Playing in the shadows: Donald Trump has a strained relationship with the US security agencies ©Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Spooked: Trump's war against US intelligence

The head-on collision between Trump and his intelligence agencies is a danger to the US, its allies and the global security order
February 10, 2017

On December 13th 2003, John Nixon was taken out to Baghdad International Airport. It was nighttime. He arrived with a small group and together they passed assorted outbuildings until they came to a location a little way off from the main airport area. Nixon got out of the vehicle. “We were standing there waiting,” he recalls, “and then someone from the military came by and said, ‘OK. It’s your turn.’ So we walked in.” He passed down a long hallway and stopped by a door. Somebody opened it. “And there he was, sitting there,” Nixon told me. “I remember, I just couldn’t believe it was him. I thought it was going to be him, but it still struck me very hard because somehow deep in the back of my mind I thought, ‘we’re never going to find this guy.’”

The man in the chair was Saddam Hussein. He had been captured earlier that night by special forces close to Tikrit, a city 90 miles northwest of Baghdad. The search for the former dictator had become frenzied. The war was going wrong and a desperate US government turned to its supposedly most trusted arm: the CIA. Nixon, after five years in the CIA, had become an authoritative specialist on Saddam: he would be the first intelligence officer to interrogate him. But the Iraqi leader was famous for his use of body doubles. So before any interrogation, Nixon had to work out whether the man in the chair was really him.

“I was looking for certain characteristics,” he told me. “Tribal tattoos, and a scar from a bullet wound that he had suffered many years ago. To be honest, from the minute I saw him, there was no doubt in my mind. I looked at hundreds of hours of videotape of this guy over many years and pictures all the time. He was just sitting there two feet away from me.” Listening to him today—in the context of Donald Trump’s America—one wonders who would now make such a crucial identification in a world where the government had ceased to trust its spies.

Not that everything was rosy back in 2003, of course. The situation in Iraq was terrible. And among the sectarian bloodshed, the terrible destruction and the attacks on coalition troops there was another casualty—the reputation of the west’s intelligence agencies. The coalition’s (official) justification for war had been that Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that they posed an immediate threat. Urged on by political leaders, western intelligence agencies the CIA included had endorsed that claim. But they were mistaken. Saddam had no such weapons, and as that fact became clear, the justification for the invasion drained away. So what went wrong, and who was to blame? Robin Butler, the former cabinet secretary who conducted the official British inquiry into the debacle, concluded that the interpretation of intelligence “was stretched to the limit,” and the spies’ information was expected to do more work than it could bear. That is a fair summary, but it does not settle the bitter blame game between politicians and the spooks.

The eventual capture of Saddam was a victory of sorts, but it hardly compensated for the original intelligence failure. The backlash was severe, and it still endures. Spies mistrusted politicians and vice-versa, and each sheltered behind the failures of the other in an attempt to dodge responsibility for the claims made in the run-up to the war. This tension is dangerous—spies might not like politicians but can do nothing without them; politicians may mistrust spies, but their intelligence often provides the only available basis for rational policy making. And, before the relationship has had time to heal, along comes President Trump. He has both a deep dislike of intelligence agencies and an ambivalent view of their output. As he explained on Fox News in December, he does not intend to have a daily intelligence briefing, as is usual for US presidents: “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day.”

In late January, US special forces raided an extremist compound in Yemen. It was the first such covert action of Trump’s presidency and 30 people, including women, children and an American soldier, were killed. Officials from the US military told Reuters that the Navy SEAL team assaulted a reinforced al-Qaeda base, “defended by land mines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.” Trump had approved the operation, “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”

If Trump is unwilling to make full use of the intelligence at his disposal, then his ability to make decisions will be diminished and there will be more failures like the Yemen operation. It is vitally important for Trump to restore normal relations with his agencies. If he does not, there will be consequences not only for the US, but for its allies including the UK and, potentially, the global security order.

The relationship between government and its spies has always been complicated. In 1986, Michael Howard, the founder of the War Studies Department at King’s College, London, wrote that, “the activities of the intelligence and security services have always been regarded in the same light as marital sex. Everyone knows that it goes on and is quite content that it should, but to speak, write or ask questions about it is regarded as bad form.” The quip makes a serious point—intelligence requires governments if not exactly to turn a blind eye, perhaps at least to blink at the right moment.

“The point about secret intelligence is that it’s information... that other people desperately don’t want you to have and will go to almost any lengths to prevent you having,” said David Omand, the former Director of GCHQ, the UK’s secret listening service. “And the only way you can get that kind of forewarning information is essentially by stealing it.” Since the Tudor period, organisations have been put in place by monarchs and governments, in Britain and elsewhere, to gather this information. “From that followed two inevitable consequences,” Omand told me. “First, that there’s a political risk because you have to use methods that you would not want in use in common society or ordinary society. And second you have got to keep how you are doing it secret.”

This is the root of the ever-present tension between political leaders and their security agencies, which has—on occasion—burst out into open hostility. J Edgar Hoover, the fierce founding head of the FBI, openly detested John F Kennedy. Richard Nixon disliked the CIA so much that he refused to have any presidential intelligence briefings at all, leaving his deputies to deal with the spies. Harold Wilson was deeply suspicious of MI5 and MI6, which he suspected were trying to undermine him—quite possibly with good reason. So suspicion between spies and government is nothing new.

When 9/11 came, the interests of government and the intelligence agencies briefly snapped into lock-step. The so-called “War on Terror” relied heavily on intelligence sources for information on terrorist networks and extremist ideology—where governments and spies had once viewed one another with suspicion, now they fought side by side. Before long, they got too close.

George Tenet was Director of the CIA at the time of 9/11. “He did many good things at the agency,” said Nixon of his former boss. “But one bad thing he did was that he created a culture of ‘serving the customer.’” Tenet was the son of Greek immigrants, and his family ran a diner in Queens, in New York City. George used to work at the family business when he was a young man. “I think George ran the agency the way that his father ran that diner,” said Nixon. “The customer is always happy. Make sure they like you and that you leave them wanting more. That is exactly how George ran the agency. That I think is where you start getting this culture of, ‘we’ll let the president decide what he wants to know and then we’ll give him lots of it.’ Unfortunately we stopped giving him what he needed to know.”

The US and UK governments wanted evidence of WMD, so the spies supplied it. As Iraq’s sectarian war deepened, George W Bush demanded daily meetings with intelligence officials, especially in the run-up to the surge of 2007, when five additional brigades of US troops, 20,000 men, were put into Baghdad and Anbar province to help put down the raging insurgency. This helped to quell the worst of the violence, but the damage to the relationship between government and the spies was already done. “I had high hopes for Bush,” said Nixon. “I voted for him and I thought—this will be great for the agency, you know. We will do great things. And you know it was an absolute disaster.”

The WMD fiasco was an example of political risk in extremis. The US and UK governments staked everything on WMD and lost. The result was a huge backlash against those responsible. “For years we’ve been kind of a piñata that politicians have been hitting repeatedly,” said Nixon. “We’ve had to sit there and take it. The Bush and Obama years have been very rough.”

When Obama came to office, he increased the US’s use of Special Forces and drones to pursue targets, and the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden was a moment of near catharsis for the intelligence agencies. But the memory of the misadventure in Iraq still hung over relations between government and the spies. When it came to Syria, the CIA faced a deep challenge, not just in the complexity of the situation, but in the lack of political focus. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, was in favour of identifying and backing an insurgent group to confront Bashar al-Assad—an operation that would have been conducted by the CIA. But the intelligence community was divided. Some wanted to get involved while others, remembering Iraq, did not. The result was paralysis. Obama did not to intervene, and Russia took control of the Syrian war.

“I know a lot of agency people are really kind of disgusted with Obama and the way he treated [the CIA],” said Nixon. “It wasn’t as painful as the neocons but it was a harmful sort of neglect,” which revealed, “just how irrelevant the agency had become.”

However, Obama did act decisively in his decision to close down the highly-controversial detention units, set up by the CIA under George W Bush, known as “black sites.” Here, detainees were held without trial, out of reach of the Red Cross and were not treated according to the Geneva Convention. They were tortured. Obama shut them down on his third day in office—but Trump made it clear during his presidential campaign that he wanted to open them up again and bring back waterboarding, a form of torture that simulates drowning. He also said he was willing to allow prisoners to be subjected to “a hell of a lot worse.”

The torture question has long been inflammatory in politics. When CBS News published pictures in 2004 of hooded prisoners standing on boxes with wires attached to their fingertips in Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq—an installation jointly overseen by the US army and the CIA—global outrage ensued at what fast became the defining image of the depravity to which the War on Terror had sunk. Torture has been divisive in intelligence circles, too. Many were morally or practically opposed to the black sites and what went on there. Mike Scheuer—a former CIA operative who ran its Bin Laden unit before 9/11 and later acted as the unit’s special adviser—used to be one. More recently, he has changed his mind. The drone and special forces warfare that he says has proved effective against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, “greatly increased the need for precise targeting information... therefore,” he told me, “the captures and interrogations were pivotal.” “The end of the rendition and interrogation programme made the acquisition of the same kind of detailed targeting information a rare occurrence.”

What happens next is one of the gravest uncertainties confronting America’s security state. Some Trump appointees are as cavalier as the President himself. When in 2014, the US Intelligence Committee published a report criticising the CIA’s use of torture during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s choice to run the CIA, described it as a “liberal game.” But James Mattis, Secretary of Defence, is against the use of torture. Trump has since indicated that he may defer to this view.

Despite this slim concession, the Trump era could make the recent past look like a breeze. He’s not so much sheltering behind the spies as picking fights with them. In the week before his inauguration, rumours began to spread that Russian operatives had gathered compromising material on the President-Elect. Trump’s response was to blame, not the Russians, but his own side. He accused the intelligence agencies of leaking damaging information in order to discredit him, and on Twitter asked, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” When a dossier subsequently emerged setting out the lurid allegations in full, Trump told a press conference: “I want to thank a lot of the news organisations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by, maybe, the intelligence agencies, who knows, which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they did that.” Several US security and intelligence agencies are still investigating Trump’s links with Russia.

A few weeks earlier, on 6th January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a report into Russian hacking during the presidential election. The report stated that, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-Elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him.”

In his response, Trump aimed for the weak spot, and hit hard. In a statement, he said: “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

The National Intelligence Council was founded in 1979 to act as a conduit between America’s spy agencies and its politicians, and from 2014 until 20th January this year, its chairman was Greg Treverton. “It’s hard to be happy with the current set of circumstances because there’s just so much uncertainty,” said Treverton. “There is a very large set of professionals in the intelligence agencies and they’re prepared to do anything for a president that’s legal. And so to set out to offend them, to diss them, that seems to me to be really kind of worse than stupid.”

Treverton was talking not only about Trump’s remarks about WMD and Nazi Germany, but about a speech at the CIA’s headquarters in his first days after taking office. There, at Langley, Virginia, Trump stood before a wall dedicated to CIA employees killed in the line of duty, each death marked by a star. On the opposite wall, which he faced as he spoke, is carved the words: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Trump used the occasion to riff on the size of the crowd at his inauguration. “I looked out, the field was—it looked like a million, million and a half people,” he said to an audience of CIA personnel and his own staff. “Honestly, it looked like a million and a half people. Whatever it was, it was. But it went all the way back to the Washington Monument.” He assured them he did not have a feud with the intelligence community, and blamed the media for suggesting otherwise. “It is exactly the opposite,” he told the gathering.

The speech was not a success. In a statement, John Brennan, who was in the process of stepping down as Director of the CIA, said that he was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandisement in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes.”

“There’ll be damage,” Treverton told me. “And if what you do is not esteemed by the commander-in-chief, that’s bound to have some effect on recruiting, I think.” A loss of morale among America’s intelligence community would certainly be welcomed by its adversaries, including Vladimir Putin.

Intelligence is deeply embedded in US policy making, after 15 years of continuous war. “But now we’ve turned a corner into a pretty uncertain future where the politics of the relationship have gotten really pretty tense,” said Treverton. “So far he’s been an intermittent user of intelligence,” he said. “But now he’s responsible for what happens in Syria. It’s a very complicated place. It’s not something you can easily parse by watching television.” He added: “He hasn’t shown many signs of being very curious... He doesn’t seem like much of a reader.”

"Trump could make the past look like a breeze. He's not sheltering behind the spies but picking fights with them"
“It’s the first time I remember an incoming president acting so disdainfully of the intelligence agencies,” says Karin von Hippel, the former Chief of Staff to General John Allen, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter Islamic State. “The intelligence agencies exist to support the principals,” explained von Hippel, who is now Director-General of Rusi, the London-based security and defence think tank. She warned that the problems could get worse, especially “if there’s a morale issue or they think that the president is making decisions and not paying attention to the intelligence they provide.”

A further problem stems from Trump’s language. In a January appearance on ABC News, he told an interviewer: “I’ve spoken as recently as 24hrs ago with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question: does it work? Does torture work? And the answer was yes. Absolutely.” With this statement, Trump cast his spies into a legal jungle. George W Bush allowed torture in CIA black sites, but never called it torture. This provided his spies with a veneer of legal and moral cover—they could insist it was merely “enhanced interrogation.” Trump’s use of the word itself sweeps away any legal ambiguity. If he does press ahead with re-opening the black sites and if he does allow the use of waterboarding, CIA interrogators and those from other agencies will be using techniques that the US government has accepted—and admitted—amount to torture. The spies will be legally exposed. They will also know that once Trump has gone, another administration with very different views could take office. There could be personal repercussions—and political blowback. America’s allies, including the UK, would be unable to participate in operations involving torture or other practices, for moral and also legal reasons (see Andrew Tyrie's piece in this issue) Britain would be prevented from using intelligence derived from those operations and the ability of Britain to extradite suspects to the US would be diminished.

For British intelligence officials, Trump seems to be summoning the very worst of the War on Terror. Pauline Neville-Jones, the former Minister for Security and Counter Terrorism and former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee called the president’s remarks on torture “off the edge of the screen,” and “extraordinary.” While taking comfort in Trump’s willingness to defer to level-headed advisers, his comments, she told me, were “extraordinarily destructive of America’s reputation for standing for human rights and moral leadership.” His words will not hurt the day-to-day intelligence work between Britain and America, she said. The problem comes when the UK wants to bring a suspect to court and needs the help of the US administration to get evidence from, say, Google or some other third party. “Then you are having to deal with and ask favours of an administration that is not in terribly good standing [with its own people]. That’s the sort of thing it seems to me where it could become more difficult.”

It’s an increasingly common scenario. “In the good old days,” says von Hippel, “you’d go to a smoky room and talk to people and get information, leave and write it up and send it back. These days people are tweeting and photographing.” The great leveller is encryption. Once government had the monopoly on technology, especially communications technology, but that is no longer the case. Now, being able to cajole private organisations into sharing data is part of intelligence work. Now governments have all the more reason to keep to the moral high ground. Facebook would be unwilling to share information on a person if it put them at risk of torture.

Since 9/11, the relationship between spies and government has undergone profound change, but Trump is destabilising it as never before. Where Obama tried to break with the abusive practices of the War on Terror, Trump seems determined to resurrect them, while cutting himself off from expert advice. In January, he reorganised the National Security Council, the cabinet-level body that helps to set US security policy. He reduced the roles played on the council by the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and decreed that from now on, it would have a new attendee: Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and a founder of Breitbart News, a controversial hard-right website. Bannon, who has no security experience, will have a permanent presence on the body that determines US security policy. The intelligence agencies will not. (Trump’s press officials have challenged this view of events.) The ban on people from certain Muslim countries entering the US bears the stamp of Bannon’s thinking and was enacted despite its obvious chaotic consequences. Among these, it threatens the ability of US intelligence, and its allies, to work with counterparts in countries subject to the ban. Learning of Bannon’s appointment, Susan Rice, the former National Security Adviser, called the decision “stone cold crazy.”

For at least the next four years, the US’s intelligence agencies will be expected to share their deepest secrets with Trump and because of Britain’s continued commitment to cooperation, UK secrets will also be in his in-tray. Will he pay any attention?

Perhaps it was a relationship that was destined to be stormy—intelligence agencies are supposed to tell leaders hard truths, and Trump has a notoriously strained relationship with the truth. Even so, they must tell him what they know. And even if he does listen to what they say, might his indiscreet nature make the agencies hesitant about telling him secrets, worried that he might reveal them? “Absolutely,” said von Hippel, “it’s a very good point, especially if he’s revealing secret information.”

“I don’t know if that’s actually grounds to impeach a President,” she said. “You should ask a lawyer that.”