Merrick Garland Preaches to an Overseas Audience

Alexander Vindman thanks Attorney General Garland

When Merrick Garland gave his brief press statement yesterday about the search of Mar-a-Lago, he had various audiences in mind. One was Donald Trump and his defenders, calling their bluff by announcing that the DOJ was moving to unseal the search warrant and list of items seized. Another was his own DOJ employees, to let them know that he had their backs and would support them when the rightwing attacked them. But as I listened to him, I thought that perhaps the most critical audience were the leaders of nations all around the globe — and especially the heads of their intelligence services. When hours later the story broke that some of the documents the DOJ were seeking were nuclear related, I dropped the mental “perhaps”. To build on one of Marcy’s previous posts, let me add that this is a huge foreign policy story, which is largely missing from the current discussion in the media.

Think back to the beginning of the Trump administration. On May 15, 2017, a disturbing story hit the news:

President Donald Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russia’s foreign minister about a planned Islamic State operation, two U.S. officials said on Monday, plunging the White House into another controversy just months into Trump’s short tenure in office.

The intelligence . . . was supplied by a U.S. ally in the fight against the militant group, both officials with knowledge of the situation said.

H.R. McMaster categorically denied it, and as the story unfolded over time, McMaster was lying through his teeth. The unnamed ally was later revealed to be Israel, who had a mole inside an ISIS cell. And Trump blithely blew the cover of that Israeli asset by bragging to Lavrov.

Shortly after this meeting (at which Trump also bragged about just having fired James Comey), US intelligence officials made a bold move. From CNN:

In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN.

A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

This was the opening act of the Trump presidency. From the very beginning, intelligence officers worried about how Trump handled classified information. Our intelligence officers worried, and so did the intelligence officers of our allies, as they asked themselves some version of the question “Will Trump say something or do something that will get us killed?” In a completely different way, so did the intelligence officers of our adversaries. If Trump were to rashly reveal something he learned about the capabilities of our adversaries, it could have disastrous consequences for those countries and their leaders, as the reaction to the revelation could easily spiral out of control in unforeseeable ways.

And the damage was done.

A lot of the work of intelligence services is, if not cooperative, then transactional. “I have some information you would like,” says an ally to us, “and we’ll pass it along to you in exchange for something we need.” That favor might be us passing information back to them on another subject, or supporting some foreign policy objective. That favor might be immediate, or something later. Among the Five Eyes nations (US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) and the major NATO allies, that relationship was formalized into regular practice.

But now, with Trump’s first foray into intelligence matters, all these countries worried about passing things along that under previous administration they never would have hesitated to share. With good reason.

Fast forward four years, past all the bizarre meetings with Russia where notes were not taken, past the stunning press conference in Helsinki where Trump declared he trusted Putin’s word over the word of his own intelligence services, past all the coddling of authoritarians, past all the threats to withdraw from NATO, past all the insults to our allies around the world . . . Fast forward past all of that, and there came November 2020. On the Sunday after the election, when Biden was declared the president-elect and foreign leaders began to offer their congratulations, the New York Times discussed the deeper reactions of European leaders to Biden’s election:

David O’Sullivan, former European Union ambassador to the United States, said he looked forward to a renewal of American leadership — if not the hegemony of the past, then at least “America’s role as the convening nation” for multilateral initiatives and institutions.

But the world has changed, and so has the United States, where the Biden victory was relatively narrow and not an obvious repudiation of Mr. Trump’s policies. A fundamental trust has been broken, and many European diplomats and experts believe that U.S. foreign policy is no longer bipartisan, so is no longer reliable.

Biden, with his decades of experience with foreign policy, knew this was true, which meant that two of his most critical appointments would be his Secretary of State and his CIA Director. For State, he chose Anthony Blinken, who had served in the State Department under President Clinton and on the White House national security staff in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and for CIA he chose William Burns.

Burns was not a product of the intelligence community. He was a career State Department diplomat, but not just any diplomat. From 2001 to 2005, as the US reacted to the attacks on 9/11, Burns was the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs — that is, the Middle East. From 2005 until 2008, as Vladimir Putin tightened his hold of the office of President of Russia following the chaos of the Yeltsin era, Burns was the US Ambassador to Russia. From 2008 to 2011, Burns held the position of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs – the #4 position at State and the highest office reserved for a career foreign service officer. By the end of his 32 year tenure, he held the rank of Career Ambassador – the State Department’s equivalent to a four-star general.

Beyond running the CIA, the new director had to rebuild all those broken international relationships and restore that “fundamental trust” between the US and the world. That’s what made Burns such a great choice.

When the National Archives discovered classified information had not been turned over when Trump left office, they brought the news to the DOJ. I have this vision of Garland swallowing hard, and then arranging a meeting with Burns, DNI Victoria Nuland Avril Haines [corrected], and the other US intelligence agency heads to let them know what Trump had done. I can see the shock on their faces, followed by the “of course he did” sighs of resignation. Then the wheels start turning as each tries to figure out how this affects their agency.

But I also imagine Burns, either in the meeting or in a private conversation, telling Garland one thing: “I have no doubts about your department and your passion for justice. If there is anything I can do to assist, just let me know. I won’t press you to share things with me that you shouldn’t share — you do your job and I’ll do mine. But there’s one thing you need to know. You may already know it, but let me reinforce it. The. Whole. World. Is. Watching. Our allies are just beginning to trust us again, and how you handle this will determine whether that continues or is blown to bits. From a foreign policy perspective, especially on the intelligence side, we *have* to get this right.” That’s total fantasy on my part, but I’m reasonably confident that something like that was communicated, one way or another.

Two days ago, when the search was first revealed, Garry Kasparov tweeted, “For those who live where the law exists only to serve the powerful and oppress the rest–as I did in the USSR and Putin’s Russia–the dictum that no one is above the law is nearly awe-inspiring.”

The American legal community is watching this all unfold very carefully, with an eye toward all the minutia of the various legal questions at issue. The US political folks on every side are watching this carefully, with an eye toward the midterms and 2024. US media organizations are watching this carefully, trying to figure out how to cover the story. Ordinary Americans are watching this carefully, for all kinds of reasons.

And beyond our borders, the whole world is watching, as that Kasparov tweet indicates. It shows that Garland is reaching that worldwide audience, even before the word “nuclear” became part of the story.

In his long-ago testimony before Congress about that “perfect phone call,” Alexander Vindman captured in three words the essence of US foreign policy, and he repeated them as a hashtag in that tweet above. In the actions of the DOJ this past week, Garland is giving Vindman a big “Amen.”

Russia, if you’re listening, listen to Vindman. #HereRightMatters indeed.

I know we’ve got a fair chunk of readers outside the US, and I’d love to hear in the comments what you all are seeing in the coverage your countries.


32 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    The NYT notes this in a story today on Trump v the Intelligence Community:

    Mr. Trump’s behavior led to such mistrust within intelligence agencies that officials who gave him classified briefings occasionally erred on the side of withholding some sensitive details from him.

    It has long been common practice for the C.I.A. not to provide presidents with some of the most sensitive information, such as the names of the agency’s human sources. But Douglas London, who served as a top C.I.A. counterterrorism official during the Trump administration, said that officials were even more cautious about what information they provided Mr. Trump because some saw the president himself as a security risk.

    “We certainly took into account ‘what damage could he do if he blurts this out?’” said Mr. London, who wrote a book about his time in the agency called “The Recruiter.”

    • Justlp says:

      Thank you, Peterr. I didn’t know the background of the CIA director, but I agree that he sounds like a nearly perfect choice. I also had not thought too much about how this would play out on the world stage. Excellent piece!

  2. Rugger9 says:

    Some of this will become clearer when the warrant gets released and the likely-to-be-redacted document list along with it. Even with the redactions the boundaries will be seen by those who now how and where to look, i.e. the spooks.

    What might also be interesting in the rank speculation way is whether any Russian assets get rolled up. We can play ‘Cold War’ exchange too if that happens, and would help out all of our Americans held in Russia.

  3. Spank Flaps says:

    I’m in the UK. Over here 95% of the media turned pro right wing a few years ago.
    I loved BBC for 40 years but had to quit watching it altogether because it has got so bad.
    Earlier BBC News did a pro-Trump version on this story, conveniently failing to mention the nuclear part:
    Also our Tory government is a Kremlin linked Mickey Mouse setup, like the Trump administration.
    Recently Foreign Secretary Liz Truss nearly got us nuked:
    The press swiftly swept it under the carpet, and now she is going to be promoted to Prime Minister.
    Literally the only positive thing I can say about Boris Johnson’s premiership is that he didn’t get us nuked.
    I don’t have that much confidence in his successor.

    • Rayne says:

      I feel for the UK, and yet, like the US, the UK hasn’t figured out how to stop this Tory idiocy.

      What stupidity. The Thames is dried up but let’s not get carried away and copy EU or the the US which herds sheep in solar array fields.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Seems possible there’s a connection between this now reflexive Tory position and Russian and Saudi oil money that has inundated the City, the party coffers, and the London and home counties property markets,

      • gmoke says:

        Combining solar panels with crop land provides at least two crops and can be extremely productive. Here’s a piece I wrote about it a few years ago:

        Fraunhofer Institute has more detailed and recent information:

        Liz Truss is a throwback loon who appears to know little to nothing about the topic.

        PS: It ain’t just the Thames. It’s the Po River in Italy, it’s the Rhine in Germany, it’s the Loire in France, and it’s the Colorado in USAmerica. We are in for some hard times so better get ready.

        • Rayne says:

          Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak both are fucking fascist morons. I doubt they paid much attention to Garland, too busy trying to suck up to money and power in order to siphon off more money and power. Sunak admitted on camera what amounted to increasing income inequity during a stump speech.

          As the UK becomes more isolated and desperate, one can only imagine what kind of unethical and immoral choices its leaders will make to retain power — imagine what Johnson squirreled away, what he’s already passed on to Putin while partying with ‘ex-KGB’ Lebedev.

        • Geoguy says:

          This from today: “Europe’s Inland Navigation Grinds to a Halt. Shipping operations along the River Rhine are set to be halted completely this weekend as a sustained period of dry weather brought water levels at the key measuring point of Kalb to 47cm, within touching distance of the non-navigable threshold of 40cm.”

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Truss’s moronic statement, in which she laments the “loss” of farmland to ugly windmills and solar panels, is wrong and fascist. It ignores, for example, the increasing prominence of dual-use crop and energy production.

          Truss’s lament would appeal largely to the romantically lazy and ignorant (Boris Johnson), to Tory grandees with immense estates, and the usual suspects of fossil fuel lobbyists. It does scream where Truss intends to take her government, regardless of where the country wants or needs to go.

        • notjonathon says:

          Meanwhile, Korea and Japan are being inundated by storm after storm, with daily rain, flood and landslide warnings for various part of the nations.

    • gmoke says:

      BBC America has Ron Christie, a former W Bush administration figure, as a regular commentator. I do not recall ever seeing a BBC America Democratic commentator and couldn’t find one mentioned when I did a short search on their site the other day.

      • timbo says:

        That’s something the Biden administration should complain about to the UK government. One-siderism in all reporting on American policy is detrimental to American foreign policy if the BBC is pro-fascist.

    • bmaz says:

      Hi there. So, you are advocating the same type of selective bullshit in the FBI that you so poignantly decry?

      • Raven Eye says:

        Yes. Having served on a number of Flag and General Officer Staffs, the best boss is not the one you fear. Rather, it is the one you don’t want to disappoint.

        If there still is such a thing as “rogue FBI agents in the New York field office” I think that Garland laid out a path that wouldn’t disappoint him — or the nation.

    • timbo says:

      Agreed. There needs to be an accounting for some of the leaks during the 2016 campaign. If there was one, would we know? Certainly the possibility that there might be more leaks, particularly ginned up off-the-record leaks during our elections, coming from FBI officials, is something that is worrisome.

  4. John Paul Jones says:

    The Canadian press seems to be providing fairly dry factual summaries of US reporting, pulling together various sources – though they don’t seem to be including much that comes from the WSJ, and I’ve no idea why that might be the case, if it is indeed the case.

    I’m more intrigued by the reports that DOJ subpoenaed video surveillance footage. Just me speculating, but such footage can sometimes be used by investigators to confirm or disconfirm that a known person was at a certain site on a specific date, said person’s presence having been reported via other sources. Or maybe they just wanted to see if anybody had entered the dungeon room, though that would need an enormous investment of manpower to watch and check.

  5. Cosmo Le Cat says:

    News in past hour: report that the highest top-secret level of classified document was seized in MAL raid. If accurate, Trump is burnt toast.

    • Peterr says:

      From Charlie Savage at the NYT:

      The search warrant for Trump’s residence cited three criminal laws, all from Title 18 of the United States Code. Section 793, better known as the Espionage Act, which covers the unlawful retention of defense-related information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary; Section 1519, which covers destroying or concealing documents to obstruct government investigations or administrative proceedings; and Section 2071, which covers the unlawful removal of government records. Notably, none of those laws turn on whether information was deemed to be unclassified.

      That last line is a killer for all those claiming Trump declassified everything.

  6. Tom-1812 says:

    I usually watch the afternoon news on the local Global TV network station from Kingston, Ontario. Their first day’s coverage was disappointing as it gave too much airtime to Trump’s Truth Social statement and a clip of Eric Trump on Fox. Since then, however, they’ve done a better job of explaining the DoJ’s position and AG Garland’s briefing yesterday was helpful in that respect. The Global reporters refer to Garland refuting “unfounded attacks from the American right” and others “baselessly claiming the FBI planted evidence” during the search of Mar-a-Lago. They’ve also pointed out that Trump ignored a subpoena to return the documents earlier in the year and that the search warrant was necessary as the documents are “so sensitive to national security.”

  7. Ginevra diBenci says:

    Thank you, Ed Walker, for this perspective and especially for reminding us of that signal 2017 episode. Trump’s indiscretion with Lavrov reminded me at the time of how drunk and/or narcotized people act when they think they’re fooling everyone; knowing his abstemious habits, I had to wonder what supply he was high on–likely the power he felt from firing Comey. That disaster and its repercussions, which you describe so clearly, were the first thing I thought of when I learned about the FBI search Monday: what other damage could he threaten to do, or monetize in some way?

    I’ve never understood anyone in intelligence (certainly not counter-intelligence) standing by him after he put so many in mortal danger. I don’t understand the seeming blindness of those in USSS who remained blindly loyal to him after that either.

  8. Hoping4Better_Times says:

    Victorial Nuland is not DNI. Avril Haynes is the DNI.
    Nuland is an Undersecretary in the State Department for political affairs., a position formerly held by Burns.

  9. Badger Robert says:

    Thanks. While reading your post I thought about the US Civil War, and President Lincoln gradually giving up on having important meetings in the White House. He would go to the telegraph room, or go to City Point or Norfolk to meet directly with Grant. Mrs. Lincoln was a primary source of leaked information. In your post Trump is equivalent to Mary Lincoln.

  10. Ewan says:

    We have very pro-Trump far right actors here in France, who explain that the warrant to Mar-a-Lago was signed by the same person who defended some of Epstein employees “what are the chances” . Don’t ask me why the French conspiracy sphere cares about this, it is difficult to understand, but somehow they care.

    Clearly the secret file about Macron will lead to many speculations.

    Our main worry at the moment is water and Ukraine, so Joe Biden’s success is much more a long lasting news.

    Trump is like Harry and Meghan, in a way…

  11. Peterr says:

    Something tells me that the Sunday papers (and websites thereof) will be rather interesting this weekend, especially in France with the reference to Macron in the items seized from Mar-a-Lago.

  12. Eureka says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this, Peterr, weaving together all the reasons why that Garland press conference, with attendant co-actions, is an international warm fuzzy (feelings being things of contrast) as we embody domestic ideals and they reflect back upon us. As Garland spoke, I’d thought of a few things you mentioned (chiefly the Russian we had to extract from under the nose of *our president and his frenem-ally*; Vindman) but the totality is, frankly, awesome to contemplate.

    All things considered, the Biden admin is doing a great, soft-spoken job of repairing incomprehensible damage wrought by Trump, while contending with Trumpism at home amidst internationally-entrenched fascism. Leading this repair along the Western front may present the best chance of ameliorating things domestically — esp. if they can keep pulling some international plugs (of which Trump/ism is a part). Recent gains aside (on a normal day, the House passing the IRA today would be centered), it seems Biden admin faces more fierce opposition domestically than in many aspects of foreign relations. Seems to me this is an iteratively scale-shifting, home-abroad project to remake America in the midst of Putin’s variably-, locally-hot WWIII.

    By the very nature of the problems, they (admin) kind of have to take this all down (and put better back up) internationally as we the people do our parts.

    It’s difficult for me to articulate the sense I got from pre-candidate former VP Biden’s appearances at various security conferences over the Trump years, a feeling like he was meant to, going to, be the leader to set things right. I’ve never been a huge fan — so that’s not at all where this sense was found. But now I think back on the primaries, with many progressives lamenting the losses of our candidates and wonder if something like this is what Black women and youth saw in Biden then, too.

    After all this maybe we’ll secure voting rights and get back a non-shambolic post office, etc. (though I do wonder at this point if the PO has been semi-perm. traded off to the neolibs. Never give up, obviously: it stays on the Recapture List).

    **Toast to a nicely-framed piece of optimism, Peterr**

  13. C says:

    In the really big picture, US credibility has suffered three “strikes”, and for most astute foreign governments, is effectively “out”. This basically means countries must figure out how to work with China, while preparing for chaos. The first strike was GW Bush’s disastrous foray into the Mideast post 2001 NYC attack. This destabilized the entire region and led directly to the onslaught of refugees in Europe. The second strike was the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, courtesy of the mismanaged US financial system, which damaged every country in the world. The third strike was Trump. At this point, Biden can, at best, try and patch together a system that preserves some vestige of US hegemony. Prosecuting Trump, and shoring up NATO is necessary, but not sufficient, to retain some ability to influence world events, other than with bribery or military force.

    [Welcome to emptywheel. Please use a more differentiated username when you comment next. A single letter is insufficient to distinguish you from other users; there have also been other commenters who attempted to use “C” in the past. Thanks. /~Rayne]

Comments are closed.