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Trump’s counter-intelligence strategy

Mar 31,2019 - Last updated at Mar 31,2019

ATLANTA — For more than two years, US President Donald Trump has heaped praise on the world’s authoritarians, disrespected America’s democratic allies and pursued an ego-driven effort to solve the Gordian knot of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. But now, the effects of Trump’s demented foreign policies are coming home to roost. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States’ intelligence agencies, where professionals charged with safeguarding the country’s national security are struggling to acquaint the president with realities he does not want to see.

Following the annual threat briefing to Congress in January, Trump issued a flurry of Tweets challenging the credibility of his own intelligence chiefs’ testimony. Though the content of these Tweets was characteristically sophomoric, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as a mere tantrum from the Toddler-in-Chief. Trump’s petulance bears directly on the intelligence community’s ability to do its job.

Trump’s intent in undermining his own intelligence chiefs is hard to miss. Unnamed White House sources recently suggested to reporters that Trump is eager to be rid of Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. By quickly dismissing reports about intelligence officials’ testimony as “fake news”, Trump delivered an important message to Coats: his job depends not on his performance, but on his willingness to carry water for the president.

Of course, all presidents appoint their top spies and periodically make changes within the ranks of the intelligence community. Generally, questions of who briefs the president or offers advice on risky covert actions receive the most public attention. But historically, the intangibles that shape such relationships, not least the president’s personal views about intelligence, have had the most dramatic effect on how intelligence is used.

For example, Richard Nixon regarded the CIA’s top officials as enemies, and thus kept the agency in the dark about his strategic plans. Similarly, when intelligence analysts raised their estimate of North Korea’s military strength, Jimmy Carter suspected they were plotting to derail his campaign pledge to bring a US army division home from South Korea. And Bill Clinton, for his part, simply was not interested in spies and their business. After a small plane crash near the White House in 1994, many joked that it was an attempt by the CIA director to get in the president’s door.

But Trump has broken new ground with his public attacks on US intelligence agencies. The problem probably started when those agencies unanimously concluded that Russia had waged a cyber and political war to put Trump in the White House. And intelligence agencies certainly have not helped themselves by repeatedly contradicting Trump’s off-the-cuff pronouncements on Iran, North Korea, Daesh and other threats.

Yet even putting these instances aside, Trump came to office with a deep and abiding ignorance of national-security policy and the role intelligence plays in it, which means that the situation for US spy chiefs is not going to improve. Consider the analysts who are responsible for assessing developments in North Korea. Like their colleagues who monitor other threats, they are not there to criticise US policy or tell policymakers what to do. Their role is to consider intelligence from all available sources, and then assess the likely effects of potential US action across a wide range of strategic areas.

But Trump has not been happy with US intelligence analysts’ latest findings. North Korea’s recent threat to resume missile testing would seem to reinforce the judgment that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is nowhere close to giving up his nuclear arsenal. Yet the response to that news from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a reliable Trump weathervane, was to dismiss North Korea’s own official statement and reaffirm the administration’s faith in Kim.

Those briefing Trump on the actual intelligence should consider themselves warned not to expect praise for doing their job. After all, assessments of the North Korea threat will undoubtedly continue to invite Trump’s ire. Trump’s recent summit with Kim in Hanoi was a failure, and the effort to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula has gone nowhere. At the same time, Kim has made significant progress in bolstering his own position.

With international support for sanctions weakening, China has begun to allow more cross-border trade, offering an economic lifeline for the Kim regime. Kim has also managed to secure a suspension of major US military exercises on the peninsula, while driving a wedge between the US and South Korea. With or without a nuclear deal, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s own political future requires that he pursue further North-South rapprochement, while playing Cupid to Trump and Kim’s bromance.

Whether Trump will sit still for an uncongenial intelligence assessment is anybody’s guess. In public, Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel insist that Trump is an engaged, informed consumer of intelligence. But such claims are refuted by the fact that Trump himself has dismissed the need for daily briefings and repeatedly rejected established facts and contrary opinions. With in-person briefings already down to just two per week, those who conduct them have reportedly begun playing to his limited attention span by focusing more on business and trade.

But regardless of whether Trump wants in-depth analyses, Coats and the other spy chiefs must insist on them, while ensuring that intelligence assessments are reflected in the White House agenda. Trump’s solipsistic worldview and antipathy toward intelligence officers have alarmed others who have a stake in national-security policy. As Adam Schiff, the chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee, wrote in a letter to Trump prior to his recent summit with Kim, “We are perplexed and troubled by the growing disconnect between the Intelligence Community’s assessment and your administration’s statements about Kim Jong-un’s [sic] actions, commitments and intentions.”

America’s intelligence chiefs are obliged to present the president with the facts, whether he likes it or not. Anything less short-changes the people who work hard to collect and assess intelligence. Worse still, it amounts to a major threat to US national security.


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, 2019.

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