When Campaigns Smear Generals and Intelligence Officers

Gen. John Allen, retried, testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as envoy for the counter-ISIS coalition, Feb. 25, 2015.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

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Gen. John Allen, retried, testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as envoy for the counter-ISIS coalition, Feb. 25, 2015.

I worked with Gen. Allen and CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. They deserve better than personal attacks and campaign lies.

I do not make a habit of defending former colleagues when someone says something negative about them in the media. As a former senior government official, I understand criticism comes with public service. However, after watching two prominent national security figures endorse Hillary Clinton — and get personally pilloried after doing so — I had to speak up. After retired Marine Gen. John Allen and former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell endorsed Clinton, Trump supporters pushed back hard. They tried to undercut Allen and Morell’s credibility by attacking them personally. And the facts that were used against them were actually dead wrong. One of our country’s greatest strengths is informed dialogue and competing opinions, not uninformed and inaccurate personal attacks.

Allen announced his endorsement of Clinton in July, and he provided substantive reasons for doing so. Critics nonetheless dredged up old salacious headlines, such as Breitbart’s article on his purported “sex scandal.” Donald Trump even called Allen a failed general. After 37 years in the Marine Corps, this is just blatantly wrong. Allen led U.S. Marines in Iraq when they succeeded in convincing the Sunnis in Anbar Province to work with the coalition rather than fight against it. He was the commanding general in Afghanistan, leading the international forces that made major gains in Kandahar and Helmand. Other opponents accused him of being “militaristic;” they are correct that he spent almost four decades in the military, but they failed to note his extensive work fostering stronger civil-military relations, including in Israel and Iraq.

Juvenile jabs followed, including writers affiliated with the Trump media machine who sarcastically noted that it was appropriate that Allen was supporting Clinton because Allen has his own “email problems” (a reference to a U.S. military investigation into Allen’s email correspondence with Tampa socialite and military-backer Jill Kelley). These writers alleged that because of the investigation Allen did not get an assignment leading NATO as the supreme allied commander, Europe, and that he retired from the military as a result. In fact, the military investigation cleared Allen of any wrongdoing and he retired because of family health problems. He subsequently served first as liaison between clashing Israeli and Palestinian military leaders, and then as President Obama’s special envoy for countering ISIL. Whether it is a general officer endorsing Clinton or Trump (like retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn), I would hope that we would critique them on the issues and the reasons why they think their candidate is best positioned to lead. I have yet to see any headlines tearing apart Flynn’s personal life, and I hope it stays that way.

Related: Dempsey: Keep Your Politics Private, My Fellow Generals and Admirals 
Related: Allen Quits ISIS War Envoy Job, One Year After Calling for Group’s Destruction

Just a few weeks later, Morell wrote an opinion piece for the a New York Times explaining why he was supporting Clinton for president and appeared on The Charlie Rose Show. During his discussion with Rose, Morell argued the U.S. should encourage the moderate opposition in Syria to confront more aggressively Russian and Iranian forces in Syria, and advocated that the U.S. should go after Assad’s personal assets — his offices, presidential aircraft, etc. — in a limited way so as to send a message to Assad that we want him to go. Opponents have not gone after Morell personally, but inaccurately argued that Morell was advocating a massive military escalation in Syria and a war against major world powers (Russia and Iran). Some even went so far as to call him a neo-con. Morell has communicated in other interviews that he believes that more aggressive, but still limited, Western actions are necessary if we are to acquire the leverage we need to pressure Assad, Russia, and Iran to agree to a political settlement that would end the Syrian civil war that is fueling the significance terrorist threat in the West. While there are certainly arguments against Morell’s point of view (he made clear in the Rose interview that he was speaking for himself, not for Clinton), what he suggested is regularly discussed and debated in sophisticated foreign policy circles. 

Clinton detractors got other facts completely wrong when they said Morell supported the Iraq War; in fact he did not support it nor did he oppose it. That is not what an intelligence officer does. Any intelligence officer who is good at his/ her job does not present information with any recommendation for action. This would mean that they were not doing their job. Morell’s opponents also have said he has criticized the Iran deal and supported waterboarding: incorrect on both counts. Morell has publically said on numerous occasions that he supports the Iran deal while noting that the U.S. needs to push back harder on Iranian malign behavior in the region. Commenting on waterboarding in his book, The Great War of Our Time, Morell argued that while waterboarding was effective in producing intelligence of value and while the Department of Justice did not consider it torture at the time it was used, that the practice made him uncomfortable, was morally questionable, and if it were done to him he would consider it to be torture. This is hardly a wholesale endorsement of the practice.

Neither Morell nor Allen held political positions when they served in government. Their jobs were to provide for the security of the American people. Those criticizing them personally are doing so only to undermine their powerful endorsements of Clinton. Welcome to the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Samantha Vinograd is a vice president at Goldman Sachs. She served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, including as senior advisor to National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon from 2011 to 2013. You can follow her on Twitter @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this article are hers alone.  

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