Trump’s counter-intelligence strategy


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.

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