Is Trump risking national security in tiff with his spooks?
Tie between the intelligence community and senior policymakers is crucial and delicate, and lies at the heart of US democracy and power, says former senior CIA officer
Deep understanding and expert knowledge of the 17 federal-level agencies and offices that comprise the US intelligence community is not a requirement to hold high office. Not even for the president, who is, as Jami Miscik writes in this month’s Foreign Affairs journal, the nation’s top consumer of the intelligence this sprawling and sometimes fractious community produces.
Understandably, most holders of high office come to rely on the “unique technologies, tradecraft, and expert analysis” to help shape difficult foreign policy decisions and ensure national security, Miscik writes, in an essay published before Donald Trump’s somewhat gung-ho and gleeful decision to fire his FBI chief. An essay that is now suggestive of the machinations leading up to the axing, and much more obviously prescient.
“For the relationship between intelligence producers and consumers to work effectively, however, each needs to understand and trust the other,” says Miscik, a former deputy director for intelligence at the CIA and chief executive officer of Kissinger Associates.
How then to gauge the current imbroglio engulfing the White House and its secretive army of faithful public servants: a lovers’ tiff, or the wholesale dismantling by Trump & Co of an essential guarantor of American democracy and preeminence?
Consider the headline-grabbing way the administration handled the decision to fire FBI chief James Comey. Trump and his advisers clearly revel in tearing down the ramparts of the Deep State. Out goes Comey, on the grounds that he mishandled the investigation into presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s misuse of emails while secretary of state and that he was unfit to lead the bureau. The process is handled with the now customary bombast, contradictory statements and claims that immediately become half-truths.
“He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander,” Trump told NBC News in his first interview since firing Comey. “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that.”
Except Comey’s deputy didn’t appear to know that. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe promised the agency’s probe into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia would proceed with vigor and contradicted the president’s depiction of chaos under Comey.
“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does,” McCabe said. “I can tell you that I hold director Comey in the absolute highest regard. I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity … And it has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him.”
As if this wasn’t evidence enough of the deepening chill in ties between Trump and his intelligence chiefs, the White House revealed that a planned visit to the Washington headquarters of the FBI has been scrapped after bureau officials said he would get a frosty reception, MSNBC reported.
“The American system of government requires a new president to place his full trust in an intelligence community that loyally served his predecessor right up until the inauguration,” Miscik says. This can be an especially difficult ask if administration officials have scant experience of dealing with an intelligence community whose role is to play the skunk at the garden party, speaking inconvenient truth to power.
Unlike many other arms of government, the 1947 National Security Act ensured that most members of the intelligence community are career government servants. Servants being the key word. Or, as 1953-1961 CIA chief Allen Dulles put it: “Intelligence is the servant, not the master, of foreign policy.”
“Senior administration officials are invested in the policies of their administration, but intelligence officers are not,” he said. “The potential for distrust is high, but intelligence officers are loyal, trustworthy, and committed to serving the presidency.”
To be sure, catastrophic failures such as the invasion of Iraq based on unsubstantiated intelligence that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction are cautionary reminders that the shadowy arms of government must always remain accountable and open to improvement and adaptation.
New administrations can bring new approaches and ways of thinking to calcified institutions, says Miscik, who also chairs the advisory board for Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Affairs. Intelligence operatives and analysts must be open to and should welcome aggressive questioning by policymakers.
But for the relationship to break down risks creating a vacuum of analysis and intelligence at a time of crisis, just when it is needed most.
“Unless quickly rectified, policymakers’ misconceptions about intelligence professionals and their motivations could endanger US national security,” Miscik writes. “The relationship needs to be recalibrated, with policymakers gaining a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the work of intelligence professionals – a mission in which ‘alternative facts’ have no place.”