By Alexander Naumov
At the National Press Club on October 30, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security held the first event in a new series focused on the 2020 election. “2020 Vision: Intelligence and the U.S. Presidential Election,” featured former CIA director John Brennan, former FBI deputy and acting director Andrew McCabe, former deputy and acting Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin, and former CIA deputy and acting director Michael Morell—the latter a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government and Hayden Center fellow. To kick off the night, former CIA and NSA director and the Center’s founder Michael Hayden thanked the audience of around 500 for coming in his first public comments since suffering a stroke last November.
Margaret Brennan of CBS News moderated the discussion, starting with election security. John Brennan reminded the audience that Russia’s impact on the 2016 election was unknowable, with Morell warning that the “the Russians in general have not been deterred” from continuing, or even escalating, their interference.
The Face the Nation host, who joked about being no relation to the former CIA director on the panel, asked about Hillary Clinton’s recent allegations that Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard is being “groomed” to be a Russian asset. The other Brennan offered in response that someone can be a Russian asset even if he or she “is not intentionally advancing Russian interests.”
The panel was unanimous in voicing concern about the current gap between the White House and the intelligence community on preventing election interference. McCabe called for a “more consistent and cohesive approach” for securing elections at large, with McLaughlin supporting a paper ballot backup system as “the only safeguard.”
On the issue of distrust between the Trump administration and the intelligence community more generally, Brennan placed blame squarely on the former, “because the IC tells the truth and cannot be manipulated like clay in [Trump’s] hands.” With regard to the Justice Department’s investigation into the origins of the investigation to potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, McCabe said that “there is nothing wrong with, especially a new attorney general,” asking questions about how it began and reached its conclusions. Morell cautioned though that to have the Department of Justice review CIA analysis is “highly inappropriate” due to lack of expertise on intelligence matters and predicted a “chilling effect” if analysts have to think twice about overseas issues with possible domestic repercussions.
One moment that drew both applause, and a great deal of attention following the event, was McLaughlin’s quip “thank God for the deep state,” jokingly referencing the conspiracy theory that the CIA is out to destroy President Trump due to the impeachment inquiry triggered by an agency whistleblower reporting suspected wrongdoing in the executive branch. McLaughlin added that the so-called deep state is America’s “civil service,” and that we will see a “renaissance of dedication” when today’s period of scandal is over.
Morell also targeted two myths: low morale in the IC and that it is undermining the president. He argued that the “beautiful” intelligence job in finding and killing ISIS leader al-Baghdadi negates both. Why, he contended, would the IC give Trump this “gift” if the intelligence community is implacably opposed to the president.
The panelists ended with recommendations for going into 2020 and beyond. John Brennan told candidates that “winning at all costs is not winning.” Morell praised CyberDome, a pro bono cybersecurity service for “any campaign that wants it.”
McCabe, who is under Justice Department investigation, told future intelligence professionals to not “let these guys discourage you… Despite what me and my family have been through, I would do it all again.”
A full video of the event is available here.
Alexander Naumov is an undergraduate student at Schar School of Policy and Government majoring in international politics and Russian and Eurasian studies.