The G-Men are all pundits now. Whereas George W. Bush’s former CIA director George Tenet has remained mostly silent except to write a book, and his successor Porter Goss is long forgotten, more recently tenured intelligence officials seem irremovable from the political conversation except by crowbar. Former CIA director John Brennan has appeared on the Sunday shows, his predecessor Michael Hayden is a regular TV presence, and retired NSA analyst John Schindler belches at Russian ghosts on Twitter.
Blame the proliferation of media, the high demand for intelligence expertise — whatever it is, the wall between the chatterati and the spooks has been demolished. It’s a phenomenon broadly identified by Mark Leibovich in his book “This Town“ as the “formers”: ex-officials who, as Leibovich puts it, “stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster.” And no former is so visible lately as James Clapper, Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, who has emerged as one of President Trump’s most vociferous critics.
There’s just one problem: Clapper can’t stop saying things that aren’t true. The latest in the genre comes from Larry O’Connor at Mediaite, who dug up video of Clapper on “Meet the Press” saying this of Donald Trump: “But I will say that, for the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against — the president elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign. I can’t speak for other Title Three authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity.”
Except, oops: Clapper was the DNI from August 2010 to the end of the Obama administration — which means he was on the job when former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was wiretapped, as CNN recently reported.
The surveillance against Manafort was a seismic reveal, if only for all the Nixonian questions it raised over whether a sitting president should order eavesdropping on his political opponents. Manafort was first tapped some time around 2014 after the FBI started probing his ties to Ukraine’s former Russia-cozy ruling party. The wiretap was then discontinued, but restarted again at an unknown date after investigators sought a FISA warrant, which the surveillance court rubber-stamped as usual. (It’s a felony to leak news of such a warrant, by the way, though so long as Trump gets embarrassed, no one seems to care anymore.)
But let’s set all that aside and focus on Clapper. Even if Manafort wasn’t with the Trump campaign when he was being surveilled — and given that he was on board from March through August 2016, it’s quite likely that he was — didn’t Clapper think this was germane information? Might it have occurred to him that it wasn’t a good idea to categorically deny “wiretap activity mounted against” the Trump campaign when a star Trump official was indeed wiretapped? All Clapper had to do on “Meet the Press” was say that he couldn’t answer, given the high level of secrecy the matter demanded. Instead, in the interest of painting Trump as a liar, he disseminated false, or at least highly dubious, information himself.
And don’t buy for a second that Clapper didn’t know about the wiretap. He was the DNI, the air traffic controller for the nation’s intelligence: of course he was told that a top Trump associate was being surveilled.
“No, sir,” “Not wittingly” — these were Clapper’s answers under oath to Senator Ron Wyden back in 2013 when asked whether the intelligence agencies collect information on Americans, later revealed to be a lie after Edward Snowden unveiled the government’s mass harvesting of metadata. Clapper later justified his perjury by claiming he “simply didn’t think” about the hoovered phone records, an explanation on par with the Weather Channel saying it doesn’t think much about hurricanes or John Updike alleging he doesn’t think much about sex. So we’re on tenterhooks now! Will Clapper claim the Manafort wiretap simply slipped his mind? How thoroughly can the public’s intelligence be insulted by one man?
A handful of lawmakers have called for Clapper to be prosecuted over his perjury. In lieu of that, how about the Sunday shows just stop inviting him on? There are hundreds of cable-news gladiators who can question Trump’s fitness for office without bringing Clapper’s heft of baggage. And maybe it’s time to accept a broader truth: former intelligence officials shouldn’t be pundits. Journalism, after all, is in theory supposed to be truthful, a luxury not always available to spooks in our classification-obsessed federal government.