Is Trump’s rage at US intelligence unprecedented?

With enemies like these, who needs friends?

January 12, 2017
President-Elect Donald Trump speaks at a press conference at Trump Tower on 11th January, 2017 ©Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA USA/PA Images
President-Elect Donald Trump speaks at a press conference at Trump Tower on 11th January, 2017 ©Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA USA/PA Images

Media reports often like to describe news as “unprecedented,” when in fact, on closer inspection, we find that similar events occurred in the past. It is tempting to suppose that the remarkable public distrust shown between US President-Elect, Donald Trump, and the US intelligence community, is not too different from times past, when US spy agencies also attracted the scorn of presidents. Perhaps all that is new today is that a president-elect’s suspicion about intelligence is now playing publicly, on Twitter, for all to see, rather than behind closed doors.

However, even for those who are historically minded, inclined to see today’s world through a lens of the past, Donald Trump’s relationship with US intelligence already seems historically bad. Even before taking office, Trump has won the race to the bottom in an inglorious line of poor relations between the White House and its intelligence agencies. Indeed, relations are now so poor that US intelligence agencies may soon come to have a better relationship with their UK counterparts than with Trump.

Never before has a president-elect publicly criticised the US intelligence community, which he will soon preside over politically and militarily as commander in chief, while at the same time praising the leader of a foreign country, Vladimir Putin, assessed by US intelligence as hostile. On Thursday last week, the outgoing US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on foreign cyberthreats that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential campaign by hacking and spreading propaganda. The next day, some of America’s top intelligence officials briefed the president-elect on their findings. Afterwards, the DNI’s Office released a declassified report on Russian interference. It describes Russia as a “full-scope cyber actor” and states that Putin launched an "influence campaign" to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and aid Trump.

It now appears that, during their confidential meeting with Trump on Friday last week, US intelligence officials also briefed the president-elect on reports circulating that Russian intelligence had compromising personal material on him. The underlying reports themselves, apparently obtained by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele—who, having been outed, has gone into hiding—have now been published. Although they are unverified, and should therefore be treated with extreme caution, it should be pointed out that Russia’s intelligence services have a long tradition of attempting to gather compromising material (kompromat) on western politicians, including presidential candidates, to blackmail them and undermine their public credibility by leaking it. Putting the matter starkly, it is unclear whether, as the reports allege, the president-elect has been cultivated and compromised by the Russian intelligence services. Alternatively, Trump himself may now be the victim of a disinformation campaign to blacken his name.

Yesterday morning, on Twitter, Trump dismissed the underlying reports as a “witch hunt” and “fake news” and questioned whether we are living in “Nazi Germany”—although the analogy with the Soviet Union would seem more apposite. Later, during his first press conference in six months, he suggested that US intelligence agencies may have been responsible for leaking reports about Russia holding compromising material on him. Clapper has said that yesterday evening he told Trump this was not the case. Trump also drew attention to the fact that Moscow has denied that it has compromising material on him. In an unfortunate turn of phrase as far as intelligence is concerned, Trump described his relationship with Putin as an “asset.” Whatever the truth of the reports, it is difficult to remember a time when a US president-elect relied on Russian statements, not those of the US intelligence community, to support a position.

After it broke last month, the president-elect’s initial response to the hacking scandal was to castigate the US intelligence community, and the CIA in particular, questioning why he should believe their assessments when they were “the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.” He also suggested that, once president, he would slash the CIA and scythe other parts of US intelligence community. Since his election, he has reportedly declined to receive daily intelligence briefings, which for decades has been a tradition for presidents-elect—to prepare them for their first day of office. Instead, he has apparently made them more of a weekly affair. However, he has gone much further than criticism of US intelligence and dismissing its value. In a series of Tweets, he initially responded to the hacking scandal by describing Putin as “very smart” and apparently praising Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks.

In his senate testimonial last week, James Clapper, America’s top intelligence official, apparently took a swipe at the president-elect’s statements about US intelligence. Without naming Trump explicitly, Clapper said there was a difference between “healthy scepticism” of intelligence reports that Russia interfered in the US election and “disparagement” of the intelligence community. Some retired senior US intelligence officials, free from restrictions of office imposed on them, have been more explicit. Before the election, one former acting head of the CIA, Michael Morell, stated publicly that Trump’s character traits posed a threat to US national security. Last week, Morell stated that Trump’s rejection of US intelligence assessment about Russia’s interference, and his apparent crusade against the CIA, not only presents “an unprecedented political challenge” for US national security establishment, but also “a danger to the nation.”

From all this, it seems difficult to see a way in which the president-elect and the US intelligence community will avoid an explosive showdown in the future. In some ways, however, we have been here before, with similarly acidic relations between US intelligence and the White House in the past. In 1968, Richard Nixon, as President-Elect, and then as President, had a volatile distrust of the CIA, apparently stemming from his conviction that the Agency undermined his unsuccessful bid for Presidency in 1960, which he lost to John F Kennedy. After his loss, Nixon continued to convince himself that the CIA was his political opponent.

After he became President in 1969, during his very first post-election session with Henry Kissinger, who would become his national security advisor, Nixon rebuked the Agency as a group of “Ivy League liberals” who lacked analytic integrity and had always opposed him politically. Like Trump, Nixon did not see the value of CIA intelligence briefings. It is unclear whether Nixon read any of the President’s Daily Briefs, the CIA’s flagship top-secret product tailored for each President. At one point, Nixon instructed his Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), James Schlesinger, to "Get rid of the clowns. What use are they? They've got 40,000 people over there [at the  CIA] reading newspapers." Within three months, Schlesinger had got rid of 10 per cent of the Agency’s workforce.

Following the 1975-76 Church Committee investigation of the CIA for spying on anti-Vietnam War activists, relations between the White House and the CIA again nose-dived. President Jimmy Carter’s DCI, Stansfield Turner, favoured scientific and technical intelligence over human intelligence, a traditional focus for the CIA. Turner dismissed hundreds of Agency employees in a mass firing dubbed the "Halloween Massacre" of 1979. Years later, relations between President Bill Clinton and his first DCI, Jim Woolsey—more recently an adviser on the Trump transition team—were also remarkably poor. Clinton had less direct contact with his DCI, Woolsey, than any previous president had done. When, in a bizarre episode in 1994, a Cessna aircraft crashed on the grounds of the White House, it soon became a Washington joke that Woolsey had piloted the plane in a desperate last attempt to get a meeting with Clinton.

An old maxim in the intelligence world is that, to operate effectively, an intelligence agency should be able to tell truth to power. Put another way, they need to be able to tell political leaders what they do not want to hear. Judging from his approach towards intelligence so far, it is difficult to see Trump abiding by this maxim. To give him the benefit of the doubt, it is possible that once in office and presented with the full weight of its responsibilities and challenges facing the US, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation, he will appreciate that the US intelligence community exists to assist presidents—as friends, not enemies.

In his press conference yesterday, Trump finally stated about the electoral hacking scandal, “I think it was Russia”—but also added, “it could have been others.” Politically it is understandable why, until now, Trump has been dismissive of US intelligence reports about Russian interference: they challenge the legitimacy of his electoral victory. Furthermore, behind all his bombast and iconoclasm in his speeches and on Twitter, Trump does have a legitimate point about the need to ask some hard questions about the role of US intelligence.

Streamlining parts of the US intelligence community, which is now comprised of sixteen different agencies, would probably be beneficial. Since 9/11, US intelligence agencies have expanded dramatically, and with increase in size has also come mission creep. The CIA, for example, is now an all-source (open and closed source) intelligence provider. There is a good argument to be made that US intelligence agencies should concentrate on delivering information to the president that cannot be obtained from other sources. If a president can read information in the pages of the New York Times, why does he need to receive it in an intelligence briefing?

There are also signs for optimism about Trump’s future dealings with intelligence in the person James Mattis, who Trump has appointed as Defence Secretary. Mattis is known not to suffer fools lightly, favours a hard-line against Russia, and is unlikely to give the president sycophantic intelligence assessments. There are, however, causes for concern. Trump’s appointment of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser is unlikely to produce smooth relations with the US intelligence community. Flynn was fired after serving only two years as Obama’s head of the Defence Intelligence Agency amid reports that his views and management style were disruptive and chaotic.

One of the striking aspects emerging about the hacking scandal is that British intelligence was apparently first to tip off US intelligence that Russian hackers were targeting Democrat computer servers. It is reported that the same Russian cyber group that allegedly interfered in the US election, “Fancy Bears,” previously attempted to disrupt the UK General Election in 2015, but its attacks were foiled by Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ. The UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, discussed these incidents in purposefully non-specific language in his “Report of the Bulk Powers Review” published in August 2016.

Close connections between British and US intelligence about Russian hacking are not surprising: historically, Anglo-American intelligence relations have been uniquely close—the most special part of the so-called Special Relationship. Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA are so closely connected that, in some parts, they are practically inter-twined. If relations between US intelligence and the president-elect continue on present course, as bad as they are, they may soon produce a surprising result: it may soon be that relations are closer between US and British intelligence, across the Atlantic, than between US intelligence and the American president himself.