Sep 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Ex-CIA officials with Trump ties assembled "purge list"

Illustration of a list of names cut into pieces.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Even before President Trump took office, an effort was underway to sniff out elements within the intelligence community perceived as disloyal, in yet another example of the deep tensions between the administration and its own intelligence agencies.

Driving the news: In 2017, former CIA officials close to the then-incoming Trump administration assembled a "purge list" of agency personnel they deemed ideologically unaligned with the administration or incompetent, two former agency officials told Axios.

Between the lines: "This was about cleaning house at CIA," said a former senior agency official familiar with the list. While some of the impetus for the list was "score settling," the person said, it was also "the deep state thing": ridding the CIA of "bad guys."

  • Deeply concerned, this official reported the activities of his former colleagues multiple times to his CIA superiors.
  • "This was not a passing thing," the person said. "They were serious about it."
  • At the time, “the Trump administration was paranoid,” recalls another former CIA official. “They thought everyone was going to work against them.”

Details: The list, which began being assembled during the presidential transition, was initially passed from Trump-aligned former agency officials to Steve Bannon, said the former senior CIA official.

  • Some of the personnel targeted for firing worked on Middle East or counterterrorism-oriented operations, said the former senior official. The targeted CIA officials are still working undercover, this person says.
  • The list's generators did possess high-level access within Langley: One such Trump-aligned former agency official was granted at least one in-person meeting with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, said the former senior CIA official.

Yes, but: In the end, the list’s authors failed to have the disfavored CIA personnel fired. "The irony is that they never did the purge," recalls the former senior official. "They just reorganized DNI. All the bluster has come to nothing."

Of note: At the time, word about the "purge list" was greeted within the agency more with incredulousness and bemusement than fear, said the former officials.

  • This was partly because of the Trump administration’s plans around the same time to have Stephen Feinberg, a private equity billionaire, undertake an outside review of the U.S. intelligence community.
  • That was considered a more significant and potentially far-reaching move, said the second former CIA official. (In 2018, Feinberg was named chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.)

The big picture: Even when unsuccessful, Trump administration efforts to purge people viewed as insufficiently loyal to the president can damage morale and send career officials with institutional expertise looking for an exit. That’s a particular concern in matters of national security.

Meanwhile: The Open Technology Fund, a federally funded nonprofit that supports tech tools for dissidents living under authoritarian regimes abroad, is fighting its own battle over an apparent attempt to either purge its existing leadership or neuter it in favor of a Trump-loyalist alternative organization.

  • OTF is now calling for an inspector general investigation into the agency that funds it.
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