Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
President Donald Trump’s already-tense relationship with his own intelligence officials has deteriorated in recent weeks, with Trump going out of his way to attack their judgment.
And as former CIA official Stephen Hall writes in the Washington Post, this could have serious consequences including a loss of talent in the intelligence community, erosion of credibility with foreign governments, and an increased risk to national security.
“Inside the CIA (and, I would imagine, also in other intelligence agencies), there is a well-respected tradition of encouraging the workforce to ignore politics,” says Hall. “CIA officers are not hired or fired for their political beliefs, but rather for their competence and, in the case of more junior officers, their potential. Integrity is the key factor in hiring and retention; I never saw a case where personal politics played a role in hiring or firing. Nor did I ever witness politics playing a role in operational or analytical decisions. For decades, CIA leaders, as well as front-line managers, have counseled patience, suggesting that officers don professional blinders when it comes to public pronouncements regarding the arcane work of intelligence.”
The problem, as Hall sees it, is that when the President of the United States calls his own CIA and FBI directors, and his own Director of National Intelligence, “passive and naive” people who should “go back to school” because their Worldwide Threat Assessmentdisagrees with him on the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, and border security, that can make it hard for intelligence officers to do their work in a nonpartisan vacuum. Because, as he puts it, “the Holy Grail of intelligence professionals is knowing that the information they helped collect, analyze and disseminate went straight to the president, the commander — and intelligence consumer — in chief,” but now they know their findings could be ignored, dismissed, or publicly scorned by him if it doesn’t suit his narrative.
“I am not predicting a mass exodus of intelligence officers from federal service,” Hall continues. Intelligence work is some of the most fascinating, complex and rewarding work that our government does, and its practitioners are dedicated and thick-skinned. But they’re not used to sophomoric public criticism from an impulsive, angry president, and they may eventually decide that it’s just not worth it.”
Another consequence, Hall warns, could be that foreign intelligence services will be less willing to collaborate with ours.
“Trump’s inappropriate public criticisms will also have a chilling effect on one of the United States’ most potent intelligence force multipliers: our relationships with allied foreign intelligence agencies,” he says. “Indeed, the president’s comments are uniquely self-defeating, in that our best hope for monitoring and perhaps modifying the behavior of rogue states such as Iran, North Korea and Russia are working in unison with our partners. Many have already taken note of Trump’s cavalier attitude toward sensitive information, as well as his apparent failure to understand the basic rules of intelligence sharing. Recall when our president shared sensitive intelligence obtained from one of our foreign partners with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for example. I would be deeply surprised if many of our best intelligence allies were not already holding back information they would normally pass to their U.S. counterparts, for fear Trump might not be able to keep a secret. (Their concerns might even be darker when they consider the possibility that our president has reportedly discussed sensitive matters with Russian President Vladimir Putin behind closed doors with no record of the conversation).”
The effect of all of this, says Hall, is that our intelligence services will not work as effectively, and our country’s ability to counter threats will suffer.
“[W]e are well past the point where we can write off the president’s public criticisms of the intelligence community as those of a political outsider, who despite his constant missteps has a heart of gold and the best of intentions,” Hall concludes. “We are now at the point where Trump’s actions are making us all less safe.”