I rarely discuss hot potato topics, but this week it became painfully clear that the CIA I joined in 1985 is not the CIA of today.

the nonpartisan rule

I entered on duty the day after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. At that time, it was made crystal clear to me that the CIA was staunchly apolitical and any deviation from that standard was an ethics violation. As far as I knew, this expectation covered all employees and was non-negotiable.

My mother once asked what people were saying at work about an upcoming US presidential election. I replied that no one ever talked about domestic politics. The CIA mission is external to the US and that’s where our attention was. We talked about elections around the world—Russia, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, anywhere voting takes place. But never the US.

It didn’t matter. Our national security mission was unaffected by US politics.

first crack in the dike

I still remember the collective discomfort in 2008 when an officer came into a meeting with a big Hilary Clinton button pinned to her purse. How could this officer be so clueless? It didn’t matter who the officer supported. Overt displays of political support were persona non grata.

The lapse was especially concerning to me because I’d spent so much time in Mexico where the intel services legally sway with the wind. It’s normal for the country’s intel apparatus to be used to target domestic political figures and/or parties.

51 letter-signing rule breakers

So imagine my shock when on the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, 51 former senior intel officers, including some I knew and worked for, signed a public letter suggesting that a laptop reportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, son of the then-candidate for president Joe Biden, was a Russian operation to discredit the Bidens.

Couched in the careful language of an intel report, the letter noted that the laptop “has the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation” and that “We do not know if the emails . . . are genuine or not.”

According to the Politico story below, Former DCIA John Brennan’s aide carried the doubtful letter to the news outlet.

what happened next

Many of you probably know the rest of the story.

Politico used a clickbait headline that went viral: Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/19/hunter-biden-story-russian-disinfo-430276

The letter became the authoritative view, used to substantiate subsequent reporting of the laptop as a Russian hoax. The experts said so!

The fallout ranged from social media censorship to legal action.

Some time later, it came out that the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board assisted in recruiting at least one signatory. https://nypost.com/2023/05/09/cia-fast-tracked-letter-that-falsely-suggested-hunter-biden-laptop-was-russia-op/

In 2023, former acting director Mike Morell testified to the House Judiciary Committee that he wanted the letter approved by the board in time to be released before a presidential debate to give Biden a boost. https://www.newsweek.com/biden-team-sparked-effort-kill-hunter-laptop-story-ex-cia-boss-1795950

exhibit no. 16

Almost 4 years later, Hunter Biden is on trial in Delaware for falsifying information on an application to purchase a handgun. His much ballyhooed laptop is Exhibit No. 16.

FBI agent Erika Jensen testified under oath that “the laptop was obtained by the FBI in 2019 with a subpoena from The Mac Shop in Wilmington.”

From the dates, this was obviously known well before the letter was signed by the 51 former intel officers.

Did any of them know? Doesn’t say much for their intel skills if they didn’t and says everything about their intentions if they did.

Going further, Jensen testified that FBI “investigators corroborated content on the laptop with Hunter’s iCloud that they obtained from Apple with a subpoena.” https://nypost.com/2024/06/04/opinion/hunter-bidens-laptop-from-hell-serving-as-evidence-in-his-trial-is-pure-poetic-justice/

Verifying the laptop’s content as authored by owner Hunter Biden and not introduced into the machine by Russian spies, is egg on the face of all 51 signatories. But their letter did its job as intended. They have nothing to gain by refuting it now.

my take

Morrell and the other former intel officials who signed that letter crossed a longstanding ethics line. They had not examined the laptop nor had any way to assess its provenance.

What they did know was that their reputations would carry weight. They knew their words and the timing would aid a US presidential candidate facing fallout from the salacious content on his son’s computer.

They also knew they were still influential within the CIA and would embolden those who might use an Agency position for political purposes.

Sure, you can argue that they were “former” officials. But being a CIA officer, especially for those who rise to high position, is a lifetime commitment.

Such retirees are forever associated with the Agency. They often get contracts to do work for the CIA. They have security clearances because of their association with the CIA.

By publicly flouting the CIA’s ethical standards and in such a high profile way, the signers of the October 2020 letter opened a Pandora’s Box in the form of political partisanship and activism within the intelligence community.

That’s not the CIA I knew. I mourn its passing.

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