The Big Breach: Donald Trump and the Return of Ideological Espionage

A controversial celebrity and major leaks of national security information have been on the American mind recently. No, I do not refer to Edward Snowden, but to Donald Trump. Not long ago, some people in media and national security circles worked themselves into a lather over the fact that Donald Trump will — assuming that tradition holds — soon be offered classified intelligence briefings as the nominee of the Republican party. Can he be trusted to keep a secret, particularly if it relates to a decision that he does not agree with? Of course, if Trump becomes president, he will start receiving the President’s Daily Brief, the holiest of holies in the U.S. intelligence community. Taken together, these briefings will comprise a great mass of secrets, but they will be delivered in a slow trickle and even if Trump were occasionally to blurt out sensitive information the net leakage will be small and probably not much greater than in other administrations.

Nevertheless, it is true that the election of Donald Trump would portend massive leaks of national security information.  There are two ways in which this may happen.

First, if Trump becomes president, he will face record levels of opposition from inside the government and this may lead to more than the usual number of leaks.  Though a great many leading GOP national security figures have put themselves out of consideration for positions in a Trump administration, others are doubtless privately wondering whether they can serve the country best by staying away or by joining the administration and trying from within to curb the President’s most extreme and erratic national security impulses.  They, as well as the civil servants, diplomats, and military personnel are likely to find themselves frequently in serious disagreement with Trump policy initiatives.  Of course, one of the most powerful tools that officials seeking to kill a policy initiative of which they do not approve use is a strategic leak to a reporter.  Taken to its extreme form, policy disagreements can lead to enormous leaks such as those of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Another danger, possibly bigger, however, is that some Americans with access to secrets will be so appalled by a Donald Trump presidency that they will turn to espionage and sell secrets to foreign powers.  Some people might argue that this is, in essence, what Snowden did.  However, there are key differences between Snowden’s actions and what a spy does.  True, Snowden has been indicted under the Espionage Act, but the Espionage Act really governs the misuse national defense information broadly construed, not just what we usually think of as clandestine espionage.  So, rather than a spy, Snowden, was a classic leaker different only in scale from Daniel Ellsberg.  A leaker seeks to stop the United States from pursuing particular policies.  Examples abound.  In the case of Snowden, it was mass surveillance by National Security Agency (NSA). For Ellsberg, it was the Vietnam War. Chelsea Manning was driven, it seems, by the Iraq and Afghan Wars. In pursuit of their goal, leakers expose their information to the world at large.  They want the world to take notice and rise up to stop the offending policy.

But sharing information with the world, as damaging as it can be—and Snowden’s leak was tremendously damaging—is usually not as strategically harmful as espionage, for the simple reason that the U.S. government knows that it happened.  In Snowden’s case, for instance, NSA has been able to figure out what capabilities, systems, and methods need to be reconstructed and to start to take corrective action, as expensive and time consuming as that has doubtless been.  It would have been much worse if Snowden had been a spy who had secretly betrayed secrets to foreign powers.  He probably would have been able to get out more material, as his unauthorized disclosures would not have been a one shot deal but would likely have continued over time. Beyond that, most leakers—Snowden is an exception—leak on relatively narrow issues, as Ellsberg did, for instance.  Spies are under no such constraints.  Finally, by concealing the fact that secrets had been betrayed, Snowden would have allowed foreign powers to leverage that information for deceptive and manipulative purposes.

No, an uptick in espionage is a much more dangerous potential result of a Trump presidency.  This may seem like an odd idea.  To the extent that they think about espionage at all, Americans like to believe that fellow Americans who spy for foreign powers are merely venal, psychologically inadequate, rampantly egotistical, or have a James Bond complex.  Perhaps they think of Aldrich Ames, a mediocre CIA officer who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for money, in part to pay for the lavish lifestyle that his wife demanded.  Perhaps instead, they think of the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, a brilliant and supremely egotistical officer with unusual sexual tastes but of no particular ideological bent who seemed to enjoy getting away with espionage to show that he was the smartest guy in the room.

In addition, there has been another important type of espionage undertaken by Americans, one that makes us uncomfortable to think about.  This is the espionage conducted by people of “divided loyalty.”  A 2008 study for the Defense Personnel Security Research Center defined “divided loyalty” as “holding and acting on an allegiance to a foreign country or cause in addition to or in preference to allegiance to the United States.” These are usually citizens who have real connections to the United States but who also have cultural or ethnic ties to another country.  The study found that divided loyalty espionage had “increased dramatically since 1990” with some 57% of cases exhibiting that characteristic which, it is important to note, is not incompatible with venality, psychological inadequacy, rampant egotism, or a James Bond complex.

Though it has scarcely been an issue since the end of the Cold War, America also has a rich tradition of ideological spying.  These are people who have spied because not out of a cultural or ethnic affinity but because they believed in the policy or moral superiority of a political system other than the American one.  During the Civil War any number of citizens of the Union spied for the Confederacy (and vice versa) on ideological grounds.  During the period of 1914 to early 1917, a few Americans spied or engaged in sabotage for Germany for ideological reasons (and some also through divided loyalties).  A few benighted Americans spied for Nazi Germany because of their fascist beliefs and literally hundreds of Americans spied for the Soviet Union from the 1930s to 1945 because they thought that Communism offered a brighter future for humanity, and a small trickle did the same for the next couple decades.  The numbers grew ever smaller over time until State Department officer Kendall Myers was recruited on an ideological basis to spy for Cuba in the late 1970s.  Since then, ideological spies have been rare, though not totally non-existent.

A Trump administration promises to take the United States off in such bizarre, morally offensive, and strategically dangerous directions that we could easily see a surge in divided loyalty espionage and the return of ideological spying.  The number of Americans with access to secrets is enormous, even despite recent efforts to reduce the number of people holding security clearances and the vast, vast majority of them would never sell secrets in a million years.  However, a single spy can do immense amounts of damage and if only a tiny number Americans—even three or four—decided that a Trump presidency showed the final bankruptcy of the American system or was a threat to world peace and that the only moral path open to them was spying, it could be an epidemic unprecedented for decades, possibly as far back as World War II.

What countries might benefit from such a secret bounty?  Few Americans are likely to spy for Russia, Iran or North Korea on ideological grounds.  Those regimes will remain very visibly ideologically bankrupt even by comparison with a Trump government.  Most likely, is that a few Americans might choose to sell secrets to friends and partners of the United States, prosperous democratic countries that have either served as strategic counterweights to the United States in the past or that might be harmed by Trump policies.  This might be particularly an issue if these Americans have personal ties to these countries.  Beneficiaries might include countries such as Japan, France, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, and others which have track records of spying on the United States..  They might also include countries such as Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states and the Nordic states that are at most immediate risk from Russia, whose President Putin is in a mutual admiration society with Trump.  If Trump makes good on his implied threats to abandon NATO, then the list of countries that might benefit from American spies could get even longer.  A worst case scenario is that some might see China as a welcoming port during the Trump storm and certainly China also relies heavily on “ethnic targeting,” focusing disproportionate recruitment efforts on Chinese-Americans who they think might be induced to have divided loyalties.

Leakers and spies always have reasons for what they do.  Usually they rationalize away their behavior as unimportant or somehow justify it to themselves as high-minded in some way.  A Trump Administration may herald a generation of leakers and spies who do it “more in sorrow than in anger.”


Mark Stout, Ph.D. is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC. He has previously worked for thirteen years as an intelligence analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and later with the CIA. He has also worked on the Army Staff in the Pentagon and at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Image: Gage Skidmore, CC