On Saturday, in front of the Memorial Wall at the Central Intelligence Agency, President Donald Trump delivered a speech. It was heartening that Trump—along with his vice president and his chief of staff—visited the Agency on his first day in office. After a tumultuous period in which the president-elect had disparaged the Agency as the people who blundered into the Iraq War and compared its employees to Nazis, it was good and right that the president went to mend fences. And had the president delivered his speech off camera, inside “the bubble” at Agency headquarters, the whole thing would likely have gone over very well.
Instead, the president turned the Memorial Wall into a political prop and delivered a campaign speech. The speech was offensive in both style and substance.
It made me think back to my own introduction to the Agency. In the spring of 1999, when I was a junior in college, one of my professors asked to see me. I had hardly distinguished myself academically at the University of Pennsylvania up until that point, and in a class filled mostly with wealthy northerners—including the eldest son of the president—I was an outsider: from East Tennessee and paying my way through college via an Army ROTC scholarship. Nonetheless, I made friends easily and was popular with my professors—mainly because I always came to class eager to learn but didn’t seem to care about my grades (and had the grade point average to prove it).
My professor, who met me one Sunday after we both had left our respective church services, explained that he had an aunt living outside Washington, D.C., who would be interested in speaking to me. Telling me little more than that, he gave me a phone number, shook my hand, and wished me luck.
I somehow knew exactly what this was about, and that evening called my professor’s aunt. After a few conversations with her over the next several weeks, I went away for a summer of Army training and promised to call her when I returned.
That summer, part of which I spent at Fort Bragg doing an internship of sorts with the 82d Airborne Division, confirmed that I wanted to be an Army officer. In the fall, I called my professor’s aunt and politely informed her that I had decided to take a commission in the Army. The truth—and the reason I mention any of this—was that I was also intimidated: I wanted to serve my country, but at the age of 21, I couldn’t imagine choosing a career where I might face no end of hazards and not see my family for upwards of a year at a time.
Last year, while working at the Department of Defense, I went to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency for some meetings. On my way out, one of my Agency colleagues asked me if I had ever visited the Memorial Wall, which I had passed on the way in. I had not, and we walked over.
The Memorial Wall is one of the most haunting memorials I have ever seen in the U.S. federal government—more unsettling than any military cemetery I have visited, from Gettysburg to Normandy. Below the famous anonymous stars themselves sits a book that explains the year each star was added and, sometimes, offers the name of the Agency case officer or analyst killed. Some stars—even some stars going back decades, to the height of the Cold War—do not have a name that accompanies them.
It is sobering to realize that each of those stars on that wall represent hundreds of men and women who had the courage to do what I could not bring myself to do: leave their friends and family and sign up for one of the most lonely, demanding jobs in the U.S. government—all with the knowledge that if they were caught, they faced not only torture and a gruesome death but the prospect that their families might never learn how or why they died.
That’s why the Agency employees with whom I spoke over the weekend were appalled by the president’s speech—that he would cheapen the most sacred space at the Agency, that their leadership would allow it to happen, and that some of their co-workers would disgrace themselves and the Agency by raucously applauding lines from a stump speech.
It’s tough to place too much blame on the Agency’s leadership: Their position with the new president is tenuous, at best. The Agency needs some very important things from the president. It needs him to take his daily briefing, and to take seriously—and keep quiet about—the clandestine operations for which the Agency puts the lives of Americans at grave danger. There is little reason for optimism thus far that the president will deliver on either requirement.
But while it’s tough for anyone to say no to the boss—especially when placed at such a disadvantage up front—the Agency’s leadership is going to encounter a staff today that is livid with the way in which the speech was delivered. The fact the speech was given on a Saturday, when only those Agency employees most enthusiastic about the new president would come in off their weekends, will also be a point of dissatisfaction. For those who weren’t there or for the leaders sitting in the front row, some may feel they were made to look a fool, seeing their Agency turned into another campaign rally and hearing their professionalism questioned—yet again—by the media.
Quite apart from the Agency, though, all Americans should have been worried by the substance of what the president said. I have spent much of my adult life in the national-security institutions of this country and am inclined to consider them largely benign. But even I was unnerved by the president going before the world’s most powerful intelligence service and declaring war on the media.
Think about this, for one moment: The president stood before an organization that runs innumerable clandestine, deniable operations and called out, by name, a journalist who had displeased him before a laughing, clapping crowd. You do not have to be a member of the American Civil Liberties Union to be scared by that.
You also don’t have to be one of the several thousand Americans deployed to Iraq to understand how the line about taking Iraq’s oil will go down there. Trump’s rhetoric along these lines was a problem when he was a candidate. Now that he is the president, Iran’s militias and their media will have a field day, putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.
Thankfully, Agency employees showing up for work on Monday will not share the political sympathies of Saturday’s self-selecting partisans. There are both Republicans and Democrats among them, but the staff is largely nonpartisan. Most Agency employees will have been as offended by what took place on Saturday as any other Americans, and few if any would support a crazy attempt to siphon off Iraq’s oil.
But this past weekend’s episode offered an important lesson.
As Maya Angelou said, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. The president is exactly the man he was while running: petty, vindictive, and easily distracted by blows to his ego. Saturday afternoon’s surreal press conference—in which the president sent out his spokesperson to make demonstrably false claims about the size of the crowds at the inauguration—was consistent with the president’s remarks earlier in the day. Many Americans—and especially those on the right—convinced themselves that the man they were electing would be moderated by the office. That will not be the case. We have four years of this in front of the Republic.