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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump argues with CNN's Jim Acosta during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2YK8W
Order from Chaos

How Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community will come back to haunt him

Daniel Benjamin
Editor's Note:

No American president can succeed in foreign policy—and by extension his term as commander-in-chief—without a good relationship with the intelligence community, writes Daniel Benjamin. And President-elect Donald Trump's pre-inauguration tantrums will haunt him. This piece originally appeared on Politico Magazine.

Donald Trump’s wild, swinging attacks against the intelligence community have been so far off the charts of traditional behavior for a president-elect that it is hard to wrap one’s mind around—and impossible not to wonder what lies behind it. That Trump is trying to throw everyone off the track of his ties to Russia and whatever compromising information it has, as CNN is reporting, seems increasingly plausible.

Whatever the case, Trump’s assaults on a core element of the government he is soon to lead have most observers focusing on the damage he is doing to the 17 institutions that house our spies and analysts. In his campaign to smother the notion that Russia hacked the U.S. election, he has thus far smeared the CIA and its sister agencies with accusations of politicizing intelligence, gross incompetence and even fabrication—to the horror of Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the foreign policy establishment and of course the intelligence community itself.

Less remarked upon, but perhaps more consequential, is the eye-opening job Trump is doing at sabotaging his own presidency before it even starts. I say that mindful that the president-elect prevailed in the election even as everyone thought he was digging himself into a hopeless position. In the end, there is simply no evading the scorecard that governing creates. No American president can succeed in foreign policy—and by extension his term as commander-in-chief—without a good relationship with the intelligence community. Indeed, historically speaking, the CIA is usually one of the very first agencies to establish a relationship with new chief executives, because of the briefings it delivers before elections have even occurred and the beguiling prospect it offers of handling missions quietly and efficiently.

[Trump’s] pre-inauguration tantrums will haunt him.

Perhaps Trump thinks that he, CIA director designate Michael Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence designate Dan Coats can charm the intel community back into line. Given Trump’s adoration for Putin, strained relationship with facts and disinclination to hear bad news, I’m guessing this won’t happen. Instead, his pre-inauguration tantrums will haunt him. Here’s five reasons why.

Disrespected spies can’t do their jobs. The charges Trump has leveled at the intelligence community (IC) are demoralizing. There may be no more effective way to undermine the CIA and other intel agencies than charging them with politicization. The intelligence community lives and dies by its reputation for providing the unvarnished truth, and, though many may be surprised to hear it, the culture of these institutions is remarkably free of politics. I have been amazed, time and again, to hear from career intelligence people that they don’t know the partisan leanings of people they work closely with; it is just not talked about. Trump’s claim, after some of the first briefings he received last summer, that he could tell by his CIA briefers’ “body language” that they were dissatisfied because “our leaders did not follow what they were recommending” set off alarms on this count early on.

Faced with these insults, as well as Trump’s continual lack of interest in intelligence, top career officials are going to find it hard to lean into their jobs. These are hardworking, tough, patriotic people and they undoubtedly will want to do their best. But working for a chief executive who believes he is “like, a smart person,” doesn’t need to hear the “the same things in the same words” at regular briefings and disparages his experts in public is bound to be dispiriting. Ultimately, they will find it tougher to push their considered views against his surly blasts. How many times will the briefers come back to warn Trump that his friend Vladimir Putin is indeed hacking U.S. government computers or massing troops on the borders of Estonia or Latvia when he refuses to heed it?

The implications of this kind of alienation could be profound, both for U.S. national security and Trump’s legacy. Trump’s experience as a New York real estate developer and Page Six celebrity has undoubtedly introduced him to plenty of unusual characters. If he thinks he can understand North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without the help of the experts, well, God help us.

Trump has devalued an important asset. Trump has cast a big shadow over the quality of the IC’s work by invoking its 2002 misjudgment on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to suggest that it is also wrong about Putin’s recent meddling in U.S. politics. That’s an appalling smear, not least because cherry-picking is terrible analysis. Trump overlooks the 15 years since the invasion of Iraq, a period in which the IC raised its game time, found Osama bin Laden and did the lion’s share of the work to destroy al-Qaida. Those are just the high points and say nothing about the terabytes of tactical information and analysis the IC churns out every day to keep American foreign and security policy running.

This kind of trash talking diminishes public respect for the intelligence community, which relies on government officials to defend its reputation because so much of its work never is never heard of outside the Executive Branch. This might work for Trump in the short run, as he scrambles to defend the legitimacy of the 2016 election. Eventually, it will backfire. At some point during his presidency, Trump is going to want to act on intelligence he receives. And what will happen when he tries to justify to the nation that he is deploying troops or firing missiles on the basis of information brought to him by agencies he has so thoroughly denigrated? Trump seems not to understand that governing is a team sport, and that his credibility will ultimately depend on those who serve the administration.

Top talent will flee. Who wants to work for an organization that has become the White House’s punching bag? As former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell has argued, Trump’s public repudiation of the community will prompt its stars to wonder why they work crazy hours for civil service salaries. Senior intelligence managers are in high demand—just visit the headquarters of a few large financial institutions and you can see. Washington is awash with the consulting firms of former senior CIA officials who will do everything from open the doors of the powerful in faraway places to provide sophisticated risk analysis. One doesn’t often hear about them going belly-up. Younger analysts and intelligence collectors, who watched their college classmates march off to fabulous incomes at Bridgewater, Goldman Sachs and innumerable tech startups, will have ample reason to reconsider their choices. At a time when the government needs more intelligence on more subjects every year, a downturn in recruitment and quality could be felt quickly.

Leakers and whistleblowers won’t hesitate. What Morell and other intelligence veterans are too decorous to mention is that Trump’s treatment of his spies will also come back to bite him in the form of leaking and whistleblowing. The intelligence community doesn’t leak as much as the Pentagon or Congress, but when its reputation is at stake, it can do so to devastating effect.

When something goes wrong—say a military deployment to combat jihadi insurgents in the Middle East blows up in the Trump administration’s face—the press will overflow with stories telling of intelligence reports that were ignored by the White House and briefings the president missed. The current administration suffered this treatment on a number of memorable occasions, including, perhaps most dramatically, the deluge of stories about other options it could have chosen in Syria—and that is despite the fact that Barack Obama has probably had a better relationship with the IC than any American leader since George H.W. Bush, who served as CIA director a dozen years before being elected president.

Imagine what an aggrieved intel community might do to a genuinely hostile president.

No one will stick his neck out for the president. One form of punishment that the intelligence community can mete out will likely come to gall Trump and his team most: passivity. Inevitably, there will be missions that Trump wants carried out secretly and effectively, so he can avoid deploying the military and suffering public criticism.

But it is an iron law of bureaucracy that no agency will knock itself out for a leader it deems capricious, especially one who cannot be relied on to defend his own if something goes wrong.

Considering the crowd around him, it may not be long before Trump asks, for example, for covert options to destabilize the Iranian regime. The answer from the intel community will never be no. Instead, the planners will brief the president on three different approaches. Then they will assess the risk of failure for each at 60-80 percent, providing the Oval Office with a dare it cannot possibly accept. For some, of course, this could turn out to be a silver lining in otherwise dismal story.

President-elect Trump has shown distinctive tastes in world leaders, quoting Benito Mussolini approvingly, openly admiring Putin and lauding Saddam Hussein’s counterterrorism efforts. Another figure who fits well into this lineup is the totalitarian Josef Stalin, who also ignored and disparaged the foreign intelligence that was brought to him, especially the assessments in 1940-1941 about a Nazi buildup on Soviet Russia’s borders. That didn’t work out too well for Stalin and his people. Trump might ponder that.

Check out our other foreign policy blog, Markaz, on politics in and policy towards the Middle East. Read all the Order from Chaos content »

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