Trump and Russia.
Having the former head of the CIA leading the collusion narrative on the basis of suspecting “there was more there than there actually was” is breathtaking. Here is the former head of the world’s most formidable intelligence gathering service telling us he “suspected” there was information about collusion that he did not have. Media pundits prattling on about various theories is one thing, but when the former head of the CIA goes on television numerous times denouncing the American president as basically a Russian mole who has passed the bar of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” then something has gone seriously wrong.
I have criticized Trump on many occasions and, as all presidents, he deserves to be criticized. But to have former heads of our most important and sensitive agencies spinning conspiracy theories as if they were facts can only do harm to our government and our trust in our intelligence services. Trust in our government is eroding. Does John Brennan understand the damage he is doing each time he makes some ill-advised claim about Trump being a Russian mole under the imprimatur of the CIA? It matters little that he is no longer part of the agency. He is accorded authority because of his experience in this vital and important agency, and he does great damage to it through his recklessness.
Military officers are very reluctant to engage in this sort of hyperbolic rhetoric because they covet the confidence and trust that the public places in their institution. Brennan should consider how an already cynical American public will view the CIA when its former director completely misleads the public on an issue as important as whether or not our president is in cahoots with a foreign government. For an agency still trying to rebuild trust after George Tenet’s “slam dunk” case on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, one would think that he would be a bit more circumspect about his public pronouncements.
It also does not help that James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under the previous administration, also fed the conspiracy bonfire. And then there is former FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who have done their own fair share of speculation about Trump’s guilt, even though Clapper’s, Comey’s, and McCabe’s roles in FISA warrant applications and the early investigation linger under a cloud of suspicion.
Many pundits, politicians, and public servants floated the idea that the only explanation for Donald Trump’s behavior toward Vladimir Putin is that Vlad has a pee tape or some other damaging information on Trump. In a column published in USA Today, Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and outspoken Trump critic, advanced this thesis. Nichols argues that Trump’s weird behavior at the Helsinki summit and throughout his presidency toward Putin is reason enough to assume he is guilty. Nichols wrote, “It seems at this point beyond argument that the president personally fears Russian President Vladimir Putin for reasons that can only suggest the existence of compromising information.” In the absence of hard evidence let’s just assume guilt of some sort.
But not all of our intelligence officials acted with Brennan and co.’s overconfidence. Mike Morrell, the former acting director of the CIA, surely someone we can agree is an expert, argued consistently that there was no evidence at all of Trump’s guilt. When asked recently about the Mueller investigation and the possibility of Trump’s collusion with Russia, he responded, “What I’ve said all along, and I’ll continue to say it because it’s true, is I still have not seen a single piece of evidence that the Trump campaign provided assistance to the Russians in the Russian interference in the election or the Russians providing assistance to the Trump campaign in some way.” Morrell concluded, “So I simply haven’t seen any evidence yet that takes you to a conspiracy between the two.”
The damage has been done, however. Tom Nichols has made a name for himself defending expertise and its importance. In this case, the experts were their own worst enemies.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of John Brennan on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on March 25, 2019.