Former Obama spy chiefs upbraid Trump over his remarks about his intelligence community

Former CIA director John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill, on May 23, 2017.
Former CIA director John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill, on May 23, 2017.PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

ASPEN, COLORADO (WASHINGTON POST) - Two former senior Obama administration intelligence officials on Friday (July 21) expressed anger at President Donald Trump's statements disparaging the intelligence community and disbelief at his embrace of Russia.

In remarkably strong terms and in their first extensive remarks on the topic since leaving office on Jan 20, former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper let loose on Trump, who before taking office had compared his intelligence community to Nazi Germany.

"That was a terrible, insulting affront" to the rank-and-file - "completely inappropriate, over-the-top," said Clapper, at the Aspen Security Forum. He said he could not let that pass and called Trump to register his displeasure.

Brennan said "it's interesting" that Trump will point to US intelligence when it suits his foreign policy aims in North Korea, Syria or Iran.

"But when it's inconsistent with... preconceived notions as well as maybe preferences to what the truth would be" and the analysts' conclusions are disparaged, "that's when Jim Clapper's blood and my blood boils", he said.

A case in point is the intelligence community's assessment made public in January that President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to meddle in the 2016 election, sow discord, undermine the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and help Trump win.

The intelligence chiefs, including then-FBI Director James Comey, briefed Trump on Jan 6 at Trump Tower.

"What we did do is give him the benefit of the evidence," which they could not share with the public, Clapper said.

He added: "I thought it was pretty compelling."

That day Trump did not push back on it, Clapper said. But since then, Trump has expressed doubts that the intelligence showed Moscow's culpability.

"I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries," Trump said at a speech in Poland a day before he was to meet Putin earlier this month. "Nobody really knows for sure."

That contradiction of his own intelligence community, Clapper said, "put him at a great disadvantage in the runup to his meeting with President Putin".

The veteran spooks - whose years of service together total more than seven decades - were remarkably candid, with Clapper showing some gallows humor. "I was kind of hopeful that after (Trump) got rid of the two chief Nazis - John and me - then maybe things would have improved."

He added, "It's liberating to be a former" official.

Brennan said he was dismayed by the "photo op" of Trump leaning over and telling Putin "it's an honour to be with you". That, he said, "was not the honourable thing to say".

The Russian leader "assaulted one of the foundational pillars of our democracy - our electoral system... invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, has suppressed and repressed political opponents in Russia and has caused the death or killed many of them".

Said Brennan: "For someone who knows the art of the deal, I thought it was a very, very bad negotiating tactic."

Asked by the moderator, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, why Trump seemed so uncritical of Russia, Brennan said that he found "incongruous" Trump's position towards the Kremlin and "the negative things" he says about his intelligence agencies.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting an investigation into whether Trump or his associates coordinated with Moscow in the election meddling. The probe has upset Trump, who in May fired Comey, who was then running the probe.

Trump has accused Mueller's team of having conflicts of interest that undercut their credibility, and has not disavowed the possibility that he might fire Mueller.

If Trump attempts to fire Mueller, "I hope that our members of Congress are going to stand up and say 'enough is enough,'" Brennan said. He added that he thought it would be "the obligation of executive branch officials to refuse" to carry out such an order.

On Dec 29, the Obama administration imposed a set of sanctions on Russia over its election interference, including the seizure of two Russian compounds that the administration said were used in part for spying. The Trump administration reportedly is considering returning them.

"What have the Russians done to deserve getting them back?" Clapper said."I don't see any earthly reason to do that," Brennan added.

At the end of their panel, the men received a standing ovation.