The impeachment fight also is sure to deepen America’s partisan polarization – a special gift to Russia and other actors that peddle disinformation to tear at social fabrics and influence elections.
“Whether impeachment succeeds or fails, you’re going to be left with major political divides in this country that are ripe for U.S. adversaries to try to exploit,” said Eric Brewer, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
POLITICO spoke with eight former intelligence officials and experts to assess the dangers. Some were more sanguine than others, but all shared a few general areas of concern:
Trump’s shadow foreign policies
Trump has long disdained or ignored the formal national security policy process, which is designed to keep U.S. officials in sync and guard against illegal actions. That process involves a series of meetings in which representatives of relevant government agencies, including legal advisers, can weigh in on the pros and cons of a policy before it reaches the president.
Still, even the most cynical Trump critics have been rattled by the impeachment inquiry’s revelations about the extent to which he used his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to shape Ukraine policy. Among other things, Giuliani sought to pressure the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, in exchange for access to Trump.
Giuliani has denied wrongdoing, but foreign spy agencies could now seek to see if there are other such “shadow foreign policies” in the works under Trump – and try to warp them toward their own ends.
Given past reports of how Trump’s aides also have ignored the traditional policy process, the possibilities could be plenty. His son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is reported to have communicated with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince using WhatsApp and is known to have met with Mexican leaders without informing the U.S. secretary of state.
Plus, U.S. adversaries’ mere knowledge of a secret, irregular channel could give them leverage over Trump or his administration, even if they never publicize what they know. That’s especially the case if they get the president, or one of his associates, on tape requesting something questionable, former officials said.
This sort of thing is not entirely without precedent.
In 2014, a leaked recording of a talk about Ukraine between two U.S. diplomats made global waves, in part because one diplomat, Victoria Nuland, said “fuck” the European Union. The U.S. didn’t deny the recording’s authenticity. It accused Russia of being behind the leak, which bruised America’s image in Brussels.
The evolution of technology adds to the risk factor.
For instance, at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is a private July 25 conversation in which Trump asked Ukraine’ president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, one of his top potential rivals in the 2020 election. What’s to stop another country from faking a recording of Trump asking another leader for a similar favor, then leaking it to a reporter?
“It’s the asymmetry of information that can be detrimental,” said Ned Price, a former CIA officer and Obama administration spokesman who has been fiercely critical of Trump. “It’s things that actually happen, but also things they can create.”
Potential recruitment targets
When U.S. intelligence officers try to recruit foreign assets, they often seek out the disgruntled in another government’s official ranks. Now, some former intelligence officials are wondering if that approach is more likely to work when used against America.
That’s because the impeachment proceedings have exposed to a startling degree the discontent in the U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and other governmental wings.
The unhappiness has been there from the start of the Trump era; hundreds of State Department officials, for example, objected vociferously to the early version of the administration’s travel ban on people from several majority-Muslim countries. Trump and his top aides didn’t help their case when they vilified career staffers – some of whom have served in government for decades – as disloyal “Obama holdovers.” But by many accounts morale inside the administration has plummeted amid the Ukraine scandal.
Trump’s questionable decision to recall Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, has angered many inside the State Department. And his rants against the whistleblower whose complaint prompted the impeachment inquiry has further upset an intelligence community he’s often insulted. Trump aides often liken the federal bureaucracy to a “deep state” – a term once reserved for authoritarian regimes where a permanent, unelected class of officials secretly steers the government.
The former intelligence officials stressed that the odds remain very low that a U.S. official – even one furious at the system – will turn and become an agent of a foreign power. It’s not like Russia or China offer a better model. And U.S. officials who deal with national security are typically trained to detect and deter efforts to recruit them.
Besides, diplomats and other U.S. officials, already a patriotic bunch, may decide it is more important than ever now to protect the institutions they serve. But ultimately the odds are better now for a foreign agency seeking recruits.
“We’re not used to the U.S. government being this incompetent and corrupt, and that’s an issue,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer with expertise in Russia who frequently criticizes Trump.
The Ukraine debacle has also revealed that there are numerous non-government actors close to Trump – or close to people close to Trump – who can now be targeted by foreign spies for surveillance, direct pressure or recruitment.
Giuliani, for instance, has business associates around the world. Two of them who served as links to Ukraine, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, were arrested last month on campaign finance charges.
Parnas is said to have provided translation services for lawyers representing indicted Ukrainian businessman Dmytro Firtash. U.S. officials have linked Firtash to the Kremlin and Russian organized crime.
Butt-dials and breaches
Giuliani’s cell phone is sure to be a hot commodity on the intelligence market right about now.
In fact, one of the most striking revelations from the impeachment investigation has been how sloppy some Trump aides and associates are in their use of personal technology.
Diplomats and other officials are using WhatsApp or regular texts to discuss highly sensitive issues; even when they are encrypted, there’s no guarantee such channels can withstand savvy foreign hackers.
Giuliani recently butt-dialed an NBC News reporter, accidentally leaving a message describing his need for cash to an unknown third party. The same journalist reported that in 2017, shortly after he was named Trump’s cyber security adviser, Giuliani went to an Apple store to get help in unlocking his iPhone. He’d forgotten his passcode.
The impeachment inquiry, and outside reporting, have confirmed two key things: that Trump at times says controversial things while talking to foreign leaders, and that aides placed some of his more questionable conversations with foreign leaders on a special, highly classified server.
Foreign agents have likely started or redoubled efforts to get access to transcripts of Trump’s other calls, which could prove embarrassing to release. As part of that effort, if they weren’t already trying, hostile spies will likely aim to break into that server – or whatever storage system the White House uses now.
America the divisible
On a broader level, Trump’s treatment of Ukraine, and the impeachment process it has birthed, could deepen political polarization in America while damaging the reputation of the U.S. overseas. That, the former officials say, could make the country as a whole more vulnerable to outside mischief.
Besides, several pointed out, even before he faced impeachment proceedings, Trump’s capricious approach to the rest of the planet was doing damage.
The allegation that he withheld military aid to Ukraine because it hadn’t agreed to investigate Biden has undermined the idea that the U.S. won’t backtrack on its commitments. His recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, essentially abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in the area, gave Russia an opening to expand its influence in the region.
“In terms of our prestige – we’re not considered a serious country any more. Certainly, we can’t be counted on as allies,” said Ted Kontek, a former intelligence analyst based at the State Department.
A bitter impeachment process that further pits Trump’s Republican supporters against his Democratic opponents could be a blessing for countries such as Iran and Russia, which have waged disinformation campaigns against the United States.
Those disinformation efforts were likely to be in full force during the 2020 elections. Add impeachment to the mix, and now there’s more anger in the body politic to exacerbate, former officials said. Because many Americans state their views on social media, it’s even easier for foreign agencies to target them.
“Intelligence services look at that as fertile terrain to exploit someone’s political views,” said Christopher Costa, a former U.S. intelligence and National Security Council official under Trump who now serves as the executive director of the International Spy Museum.
What could this look like? An army of fake Twitter accounts spreading messages opposing impeachment, or supporting it, to influence Americans — including those who’d pick up their phone and call a lawmaker. Engineered pop-up protests around the country of unwitting Americans on either side of the debate.
Or a more obvious tactic: Russian President Vladimir Putin saying something ambiguous, but mildly favorable, in public about Trump as he fights to stay in office. That could confuse Democrats, test Republican unity and ultimately add to the chaos Putin loves to see in America.
Robert Eatinger, a former top lawyer for the CIA, went even further. “I would not be surprised to see the Russians passing messages to the president through trusted channels offering to help him fight the impeachment inquiry by gathering derogatory information against the politicians driving the inquiry and the witnesses against him,” he said.
In the past, some Kremlin representatives have been befuddled by the U.S. impeachment process, noted Calder Walton, an intelligence historian.
He pointed to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Union’s ambassador to the United States during the Richard Nixon era, who wrote in his memoir, “In Confidence,” that the Soviets couldn’t quite understand how a “minor affair” like Watergate could topple Nixon.
“His use of the CIA, the FBI, and the considerable powers of his own office to remain in the White House was considered in the Soviet Union at the time as a fairly natural thing for the chief of state to do. Who cared if it was a breach of the Constitution?” wrote Dobrynin, who died in 2010. “So our inclination was to think that Watergate was some kind of intrigue organized by his political enemies to overthrow him.”