When the history of Donald Trump’s war with the US intelligence community is written, the name of the conflict’s first casualty is unlikely to be recorded, as the former marine officer is still a serving CIA official.
That marine officer was the CIA’s liaison to the White House, whose duties included bringing relevant White House officials with appropriate security clearance into the loop about covert operations.
According to current and former White House and intelligence officials, he lost a bureaucratic struggle with his nominal boss, the National Security Council’s controversial intelligence director.
Multiple former colleagues described the former CIA liaison as a consummate professional with no history of infractions. But late one afternoon in mid-March, the retired marine was abruptly informed that his services were no longer needed and he ought not to come to work the next day. Co-workers were shocked at a display that seemed designed to humiliate him.
“It was the most disrespectful thing they could have done,” said a White House official familiar with the incident. “He’s a good man. What happened to him was fucked up.”
Over a month later, the CIA has not sent a replacement liaison to the White House, though there are other agency officials on loan there. The ex-liaison has not been accused of any crime or abuse and has returned to the CIA.
The liaison’s removal, first reported by the Washington Post, followed a clash with Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the 30-year-old intelligence director on the NSC staff, to whom he reported.
Cohen-Watnick was a junior case officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he caught the eye of Michael Flynn, the ex-DIA director and first national security adviser to Trump. When Flynn came to the White House, Cohen-Watnick was among the Flynn deputies whom career national security staff came to view as a clique – derisively known in intelligence circles as the “Flynnstones”. For their part, the so-called Flynnstones viewed the career staff as Obama loyalists, and excluded many of them from national security decision-making.
When Flynn’s downfall came, owing to the way he misled Vice-President Mike Pence over contacts with the Russian ambassador, his ultimate replacement the current national security adviser, HR McMaster, sought to oust Cohen-Watnick. The CIA, which Trump had for months disparaged, distrusted Flynn and was uncomfortable with Cohen-Watnick remaining as an intermediary between Langley and the White House.
But McMaster lost out to Cohen-Watnick, who persuaded strategist Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to protect him. A Newsweek profile reported that Cohen-Watnick’s parents have ties to Kushner, an added asset for Flynn.
“They hate him. They absolutely despise him,” a former senior intelligence official said of the CIA’s view of Cohen-Watnick.
Cohen-Watnick’s moment of prominence came in late March, when he was exposed as a channel for information used by the House intelligence committee chairman, Devin Nunes, another Flynn ally, to distract from an investigation into Russia’s connections with Trump affiliates. A key figure in that investigation is Flynn, who received tens of thousands of dollars for a speech in Moscow from RT, a news channel the CIA considers an adjunct of official Russian propaganda.
Reportedly, Cohen-Watnick provided Nunes with documents purporting to show improper surveillance on Trump’s allies, an allegation Nunes made while obscuring that the narrative, politically convenient for the White House, emerged from the White House itself. Nunes later reluctantly recused himself when the revelation of White House involvement sparked a political outcry. Subsequently, both Democrats and Republicans who viewed the documents considered them anodyne, a far cry from Nunes and Trump’s portrayals.
Some sources considered the removal of the CIA liaison to be an act of retaliation for the attempt to get Cohen-Watnick off the NSC. The episode occurred in mid-March, before Nunes made his allegations.
Other sources pointed to attempts by the former CIA liaison to stop Cohen-Watnick from taking actions which a White House official declined to describe substantively but characterized as appearing to “operationalize” the NSC.
In US national security circles, that term evokes the idea of using the NSC to perform secret or sensitive operations as a backchannel around both Congress, which does not review the NSC, and agencies such as the CIA which would be likely to object. The issue arose during the Iran-contra scandal, when marine lieutenant colonel Oliver North, an NSC official in Ronald Reagan’s White House, sold Iran weapons to fund anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua against Congress’s express orders.
The former senior intelligence official said Cohen-Watnick had committed “serious protocol violations”. Among them were appearing to take responsibilities for certain covert programs away from the CIA and communicating with lower-level intelligence officials outside of established channels that ensure intelligence chiefs and deputies are aware of White House requests and concerns.
Intentionally or not, sources said, Cohen-Watnick created a perception of the White House bypassing intelligence chiefs – right as Trump was tweeting his disapproval of US intelligence, which he considered to be on a politicized witch-hunt to tie him to the Kremlin.
“On a procedural level, it would be odd for a senior director to reach down into the bowels of intelligence agencies. There’s a chain of command to go through,” said a different former senior intelligence official.
The removal of the CIA liaison had immediate consequences, sources said. Among the liaison’s tasks were providing visibility for NSC officials into classified programs. That process stalled in the first weeks after the liaison returned to the CIA, but has since been sorted out.
In recent weeks, as McMaster has accrued power at the expense of both the Flynn loyalists supporters and Bannon, the White House war with the intelligence agencies has waned. Last week Mike Pompeo made his first speech as CIA director, and insisted to his Washington think tank audience that the agency and the president had turned a corner in their relationship.
But it may be an unsteady equilibrium, particularly as the inquiries into Russia progress. Cohen-Watnick remains in his job.
Two weeks after his forced dismissal, several colleagues threw a going-away party for the retired marine officer at the Army-Navy Club on Farragut Square, a few blocks from the White House. At least a dozen NSC staffers attended to fete the now-ex CIA liaison.