The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at headquarters in Langley, Va.
THE BIG IDEA: The spooks have come in from the cold, and they’re running for Congress.
Alarmed by President Trump and galvanized by Russian interference in the 2016 election, Democratic alumni of the Central Intelligence Agency are challenging Republican incumbents from Virginia to Michigan and New York.
Abigail Spanberger spent eight years as an operations officer for the CIA, recruiting and developing spies, with a focus on counterterrorism. Before joining the agency, she worked in law enforcement for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service — targeting drug dealers and money laundering. In 2014, Spanberger left the agency and moved home to the Richmond suburb of Glen Allen, near where she and her husband grew up, to raise their three kids. The 38-year-old is now challenging Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), the Freedom Caucus leader who toppled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary.
“There is a lot of concern among people living in our district about where we find ourselves on the international stage,” Spanberger said in an interview. “I believe very firmly that the United States of America is the world’s superpower, and we have a responsibility to be a stabilizing force.”
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened during Elissa Slotkin’s first week living in New York City. She had just started her graduate studies at Columbia University. Because she was fluent in Arabic, the CIA recruited her to be a Middle East analyst and then deployed her to Baghdad. She served three tours in Iraq over five years. She left to become the director for Iraq policy on the National Security Council, moved to the State Department and finally the Pentagon. When Barack Obama left office in January, she was the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security. Now 41, she’s moved home to Michigan and is running against GOP Rep. Mike Bishop. She outraised him last quarter.
Making this a trend story: Jeff Beals, 40, spent four years as a CIA intelligence officer after graduating from Harvard in 1998. He moved to the State Department in 2002 and spent four years working on Middle East peace there. Now a high school history teacher in Woodstock, N.Y., he is one of several Democrats vying to take on GOP Rep. John Faso.
— A handful of other Democratic House candidates also have intelligence backgrounds, though not at the CIA. Patrick Ryan, one of the top-tier contenders to face Faso in New York’s Hudson Valley, served two combat tours in Iraq, including one as the lead intelligence officer for an infantry battalion in Mosul. After retiring as a captain, the West Point grad started a successful cybersecurity firm. “The thing being an intelligence officer taught me is that there is no simple answer that can be captured in 140 characters,” Ryan said in an interview. “I don’t think our commander in chief understands the complexity and the second- and third- order consequences of his decisions. … War has to be the last resort in all cases”
— Trump has antagonized the intelligence community by questioning the expertise and professionalism of employees at the various spy agencies. He has never fully accepted their conclusion that Vladimir Putin ordered a comprehensive cyber campaign to boost his campaign and sabotage the presidential election. “The whole Russia thing was an excuse for the Democrats losing the election,” Trump said again Monday during a news conference in the Rose Garden.
Shortly before taking office, Trump memorably compared the intelligence community he now oversees to Nazi Germany. The day after being inaugurated, Trump visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and drew criticism for delivering self-referential remarks before a wall of stars memorializing fallen officers. Visiting Poland in July, the president said U.S. intelligence analysts were wrong about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction — so they could also be wrong again about the Russians. In March, Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government. Both refused.
Across the “deep state,” there are pockets of concern about the president’s fitness for office. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) spoke for many who cannot go on the record when he expressed fear that Trump’s behavior is setting the nation “on the path to World War III.”
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), seen on his way into a House Republican Conference meeting, faces a challenge from Abigal Spanberger. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
— But the CIA prides itself on being independent and nonpartisan. People from across the ideological spectrum work there. “It is wholly unfortunate that the president — at least through his actions and words — isn’t appreciating what they do,” said Spanberger, who is running in Virginia. “At the end of the day, it’s a nonpartisan institution. To be a professional intelligence officer is really a unique path. They have a job to do: to serve the American people. So they just continue to do their jobs.”
Spanberger said what’s frustrated her the most this year has been when Trump and congressional Republicans make hasty decisions without having all the facts. Her mission at the CIA was to collect as much intelligence as possible so that policymakers could make more informed choices. “We’d ask ourselves: what information do we not have? What information are the analysts looking for? Then on the operations side, we’d look to figure out how to get that information,” she explained. “My role was to encourage people to take great risks so that our government could act wisely and make decisions based on that information.”
That’s one of the reasons that the House health-care debate really got her goat. “As a former CIA officer, the idea that the legislative body would put through a bill without so much as a CBO score was shocking to me,” Spanberger explained. “It runs antithetical to everything I believe in.”
Brett McGurk (L) testifies before the House Foreign Relations Committee with Elissa Slotkin (R) in 2014. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
— The former CIA officials, seeking elected office for the first time, are full of wisdom about how to deal with global hotspots, but they also understand that voters are primarily motivated by breadbasket issues. On the stump, each puts the heaviest emphasis on the economy and health care. That said, they’ve also discovered that — because the world is such a tinderbox right now — people are remarkably engaged on national security.
Back in Michigan, Slotkin said that she routinely gets asked about global events people read about in that day’s newspaper: “Businessmen ask me, ‘I have a trip coming up in Seoul. Should I cancel?’ Or, ‘My kid is supposed to study abroad in Asia. Should they go?’ People are concerned about the instability.”
— Because both women are challenging Republican incumbents and Trump won each district by 7 points last year, they are running as pragmatic moderates who are eager to work across the aisle.
“I am out there every day talking with Trump voters,” Slotkin said. “For the first two minutes of the conversation … they think I am a Republican because of my CIA and DOD experience. Then they ask what I am running as. I say I am running as a Midwestern Democrat and that I have worked for Democrats and Republicans proudly. People will then say they consider themselves independent. That’s Michigan.”
Each could be well positioned to ride a wave of backlash in the midterms — if it materializes. “There’s no doubt that former CIA officers and national security experts have strong records of service to our country and authentic messages that appeal to Democrats, independents and Republican voters alike,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) arrives for an event in his district, at the U.S.-Mexico border, this spring. He previously served in the CIA. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
— Republicans note that all the Democratic candidates mentioned above need to make it through primaries, which could force them to the left. Spanberger, running against Brat, faces five other Democrats in a primary that won’t take place until next year.
GOP operatives expect they will probably wind up fielding a couple of candidates of their own who have intelligence backgrounds, though no one who has announced for 2018 yet has worked at the CIA. Andrew Grant, running against Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), was a Marine Corps intelligence officer before working at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), who is facing a tough reelection fight in a district carried by Hillary Clinton, is a former CIA agent who was stationed in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Two of his Democratic challengers have intel backgrounds. Gina Ortiz Jones is a former Air Force intelligence officer who deployed to Iraq and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Jay Hulings was a staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and worked as legislative director for retired Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). Both of his parents were CIA agents.
The entrance at CIA headquarters. (Olivier Doulier/Getty Images)
— A cautionary tale: After nearly a decade in Langley as an analyst, Kevin Strouse was the Democratic nominee in 2014 against former congressman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). But he lost. Shortly afterward, Strouse wrote a fascinating post for a blog called Overt Action about the pitfalls of running for office as a CIA alumnus:
“Many regarded my intelligence background with skepticism,” he recalled. “Some believed I had spent my time bombing people in Pakistan from unmanned aircraft, while others assumed that I had overthrown foreign governments. … In one instance I was presumed accountable for the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War, an impressive feat since that effort preceded my birth by two decades. Also, I was constantly asked if I watched Homeland, if I liked Homeland, and if I was trying to ‘be’ Homeland …
“While very comfortable discussing foreign policy issues, I often knew things I could not discuss publicly,” he added. “Over the course of the campaign, media reporting surrounding the intelligence community often drove voter interest in the topic, and usually not in a good way. I was frequently asked about the Intelligence Community spying on American citizens after Edward Snowden began leaking classified information about NSA programs in June 2013. I also was often asked about the attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi…
“I also discovered very quickly that the skills required for being a top-notch Agency analyst are far different than what is necessary to be a successful Congressional candidate,” Strouse concluded. “CIA analytic briefings are usually dry and stuffy. They focus on data, nuance, and uncertain outcomes. Policy recommendations are a big no-no. Briefings are presented dispassionately. Suffice to say, the way CIA analysts are trained to give briefings and answer questions will not get people on their feet cheering. Voters expect their elected leaders to be definitive and show passion and convictions for their beliefs.”
President Trump meets with Vladimir Putin in August. (Evan Vucci/AP)
— The former CIA officers who will be on the ballot in 2018 are preparing for the Russians to once again wage an influence campaign — and they expect that they will be targets. At the Pentagon last year, Slotkin was the lead negotiator with Moscow on the memorandum of understanding related to Syria. The goal was to make sure that U.S. aircraft could fly over that country without being shot down by the Russians. She said they secretly filmed her during one negotiating session and put the video on YouTube until the U.S. government complained. She routinely receives spearfishing emails and other notifications of attempted hacks.
“It’s quite a big concern,” she added in a recent interview. “We will be, of course, watching the Facebook ads that are put out, and we’ll do our best to monitor how they’re going to try to sow chaos in my election and probably many, many others. … If the Russians are really doing what we believe them to be doing, then I would be a choice target. They already know me, and they don’t love me. So we’ve done a lot of work to make sure that anyone associated with the campaign has gone through proper training for cybersecurity. Even the interns.”