The flurry of new leaks and reports about Russia's role in the US election this week was kicked off by a bombshell piece in the Washington Post that cited anonymous government officials claiming the CIA was certain that the Russian government had interfered in the US election in order to help Trump win. Not so certain: the FBI, which, according to other anonymous government officials cited in the Washington Post, was not prepared to say decisively what the Russian government's intent might have been. On Friday afternoon the plot thickened when more anonymous officials with connections to the CIA claimed in the Washington Post that there was actually no dispute on the matter. The FBI declined to comment.
Whether or not the agencies are in disagreement on this occasion, it would hardly be the first such showdown in their long, and often rocky, history. Brooke talks to Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Tim Weiner, author of "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" and "Enemies: A History of the FBI," about how the organizations were almost designed to breed conflict.
Fellini's Waltz by Nino Rota
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. This week’s flood of Russian stories was kicked off by a Washington Post piece last weekend that cited unnamed government sources claiming the CIA was certain that Russia had worked not just to mess with our election but specifically to install Donald Trump. Most of the week we heard that, according to officials at a private House Intelligence Committee meeting, the FBI wasn't so convinced.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And there is a – frankly, a, a famous rivalry between the agencies and my understanding is that the CIA did not disclose all of its most sensitive sources.
MAN: Yeah, the FBI and the CIA disagreeing on this thing.
MAN: We’re falling right back to this pre-9/11 “you don't talk to me, I don't talk to you.”
WOMAN: That’s exactly right.
MAN: And the big losers are the American people.
CHUCK SCHUMER: The fact that the CIA and FBI disagree shows the need for a bipartisan investigation that gets to the bottom of this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Friday afternoon though, more anonymous sources connected to the CIA said, wait, the FBI actually does agree with the CIA. The FBI has yet to formally comment on the matter, but this back and forth reflects longstanding tensions between the country’s spies and G-men.
Tim Weiner is the author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA and Enemies: A History of the FBI. He’s also a former New York Times reporter who’s covered the CIA for many years, and he says the agencies are kind of wired for conflict.
TIM WEINER: They have different missions, they have different cultures and they can reach different conclusions looking at the same body of evidence. Here's why: The CIA is a global intelligence service that has no police powers in the United States under its charter. The FBI also serves as an intelligence service and law enforcement agency. They are looking for evidence of a crime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a higher standard.
TIM WEINER: A different standard. The CIA, among other things, delivers analytical judgments to the president of the United States, based on all available knowledge inside the intelligence community. In this case, both the British and the German intelligence services have also concluded that the Kremlin has a plot to disrupt Western democracies from the western edge of Russia to the West Coast of the United States.
The FBI has a legal standard, if it's going to bring a case to a federal grand jury, and that is evidence of violations of law of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talking about these two cultures and these two purposes, there's a saying that after an FBI agent and a CIA officer shake hands, each one quickly counts his fingers. You've noted that they've been at each other's throats for a very long time.
TIM WEINER: The history of conflict goes back to the days that the CIA was created, in 1947. J. Edgar Hoover, who was midway through his 48-year run heading the FBI, he wanted to be the guy who ran the American spy service. Harry Truman created the CIA. J. Edgar Hoover was furious. The Bureau didn't really come into its own as an intelligence service until Watergate. J. Edgar Hoover died six weeks before the Watergate break-in. The Watergate break-in happens, the phone rings at FBI Headquarters the next morning. It’s Sunday. It’s John Ehrlichman on the line. He’s the president’s right-hand man. And he talks to the agent in charge and says, you are to cease the investigation of the Watergate break-in immediately. The FBI agent in charge says, no, I already opened a criminal investigation. Those people had wiretapping equipment. That's a violation of the Federal Espionage statutes. And Ehrlichman says, do you know who you’re talking to? And the FBI agent says, yup. Ehrlichman says, so your career is doomed! Richard Nixon was doomed –
- because that was the beginning of obstruction of justice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
TIM WEINER: The number two guy in charge of the FBI, Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, served subpoenas on the White House, saying, give up the tapes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the FBI became a bona fide spy outfit at that point. Part of the tension though, you say, is that the FBI has the authority to investigate the CIA but not the other way around.
TIM WEINER: Let's go back 30 years to the Iran Contra imbroglio which ripped through the Reagan administration. The White House, the National Security Council and the CIA were selling weapons to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, skimming off the profits and giving them to the Contras, anti-Communist guerillas in Central America, in violation of orders from Congress. The FBI was serving subpoenas on the CIA. They were walking up and down the top-secret corridors and rummaging through super top-secret file cabinets and proceeding to gather evidence that led to the indictments of the chief of the clandestine service of the CIA. Conflict!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then Aldrich Ames, the KGB mole in the CIA, who operated undetected for years.
TIM WEINER: Here’s a drunk who has unexplained sources of income and is driving a Jaguar into the parking lot of the CIA. He’s sold out the names of every Soviet and Russian agent working for the CIA. They were taken down to the basement of headquarters of the KGB, tortured, executed. And these were our principle sources of information on what was going on in the Soviet Union in the closing years of the Cold War.
But the CIA didn't want to investigate itself. Who would, under those circumstances? So, once again, the FBI has to investigate the CIA and eventually slap the handcuffs on the CIA spy who's been working undetected for nine years. Conflict!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The inability of the CIA and the FBI to share information was one of the major findings of the 9/11 Commission. On the context of the disagreement over the analysis of the Russian motives to the hacks, does this mean that they still aren't sharing their evidence or methods?
TIM WEINER: No, I think, in fact, they are. However, there are limits to what an FBI criminal investigator can see on the intelligence side of the equation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because of clearances.
TIM WEINER: Because of clearances and because there are sets of evidence that you don't want to reveal in court because people could get killed if you put the names of your sources and the details of your methods of gathering intelligence into an indictment which has to be made public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many have observed that while the Russian government is suspected of trying to help Donald Trump win the US election, the US, through the CIA, has a long history of meddling in foreign elections. Is there a difference between our meddling and Russia's meddling?
TIM WEINER: There are different methods. When the CIA went out to swing an election, usually the most effective weapon was a suitcase full of money. That proved very effective when it swung the Italian election in 1948, to the creation of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan in 1955, which has pretty much run Japan ever since. And there was a second method. When we didn’t like a government, we overthrew it. We did it in Guatemala in 1954. We did it on November 1st, 1963 when we backed a coup against the leader of South Vietnam. And a couple of days later in the White House John Kennedy reflected on tape that the United States had much to answer for in this.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August in which we suggested the coup.
TIM WEINER: JFK was dead three weeks later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let's deal with this theory, that some precincts within the FBI have a partisan interest in seeing Donald Trump elected. FBI Director James Comey has already been excoriated for issuing a letter just days before the election, suggesting that more evidence may come to light in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server. That came to nothing. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid even demanded that Comey resign because he believed Comey didn't come forward about the Russian hacks before the election for the same reason. Does that match what you know about the FBI's methods?
TIM WEINER: No, nor Jim Comey's method. The Hillary hunters on Capitol Hill mouse trapped Jim Comey. Now, he made two mistakes, one in July. He said, there is no crime in Hillary Clinton's conduct and handling of classified information, but she was extremely careless. Carelessness is not a federal crime. Comey screwed up. He then opened the door for Congress to say, you must report to us anything even remotely related to this now- closed investigation. He compounded that mistake on October 28th, when he sent a very brief letter to the Hill, saying, there's this new cache of emails connected to Huma Abedin, who is Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman. We don't have a search warrant to open these yet, but they’re there. Was he duty bound to do that? I'm afraid he was. That letter was then leaked about 9 nanoseconds later by a member of Congress and then became, in Comey’s own words, “misinterpreted.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if the CIA is looking for intelligence information and the FBI is looking for actionable information, where is the FBI going to go with it?
TIM WEINER: There are going to be two chapters in this story unfolding in the next two months. The Obama administration has promised some kind of accounting of what it knows before midnight on the 20th of January. Chapter 2 is how this story unfolds after Donald Trump becomes the president, at noon on January 20th. He controls who runs the CIA. He can’t fire the head of the FBI, without cause.
Jim Comey is standing, all six foot eight of him, and we are in the ironic position of Jim Comey in the FBI standing between the president of the United States, on one side, and conceivably our civil liberties, our Constitution and democracy itself, on the other. In my opinion, we could do a lot worse than having Jim Comey interposing himself.
There is a word in Russian for creating compromising information against people, and that word is?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kompromat.
TIM WEINER: If I'm an FBI agent, I'm going to look at patterns of conduct by both Donald Trump and the Russian government. There is cause to look at his business and personal dealings in Russia and, for that matter, his appointment of the Secretary of State designate. We know that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. They weaponized the information they took from the Democratic National Committee and they have taken the information from the Republican National Committee and sheathed the weapon. If I'm Vladimir Putin, I'm thinking I can draw that weapon at a time and a place of my choosing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you suspect that there are actual indictments to come?
TIM WEINER: I don't know but I will tell you this: In the Watergate case a bunch of spies, who happened to be working for the president of the United States, broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee with eavesdropping equipment in their black bags. More than 40 years later, a bunch of spies, working for the head of Russia, broke into the Democratic National Committee with more sophisticated means of electronic eavesdropping.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have no doubt of that.
TIM WEINER: I have no doubt of that –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
TIM WEINER: And, nor, for that matter, does the FBI. Now, disrupting democracy is not a crime under the ambit of the Criminal Codes of the United States but, in my opinion, crimes were committed in furtherance of this conspiracy. We are looking at what may become the most politically-charged criminal investigation and intelligence case since Watergate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, stay tuned?
TIM WEINER: Definitely, stay tuned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim, thank you very much.
TIM WEINER: You are welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim Weiner is the author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA and Enemies: A History of the FBI.