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Rescuing US intelligence

Oct 01,2020 - Last updated at Oct 01,2020

ATLANTA — With the US presidential election barely a month away, former vice president Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the Cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defence and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions.

It is no secret that the United States faces a wide range of challenges abroad. Over the last four years, Trump has undermined the standing, standards, and strengths of the agencies that are charged with ensuring the country’s security. A new director of national intelligence will have to repair the damage and root out the festering corruption that Trump’s appointees have sown across the agencies. This will be no small task.

While the sheer scale of the harm done under Trump is anyone’s guess, his unrelenting attacks on US spies and analysts have cowed the agencies and undermined their missions. Since taking office, Trump has consistently disparaged the intelligence community and its work, especially the finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. And while the Kremlin’s election meddling has continued, those conducting Trump’s daily intelligence briefs no longer bother to raise the subject, lest they provoke his ire. And recent reports that CIA director Gina Haspel is choking off intelligence on Russia’s interference in the 2020 election to avoid antagonising Trump suggest that intelligence leaders’ political subservience is degrading US national security as well as the integrity of its government agencies. It is safe to assume that those briefing the president are also eliding other active threats, such as those emanating from North Korea, where Trump’s failed summitry has left in place a ticking nuclear time bomb.

A president who trashes rather than heeds crucial information is bad enough. But the effects of Trump’s war on intelligence do not stop at the White House gate. He is also blocking other key decision-makers’ access to needed information and expert analysis. For example, national intelligence officials have indefinitely postponed the annual worldwide threat briefing for Congress. For legislators who oversee these issues, this presentation offers a valuable perspective not only on the intelligence community’s $70 billion annual budget, but also on the leading dangers confronting the US.

Of course, the Trump administration’s motives are obvious. Denying Congress and others access to intelligence spares Trump the embarrassment of having his numerous policy failures and personal misdeeds aired publicly. Trump made his wishes clear after the 2019 annual threat briefing, when he fulminated publicly against the intelligence community for its assessments of Iran, Daesh and North Korea. Faced with findings that contradicted his self-proclaimed achievements, he tweeted that the intelligence agencies needed to “go back to school”.

And now, Trump can count on John Ratcliffe, his newly confirmed national intelligence director, to do his bidding without question. Ratcliffe, a former congressman with no qualifications for the job he now holds, recently issued a decree that Congress will receive only written intelligence reports on election security, instead of in-person briefings, just when Russia is ramping up its 2020 pro-Trump electoral interference. That diktat, which would have prevented intelligence experts from having to answer lawmakers’ questions, drew criticism even from Republicans.

But legislators aren’t the only people whom Trump and Ratcliffe want to keep in the dark. According to a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower, the White House has prohibited the department’s analysts from sharing intelligence on Russian meddling with other agencies.

It is obvious why the administration wants to suppress such information. Trump and his cronies are peddling bogus intelligence to support his presidential campaign. One line of disinformation seeks to tar Biden as sympathetic to China. Thus, in an August 26 tweet, Trump claimed that “Chinese State Media and Leaders of CHINA want Biden to win ‘the US. Election’”. This followed the similarly disingenuous assertion made by Trump’s son, Donald Jr, at the Republican Party Convention that “the intelligence community recently assessed that the Chinese Communist Party favours Biden”.

When asked about the matter on August 30, Ratcliffe demurred, claiming that he couldn’t reveal any details, even though his counterintelligence chief, William Evanina, had done precisely that just a few weeks earlier. As Evanina made clear, China’s overt propaganda is par for the course, and should be distinguished from the Kremlin’s covert political warfare on Trump’s behalf.

Ratcliffe’s shameless fabrications suggest that he sees the politicisation of intelligence in Trump’s interests as a major part of his job. Last month, he claimed that China poses a greater threat than any other country, adding: “That includes threats of election influence and interference.” Curiously, he seems to have forgotten his own counterintelligence chief’s recent statements suggesting otherwise. He also neglected to mention the findings of his own senior intelligence official overseeing election security, Shelby Pierson, whose earlier testimony before Congress singled out Russia, not China.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, Trump’s war on the intelligence community has taken its toll. As one former intelligence official tells the journalist Chris Whipple in “The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future”, “There’s been an evolution among all intelligence community leaders... from holding the line on objectivity and integrity to, eventually, Trump breaking down that wall —and the loss of objectivity and integrity.” 

Nonetheless, the intelligence community’s ultimate responsibility, as former CIA Director Leon Panetta puts it, is to speak truth to power. To that end, if Biden wins in November, purging the political patsies now ensconced in the national intelligence director’s office will be a necessary, though not sufficient, first step. When it comes to restoring the intelligence community’s integrity, a president-elect Biden will need more than one new broom to sweep everything clean. “The Spy Masters” shows why. Whipple’s excellent history should be on Biden’s desk.

 

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. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org

 

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