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The Populist War Against Intelligence

It would be a mistake to interpret US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan as only his latest vendetta for lèse-majesté. More ominously for the health of the democracies of the West, other populists are following Trump’s example.

ATLANTA – Despite his seemingly limitless capacity for vindictiveness, it would be a mistake to interpret US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan as only his latest vendetta for lèse-majesté. True, Brennan has all but labeled Trump and his behavior, including his Russian connections, a national security threat. But Trump’s move is more than personal payback. As the most recent blow in his two-year-long attack on the intelligence community, his slap at Brennan is a harbinger of more to come as he tries to bring his espionage agencies to heel.

More ominously for the health of the democracies of the West, other populists are following Trump’s example. In Europe, a variety of right-wing parties, having now found themselves in power, are taking on former government antagonists, who have monitored and policed their extremism for decades.

In Austria, the country’s populist leaders have been intimidating, muzzling, and purging the country’s intelligence services. In February, on orders from the populist interior minister, Austrian police raided the country’s main intelligence agency – the very organization charged with monitoring right-wing extremism. (It should be recalled that the Freedom Party, the coalition partner in Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government, was founded by ex-SS officers).

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