The nation’s top intelligence officials told Congress last week that President Donald Trump is wrong about the success of his diplomacy with North Korea, that Iran is not attempting to manufacture a nuclear bomb and that the Islamic State is unlikely to be destroyed as quickly as the president claims. And they barely mentioned, in an annual report to Congress on the threats facing the United States, the “crisis” on the U.S.-Mexico border that Trump says is a national emergency.
But it was Trump’s response to the Worldwide Threat Assessment that shocked me, a veteran of more than 30 years working in the CIA’s Clandestine Service \.
“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” Trump declared Wednesday morning. “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!”
Trump’s public criticism of his senior intelligence leadership will damage morale in the U.S. intelligence community, as well as our security services’ relationships with their foreign counterparts.
Inside the CIA (and, I would imagine, also in other intelligence agencies), there is a well-respected tradition of encouraging the workforce to ignore politics. CIA officers are hired or fired not for their political beliefs but for their competence and, in the case of more junior officers, their potential. Integrity is the key factor in hiring and retention; I never saw a case in which personal politics played a role in hiring or firing. Nor did I ever witness politics playing a role in operational or analytical decisions. For decades, CIA leaders as well as front-line managers have counseled patience, suggesting that officers don professional blinders when it comes to public pronouncements regarding the arcane work of intelligence.
“Ignore it,” I used to tell junior officers. “Just focus on your work, which has not changed and will not change regardless of who is in the Oval Office or which party is in the majority. Remember, your job is to collect intelligence securely and disseminate it to policymakers, whether or not they like the information you give them. Speak truth to power.”
Usually, just as in the military, the men and women of the CIA, FBI, NSA and other intelligence agencies are professionals focused first and foremost on their mission. They are more interested in facing the unique challenges of clandestinely collecting intelligence, and they view politics and those who practice it as largely irrelevant to their craft. But most intelligence officers I know are also inherently loyal to the consumers of intelligence. The Holy Grail of intelligence professionals is knowing that the information they helped collect, analyze and disseminate went straight to the president, the commander – and intelligence consumer – in chief. This is not because they like or even voted for any specific president, but rather because that is the whole point of intelligence work: to provide the best information to the highest levels of government.
But there is a limit to everything. And despite the apolitical work ethic of intelligence professionals, being called passive, naive and uneducated will sting. It will sting officers serving abroad in war zones and other places where they and their families are at risk. It will sting those officers who have personally sacrificed to serve, but who know (or at least thought they knew) that at the end of the day, it was worth it because their work was important to protect our democracy and highly valued by policymakers and elected officials.
I am not predicting a mass exodus of intelligence officers from federal service. Intelligence work is some of the most fascinating, complex and rewarding work that our government does, and its practitioners are dedicated and thick-skinned. But they’re not used to sophomoric public criticism from an impulsive, angry president, and they may eventually decide that it’s just not worth it.
It’s hard not to wonder why Trump continues his unprofessional personal attacks on the intelligence community, when he could instead simply fire those who so irritated him in the first place. The director of national intelligence, the CIA director and the director of the FBI all serve at the pleasure of the president. Trump appointed each of these officials, and indeed, he’s spoken highly of them in the past. Until, that is, they provided facts Trump did not want to hear regarding several of the president’s overseas pet projects for which he is claiming (largely without evidence) great success. Not accepting bad news is a significant flaw in a president, or any leader; publicly throwing the bearer of the news under the bus is even worse.
Of course, the president has the right to formulate his own foreign policy. While policymaking is usually done with the assistance of an experienced national security team, the process should be informed, not driven, by intelligence. Plenty of presidents have listened to the information provided by intelligence professionals, have then gone on to formulate policies at odds with what the intelligence suggested. President John F. Kennedy decided against, for example, using the CIA’s preferred invasion site in Cuba and asked the agency to find a less-populated landing location (which turned out to be the Bay of Pigs). That is healthy. But in this case, Trump reacted as if the intelligence community’s threat assessment was a threat to him. Presidents are certainly entitled to their own policies, but they are not, as the saying goes, entitled to their own facts.
Trump’s inappropriate public criticisms will also have a chilling effect on one of the United States’ most potent intelligence force multipliers: our relationships with allied foreign intelligence agencies. Indeed, the president’s comments are uniquely self-defeating, in that our best hope for monitoring and perhaps modifying the behavior of rogue states such as Iran, North Korea and Russia is working in unison with our partners. Many have already taken note of Trump’s cavalier attitude toward sensitive information, as well as his apparent failure to understand the basic rules of intelligence sharing. Recall when our president shared sensitive intelligence obtained from one of our foreign partners with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for example. I would be deeply surprised if many of our best intelligence allies were not already holding back information they would normally pass to their U.S. counterparts, for fear Trump might not be able to keep a secret. (Their concerns might even be darker when they consider the possibility that our president has reportedly discussed sensitive matters with Russian President Vladimir Putin behind closed doors with no record of the conversation).
At its heart, intelligence is about protecting our national security and values by informing foreign policy. You can certainly criticize the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies; any large organization should be looking for better ways to be effective. You can encourage the intelligence community to improve by learning from past experiences, taking those lessons and translating them into the new, ever-changing modern information era (as the Russians have done using hybrid warfare). We can and should have high expectations of our intelligence agencies, because so much rides on their work.
But we are well past the point where we can write off the president’s public criticisms of the intelligence community as those of a political outsider, who despite his constant missteps has a heart of gold and the best of intentions. We are now at the point where Trump’s actions are making us all less safe.
Hall retired from the CIA in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing Russian operations.
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