Aspen’s World War III rumblings

By Julia Ioffe | Puck News

The Aspen Security Forum is the kind of national security conference where you might ask Richard Moore, the completely unguarded head of MI6, to move out of the way so you can access the water cooler. It’s the kind of place where, at a happy hour in a sunny meadow high up in the Rockies, you could, beer bottle in hand, buttonhole Mike Rogers when he was still the head of the N.S.A., or corner Mikk Marran, the head of Estonian intelligence, as he’s holding a lunch wrap on a biodegradable plate, to ask what kind of information Vladimir Putin is really getting about the war. (And reader, I’ve done all three.) 

It’s the kind of forum where former defense secretary Robert Gates just shuffles by you on a footpath, alone, looking not at the mountains ringing the forum, but at the pavement before him. It’s the kind of place where New York Times reporter David Sanger takes his administration sources fly fishing between panels. It’s where you can catch Glenn Simpson, the man who commissioned the Steele Dossier, drinking white wine and bitching familiarly to a very sympathetic David Ignatius, the Washington Post grandee, about yet another lawsuit Donald Trump has filed against him. In fact, the Aspen Security Forum is so disconcertingly chummy that, every year, the multi-day meeting kicks off with a dinner at Jane Harman’s chalet during which the disconcertingly avuncular John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., typically entertains the guests—a collection of national security policy makers, think tankers, and journalists—with magic tricks. 

Yes, everybody’s buddies at Aspen. The panels aren’t panels here.

They’re fireside chats(in the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer, not a flame in sight). It’s a closed and hard-to-get-to space, both physically and metaphorically. You can’t fly direct from Washington, which is where most everyone is flying from, and getting that jigsaw of flights to line up just so takes some finesse. (Even Victoria Nuland, the powerful undersecretary of state for political affairs, had to have her panel moved after several of her flights were canceled and she had to spend the night in Dallas.) Only the national security select get invitations—or are given press passes. It is a small, and exceedingly clubby group. We’ve all known each other for years and years, crossing paths at conferences, on reporting trips and in various briefing rooms. If there are feuds or rivalries, they become muted in the thin mountain air.

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