WASHINGTON -- Richard Helms, the godfather of modern CIA directors, prided himself on keeping his mouth shut in public. He was delighted that his 1979 biography had the starchy title "The Man Who Kept the Secrets."
But that was then. In today's media-driven world, former intelligence chiefs appear so regularly on cable television they probably need agents (not the trenchcoated variety) to negotiate their contracts. Five recent directors or acting directors -- John McLaughlin, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, Michael Morell and John Brennan -- all provide regular television commentary. So does James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence.
These "formers," as they sometimes describe themselves, are some of America's wisest experts on intelligence issues. They offer viewers valuable information and rebut inflammatory, inaccurate comments from President Trump. They don't share secrets, any more than Helms did. But it must be said, the formers have strayed rather far from the old patrician advice: "Never complain, never explain."
My worry is that when viewers see a Clapper or Brennan on the tube criticizing Trump, they won't say: "Aha! At last some real expertise!" Instead, they'll fume that the spy chiefs are ganging up on the populist president. Conspiracy theories about an imaginary "deep state" will gain more traction, and the cycle of national mistrust will get worse.
Trump has driven this politicization of intelligence with reckless comments likening intelligence officers to Nazis and mocking an FBI supposedly "in tatters." A low point came last Veterans Day when, after meeting genially with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump derided Clapper, Brennan and former FBI Director James Comey as "political hacks."
This attack was beyond outrageous. Clapper served nearly 50 years as an intelligence officer, most of it in the Air Force. Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA before becoming President Obama's counterterrorism chief and CIA director. Comey served 20 years at the Justice Department, including his final four years as FBI director.
Republican members of Congress have stoked the intelligence bonfire as they sought to discredit the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A harvest of headlines about the FBI from Tuesday's "most read" list on the Real Clear Politics blog included "massive scandal," "guilty as hell" and "stench."
Intelligence professionals feel embattled, and they want to fight back. But when former officials speak their minds about politically charged issues after so many years of reticence, do they undermine their agencies' authority and credibility?
Clapper may fear that the Russians are manipulating Trump, for example. But Republicans cried foul when he said on CNN in December that Putin "knows how to handle an asset, and that's what he's doing with the president." Clapper's credibility is precious: He oversaw the intelligence community's carefully written Jan. 6, 2017 report on Russian election meddling, which provided the baseline for investigation. Inflammatory language can undermine public confidence in that document.
Sponsored Video Stories from LifeZette
The formers are struggling with this issue of how to say enough about Trump without saying too much. Hayden, a regular CNN analyst, says he wants to be a "fact witness" and challenge Trump, when appropriate. But he says he's uncomfortable with questions about "who the president is, as opposed to what he does." Panetta, another CNN regular, usually speaks as a former secretary of defense, rather than spy chief. Brennan has signed a contract with NBC but wants to appear only as an expert analyst.
Morell, a CBS consultant, offered a powerful self-critique in a December interview with Politico's Susan Glasser. He reflected that he had not "fully thought through the implications" of endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016, and how that would be perceived by Trump and his supporters. "There was a significant downside to those of us who became political in that moment."
McLaughlin, who appears on MSNBC, sums up the dilemma: "For most of us, throughout our careers, we maintained a neutrality. But if you have a genuine conviction that the country is endangered, you can't help but speak out about it. No one from the intelligence community who speaks out about Trump does it with joy or satisfaction. It's against the grain of the culture we've grown up with."
Here's the frightening part: As the CIA and FBI investigated a conspiracy by Russia to help Trump, his supporters have countered that the real conspiracy was inside the intelligence community. And judging by conservative media, millions of people seem to believe that U.S. intelligence agencies are treasonous.
Beware: This is how countries fail, when politicians feed false narratives that undermine the institutions that protect the public.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.
(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group