President Trump’s continuing feud with the intelligence community has gone on too long. It must, somehow, be repaired because the making of defense and foreign policy relies on the best, most credible and accurate intelligence we can gather. In the absence of such information policymaking is just guesswork.
The feud raised its ugly head again last week in the annual threat assessment Senate testimony by the Director of National Intelligence and the Directors of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The testimony discussed the IC conclusions in its “Worldwide Threat Assessment Report” released by the DNI.
Loudly and publicly — in their testimony and in the report — the intelligence community disagreed with the president on ISIS, Iran, and North Korea.
President Trump responded in kind, bashing the intelligence agencies’ heads as naïve and saying they should go back to school.
Trump has been feuding with the intelligence community since January 6, 2017, when the Director of National Intelligence released a report stating that the CIA, FBI, and NSA concluded that, pursuant to an order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence organizations tried to interfere in the 2016 election to benefit then-candidate Trump.
That report was the product of Team Obama’s highly politicized intelligence community. Its release followed the intelligence leaders meeting with him at Trump Towers in New York to brief him on it. Then-FBI director James Comey stayed behind after the meeting to tell Trump about the salacious allegations in the Steele dossier without telling him that the FBI had relied on the dossier to begin and conduct a counterintelligence investigation of Trump and his campaign.
Trump must have decided that the intelligence community was his political enemy. At that point he was correct.
Trump strongly rejected the intelligence community’s conclusion of Russian interference and has been at war with the intelligence community ever since. He has constantly conflated that rejection with his claim — which has so far proven true — that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia and that the Robert Mueller investigation of that allegation is a witch hunt.
Unfortunately, that conflation has led to Trump’s most damaging behavior. In July 2018, in a post-summit news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Trump said he gave equal credence to Putin’s denial of election interference and the intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia was guilty of that interference.
The president can, and often should, disagree with the intelligence agencies privately. As the nation’s principal consumer of intelligence, he needs to challenge them to support what they tell him and offer his own thoughts for them to disagree with. But for him to publicly equate the credibility of Putin with the credibility of our intelligence agencies was bizarre and damaging to our national security.
Trump’s belief that the intelligence community is his political enemy hasn’t moderated despite the fact that its principal leaders — DNI Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Directory Christopher Wray — were all appointed by him.
Last year, the president revoked the nuclear weapons deal that former president Obama signed with Iran. Trump, in his campaign and afterward, said that it was the “worst deal ever” and that Iran would quickly develop nuclear weapons if the deal remained in place. No one who isn’t an apologist for Iran can disagree with his action.
In last week’s testimony DNI Coats said that we had no evidence that Iran was currently building a nuclear weapon. He could have said — with equal truthfulness — that we have no evidence that it isn’t.
In answer to a question by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), CIA Director Haspel said that Iran was complying with its obligations under the Obama nuclear weapons deal with Iran.
In response, Trump Tweeted that the intel chiefs were “extremely passive and naive” about Iran and that, “They are wrong!” He added, “When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different, but a source of potential danger and conflict.”
Trump went on: “Be careful of Iran. Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
What Coats said is almost certainly true. We have no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons now because Iran has concealed — and prevented international inspections of — its primary nuclear development facilities. We know — this isn’t speculation, but fact — that Iran is cooperating with North Korea to build nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Neither Iran nor the Norks are allowing us to find out what that cooperation consists of or how far it has proceeded.
What Haspel said was nonsense. It would have been far more factual had she admitted that we don’t know whether Iran is complying with the Obama deal or not, and had no way to determine if it is.
The president is supposed to have another summit meeting later this month with dictator Kim Jong Un on the subject of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. Trump is entirely optimistic about it and is reportedly planning to offer a large package of economic aid to North Korea in return for promises to do so.
Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special envoy to North Korea, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are as optimistic as the president. Pompeo said in December that the U.S. and North Korea are working on what he claimed was Kim’s promise to denuclearize.
But Kim never made such a promise. In fact, since Trump’s first summit with Kim last year, there has been precisely zero progress toward denuclearization. North Korea refuses to even give us a list of its nuclear facilities, the number of warheads it possesses, or any of the other information that could lead to its nuclear disarmament.
The intel leaders obviously disagree with Trump. Coats said, “…we currently assess North Korea will seek to retain its W.M.D. capability and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.” He added that North Korea’s “leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
Coats is entirely correct. Kim’s regime learned from the demise of Saddam Hussein that the only way to ensure his regime’s survival is to possess and continue development of nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them against America. They will never give up that capability peacefully.
In response to Coats, Trump — again by Tweet — wrote, “North Korea relationship is best it has ever been with U.S. No testing, getting remains, hostages returned. Decent chance of Denuclearization.” The president is as wrong on North Korea as he is right about Iran.
The president is also wrong about ISIS, which he has repeatedly claimed has been defeated. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters that ISIS has lost 99.5% of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq and would lose the rest in coming weeks.
In the DNI report, and in their testimony, the intelligence leadership disagreed. Coats said, “ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
ISIS has been only partially defeated in Syria and Iraq. But our planned withdrawal from Syria — which is apparently on hold — means that when we do ISIS will be able to regain territory and project terrorist threats against the region and the U.S.
The fault for these disagreements lies on both sides. Trump’s ego is too fragile to accept conclusions that demonstrate the falsity of any of his beliefs or his views of events. He has to understand — and evidently doesn’t — that the duty of the intelligence agencies isn’t to tell him what he wants to hear. To the contrary, their duty is to tell him the facts without political spin.
Moreover, the intelligence community has the duty to persuade the president that what it is telling him is has greater credibility than what he sees on television and what he hears from enemies like Putin. They are evidently failing in that essential duty.
There’s no obvious way to end this feud, but ended it must be. One step in the right direction is to have intelligence judgments remain secret.
What other nation is so cavalier about its national security that it allows intelligence assessments to be made public? At least since the time Sir Francis Walsingham was Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster in the 1580s, threat assessments — intelligence estimates of the dangers the nation faces — have been the sole province of the spies and the head of state. None of our enemies are so strategically stupid as to share their threat assessments with us.
The leaders of Congress and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are knowledgeable of the intelligence agencies’ activities because they are, by law, made so by the IC in order to perform their constitutional oversight role.
These people — the “Big 8,” the four Senate and House leaders, and the chairmen and ranking members of the intelligence committees — should also be privy to the principal intelligence information gathered and analysis produced by our intelligence community. But that, too, should be accomplished in closed, classified briefings to the Big 8. That information should be shared no further.
For Congress to require — or even permit — hearings such as the one held last week is a violation of its responsibilities to the nation. That practice should stop forthwith.
Both the president and the intelligence agency leaders need to work a lot harder to understand and cooperate with each other. The president should often give orders for specific covert actions. By doing so both he and the IC leaders could gain the confidence in each other they need to do their jobs.
There’s a long list of things to do. Iran is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its regime. We should be helping that regime’s opposition to ensure that it doesn’t reach a forty-first. Toppling Venezuela’s socialist dictator, Nicholas Maduro, should be relatively easy. Engineering a series of big explosions in Iran’s and North Korea’s missile and nuclear facilities won’t be easy, but our intelligence agencies should be accomplishing that and shrugging that the two are just unlucky.
Quit squabbling, folks, and start doing the jobs that our national security requires of you. It’s what you were chosen to do, damnit.