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The damage to US intelligence is already done

Aug 05,2019 - Last updated at Aug 05,2019

ATLANTA — To understand what is happening in authoritarian regimes, be they in Moscow, Havana, Beijing or Pyongyang, analysts always pay close attention to the rise and fall of intelligence chiefs. In the case of US President Donald Trump, who aspires to be a strongman, the aborted nomination of John Ratcliffe, a Republican congressman from Texas, to succeed outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is telling indeed.

Ratcliffe had no discernible qualifications for the job, other than a fawning loyalty to Trump. And though Trump has withdrawn the nomination, he did so not out of concern for US national security, but for fear that his candidate would not have been confirmed. The fact that Trump even considered such an unfit candidate for the job suggests how much he wants to bring the intelligence services to heel.

During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the US intelligence community’s professional leadership kept its counsel, having concluded that silence was the best tactic for dealing with an untethered and antagonistic boss. But the Ratcliffe affair seems to augur a new challenge, not just for the US intelligence establishment, but also for US allies, who have long valued their access to a fact-driven, apolitical intelligence community in Washington, DC. With his willingness to install toadies in so many top national-security jobs, Trump has already struck a serious blow to the system of alliances that forms the basis of US power and influence in the world.

The problem is not just that Trump has politicising intelligence, which is bad enough. It is that he has undermined US intelligence agencies’ effectiveness and global reach. Like his infantile attacks on allies, selecting stooges for leading intelligence positions sends the world an unmistakable signal that the US should no longer be considered a reliable and trustworthy interlocutor.

Many of the most valuable secrets at US intelligence officials’ disposal come from longstanding relationships with their counterparts abroad. Consider the Commonwealth partnership between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Forged in World War II and solidified during the Cold War, it is the critical factor in the “Five Eyes” alliance, which has become the backbone of communications and signals intelligence around the world. That would not be the case without consistently sound and capable intelligence leadership in all the participating countries.

Likewise, through collaboration over many decades, US intelligence agencies have forged new partnerships with former enemies, not least Germany and Japan, and established a globe-spanning network of essential relationships from South Korea and other Southeast Asian allies to the Middle East and beyond.

Nonetheless, history also shows that such relationships are delicate, and thus highly vulnerable to political disruptions. “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies,” quipped Lord Palmerston, who twice served as prime minister of Britain at its imperial height. “Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Insofar as Palmerston’s observation is true of countries, it is even more valid for spies.

After almost three years of gratuitous insults and provocations, Trump has, according to the Pew Research Centre, tanked America’s standing in virtually every part of the world. The US has lost the trust and respect of not just the proverbial man in the street, but also foreign intelligence officials. Indeed, it would be utterly naive to think that Trump’s attacks on NATO and description of the US-Japan mutual defence treaty as “unfair” have had no effect on others’ perceptions.

To be clear, the issue is not that official pique towards the US is being expressed through diplomatic channels. Rather, the fallout from Trump’s antics undoubtedly is trickling down to the operational level. Traditionally, US and allied intelligence officials have shared both their assessments and the facts behind them with each other. Yet, when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear intentions and Russia’s interference in US elections, Trump has openly rejected his own agencies’ findings. And on other occasions, he has divulged classified information to the Russians. What are spies in London, Berlin, Seoul and Tel Aviv supposed to think?

There are clear and disturbing parallels between now and the early 1980s, when transatlantic relations were severely strained. Owing to the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, followed by the Polish crisis of 1980-1981, European leaders were under growing pressure to distance themselves from US President Ronald Reagan’s newly installed and more assertive administration. The US and Europe had markedly different views about the Kremlin’s intentions, arms control and the dangers of a conflict emerging in Eastern Europe. But deep and longstanding intelligence relationships played an enormous role in keeping the NATO alliance united.

Whether intelligence agencies can do the same today remains to be seen. The fact that Trump would even consider such a spectacularly unqualified patsy to lead the entire US intelligence establishment does not bode well. The implications for intelligence cooperation and US influence abroad are obvious. Like the failed nominations of Trump loyalists Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to the US Federal Reserve Board, Ratcliffe’s botched nomination has already further damaged US credibility in the eyes of its allies.

Trump has shown, once again, that he will put his own political interests ahead of national security and the proper functioning of an independent intelligence establishment. With the departure of Coats, one more “adult in the room” is gone. The remaining intelligence leaders must make clear what’s at stake in the choice of his successor.


Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s director of Public Affairs. Project Syndicate, 2019.

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