There are many in the media who are working overtime this week trying to parse out the meaning behind changes President Trump has made regarding White House communications. Now some of the agencies he’s reigning in are lashing out. The New York Times has published an editorial from a former C.I.A. agent who is appalled by the president’s recent speech at C.I.A. headquarters.
A quick note. The C.I.A. has a memorial wall in the lobby of their headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The wall, like other memorials, has the names of agents who died serving their country. This was the backdrop for Trump’s recent speech.
Yaël Eisenstat, who authored this piece, is a political and security consultant. She worked as a C.I.A analyst, a special adviser on national security to Vice President Biden Jr. and a senior intelligence officer at the National Counterterrorism Center.
From The Times:
On Saturday, the president and commander in chief of the United States stood in front of the C.I.A. Memorial Wall — where 117 stars honor the men and women who died in the line of service — and cracked jokes, made thinly veiled threats and disrespected many Americans.
While many were stunned by President Trump’s remarks, it’s personal for me. My friend is represented by the 81st star on the Memorial Wall, which served as the background of Mr. Trump’s publicity stunt. He and the other 116 fallen colleagues did not put their lives on the line to serve as a sound bite for this president’s never-ending campaign stump speech.
Few things are sacred in our government. Even fewer command equal respect from people on both sides of the aisle.
The C.I.A. Memorial Wall is one of those things.
When the 81st star was carved into the wall in 2003, the fallen patriot’s name was not added to the accompanying Book of Honor. At the time, his C.I.A. affiliation was classified, as it remained for nearly six more years. I will never forget seeing his family at the ceremony, knowing they could not tell their loved ones the truth about his death. He died with nobody knowing who he was or what he did for our country. But I believe that is how he would have wanted it, because, as the former C.I.A. director Leon E. Panetta said when finally revealing my friend’s name in 2009, “He lived for a purpose greater than himself.”
Gregg Wenzel left his law career to serve his country after Sept. 11, 2001. He died at 33 years old, in Ethiopia, while working tirelessly in pursuit of information needed to help protect this country. I don’t know if he was a liberal or a conservative; I don’t know whom he voted for. I know only that he was dedicated, loyal, adventurous and a jokester. And he welcomed me as a sister when we met overseas, knowing nothing more than that I was a colleague and shared his sense of mission.
The C.I.A. is an agency made up of imperfect beings, just as in any government or private office. People join for different reasons — some in search of adventure, others out of a deep sense of service. A vast majority of career officers choose to serve regardless of who is in office as president, often suppressing their own political beliefs for the greater good of the nation. My career spanned three administrations, and although I had deeply held beliefs about each one, my work always transcended partisan politics.
Mistakes are made, internal debates occur, but mission always comes ahead of self. Republicans and Democrats serve side by side, with the singular goal of providing the best possible intelligence and analysis to allow policy makers to make informed decisions. I certainly had my disagreements and clashes in those halls, and eventually left the agency, but I always knew that political ideology had no place in our work.
In Mr. Trump’s rambling, 15-minute speech, he made only one reference to the memorial, saying, “The wall behind me is very, very special,” before pivoting to his familiar mode of narcissistic diatribe, peppered with the occasional misplaced joke.
He used my former agency to advance his own delusional vision of grandeur. When I see our president use a wall that symbolizes the ultimate sacrifice as a backdrop for his vanity, I cannot play down its seriousness. And when he borrows a line straight from a dictator’s playbook — “Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did” — I cannot remain silent.
There is a tradition of presidents speaking to the C.I.A. staff during difficult times, when morale is low or officers have concerns about administration policies. Past presidents have paid homage to the sacrifices of those who work behind a veil of secrecy without public accolades. When they visit, they speak with humility and appreciation, and they do not speak about themselves. They encourage, they inspire and they thank.
And they do not invite the press.
“There are few signs of patriotism more powerful than offering to serve out of the limelight,” President Obama said to C.I.A. staff members in 2009. “You serve courageously, but your courage is only known to a few. You accomplish remarkable things, but the credit you receive is the private knowledge that you’ve done something to secure this country.”
In my years of service, and since, I never imagined that it would be the president himself who would denigrate our very institutions and those who serve faithfully. Mr. Trump’s speech on Saturday was, for me, a terrifying display of the dangerous way in which he will govern. It also showed his complete disregard for the very people we rely on to keep us safe, including my friend Gregg Wenzel.