Will Team Trump Politicize Intelligence?

December 15, 2016

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Donald Trump seems to have little use for intelligence. He openly disdains the CIA’s conclusions about Russian hacking, claiming that no one really knows who stole emails from the Democratic National Committee. His transition team has mocked the intelligence community for getting it wrong on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. And he is uninterested in receiving the President’s Daily Brief, which has been part of the president’s morning routine for decades. Instead, he wants briefers to stay in touch with his advisors. They’ll let him know if anything important happens.

Who are those advisors? One key figure is retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor. Flynn has a checkered history with intelligence. As a military commander he earned high praise for using tactical intelligence to undermine al-Qaeda’s network in Iraq. But as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), his reputation was toxic. The New York Times reports that at an early meeting with DIA officials, “Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.”

His attitude towards the CIA was also combative. While in uniform in Afghanistan, he co-authored a report concluding that the intelligence community was only “marginally relevant” to U.S. strategy. Since retiring from the military, his comments have become more hostile, including an interview last year in which Flynn accused the agency of being a political tool for the Obama administration.

Trump’s faith in Flynn implies a lack of belief in the intelligence community, and his reputation for power plays suggests he will try to bend it to his will, especially after the CIA reportedly claimed that the Kremlin sought to place him in power. Politicizing intelligence, however, will have terrible consequences. In the short-term it is likely to skew CIA assessments. Difficult questions that require careful and nuanced answers will increasingly reflect Trump’s blunt views.

In the medium-term, intelligence assessments will become myopic and inflexible. Having experienced pressure from above, officials will want to avoid revisiting earlier findings in ways that challenge the administration’s beliefs. Politicized intelligence agencies tend to double down on their conclusions, even if new information emerges that should force a reassessment.

But the greatest risk is long-term. Episodes of politicization have effects that linger for years or decades. Turmoil between policymakers and intelligence agencies reinforces negative stereotypes: As relations deteriorate, policymakers see intelligence officials as bureaucratic obstacles, and intelligence officials see policymakers as meddling bullies. It takes a long time to rehabilitate intelligence-policy relations after mutual mistrust and hostility sets in.

The Iraq War – which Trump’s transition team used to attack the CIA’s credibility – is a cautionary tale. Contrary to Trump’s statements, the notorious Iraq estimates were as much a result of policy pressure from the George W. Bush administration as they were from analytical errors. The hothouse environment before the war transformed beliefs about Iraq – which were wrong but measured – into a consensus that went far beyond previous estimates. Worst-case scenarios became mainstream positions.

Having gone public, intelligence leaders were reluctant to revisit their findings, even though new information from U.N. weapons inspectors threw doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusions about Iraq’s WMD. Doing so would have been an embarrassing and dangerous admission of earlier errors.

After the invasion revealed no such weapons, Bush administration officials publicly blamed the intelligence community for delivering faulty conclusions. Intelligence officials responded in kind. Years passed before relations recovered.

One lesson of the Iraq War is that intelligence should be handled with care. Answers to the most important questions about national security are rarely straightforward. At its best, intelligence helps policymakers by reducing uncertainty, not by offering point predictions about future events. Narrowing the bounds of uncertainty helps identify the range of plausible policy options.

Politicizing intelligence makes this impossible. By forcing intelligence to toe the policy line, it creates and reinforces a policy echo chamber. And by appointing hostile figures to lead intelligence agencies, it risks driving away experienced analysts who are critical in the best sense of the term. The upshot is that politicized intelligence is not just wrong, but aggressively and self-confidently wrong.

None of this needs to happen. The campaign is over. Trump does not need to beat up intelligence professionals to score political points. On the other hand, he may find it useful for understanding international responses to his provocative plans, and for dealing with crises and unexpected events. As the president-elect wraps up his victory tour and settles into the work of governing, he should ratchet down his rhetoric about the intelligence community. He should also look for a director of national intelligence who is widely respected for his integrity and independence.

Intelligence leaders are not passive actors either. While they must respond to legitimate requests from the White House, they should not pander to the administration in hopes of currying favor later. This type of “soft politicization” usually backfires. They must also resist the urge to enter into public debates. The more that intelligence agencies enter the fray, the more they become just another bureaucratic player, subject to the normal slings and arrows of Washington politics. CIA director John Brennan’s public support of the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, has not helped the agency’s claim to be impartial and objective.

Trump’s pick for director of the agency, Mike Pompeo, has been noticeably silent since his nomination. His discretion will be important if the CIA hopes to play a useful role in the policy process. The alternative is to continue down the road to politicization, which will do grave damage to intelligence and policy alike.

 

Joshua Rovner is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).

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19 thoughts on “Will Team Trump Politicize Intelligence?

  1. “Donald Trump seems to have little use for intelligence. He openly disdains the CIA’s conclusions about Russian hacking, claiming that no one really knows who stole emails from the Democratic National Committee. “
    •As far as public unclassified reporting goes, the Intel Community doesn’t know who hacked into the DNC and gave the email files over to WikiLeaks. Nor should they say anything if there is an active criminal investigation by the FBI.
    •If you’ve spent any time in Cyber Security you know that attribution is rarely 100% and while it’s easy to point the finger at Russia, because they certainly do have the technical capability to do so, if you look specifically at the DNC case this type of breach could have been conducted by any “hacker” to be honest. It’s an unsecure email system. Not something a state actor would need to put in much effort to breach.
    •Frankly there are only two agency opinions that matter on this is, one is the NSA, because this falls directly in their wheel house as far as understanding specific network intrusion capabilities and the other is the FBI if there is going to be a criminal investigation into the matter.

    “His transition team has mocked the intelligence community for getting it wrong on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “
    •And? The IC did get it wrong. They should be embarrassed by this, it’s a major failure. The administration based their decision to invade Iraq on information from a complete liar. A single HUMINT source: Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi who had his own agenda. There was ZERO evidence, to support this guy’s claims, yet we went ahead and invaded Iraq anyway.
    “And he is uninterested in receiving the President’s Daily Brief, which has been part of the president’s morning routine for decades. Instead, he wants briefers to stay in touch with his advisors. They’ll let him know if anything important happens.”
    • He’s not the President yet, he is President elect. Plus if you actually listen to the news this week, he or someone on his staff is receiving the briefing every day. How much are you expecting him to do before he is even sworn in as President and starts the job?
    “But as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), his reputation was toxic. The New York Times reports that at an early meeting with DIA officials, “Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.””
    • WOW, you mean a General Officer has an ego. Well call me surprised. I take it you haven’t worked with many General Officers before or senior leaders in general. Sure if this is true, it’s a stupid thing to say, we all know, nobody is right 100% of the time, however, if that’s the best you have to criticize Flynn, then you’re grasping at straws
    • As far as the Toxic environment at DIA, that existed long before Flynn arrived, existed after he left, and still exists today. Anyone who has every worked at DIA or with DIA the last 20 years can tell you that. I could write several management cases studies on why that place is broken
    “His attitude towards the CIA was also combative. While in uniform in Afghanistan, he co-authored a report concluding that the intelligence community was only “marginally relevant” to U.S. strategy. Since retiring from the military, his comments have become more hostile, including an interview last year in which Flynn accused the agency of being a political tool for the Obama administration.”
    Again, and?
    I’ve spent time on both sides of the fence, in uniform deployed and sitting back stateside at an Intel center. They are different worlds and at that time, that report was pretty accurate. The Intel being provided from back in the beltway wasn’t useful at all to those actually on the ground in Afghanistan, because Afghanistan was never a priority for our collection & production requirements prior to 2001, we have little to ZERO expertise in the community on Afghanistan. I’d say even after 15 years at war, we still have marginal expertise on issues in Afghanistan outside of the SOF community.

    “Trump’s faith in Flynn implies a lack of belief in the intelligence community, and his reputation for power plays suggests he will try to bend it to his will, especially after the CIA reportedly claimed that the Kremlin sought to place him in power. Politicizing intelligence, however, will have terrible consequences. In the short-term it is likely to skew CIA assessments. Difficult questions that require careful and nuanced answers will increasingly reflect Trump’s blunt views.”
    • Kind of a worst case scenario don’t you think? What are you basing this one? Can you give some examples from Trump’s business career over the last 40 years where you think he wouldn’t listen to assessments or would ignore them?
    • Second why is the administration disagreeing with the CIA a bad thing? They don’t exactly have a perfect track record and there is a reason with have a national security advisor, counsel, other agencies, so we don’t have a single view point on issues.

    1. The author’s article appears like an attempt to politicize War on the Rocks.

      Let’s face it. It has been amateur hour in the White House and State Department for several decades now. It is unlikely Trump will actually make that worse.

    2. I really don’t get those comments (and the replys).
      Its allways the same. When an author or an expert point out simple facts or call out Trump on his obvious closeness to Putin or on his dismissal of intel briefings then suddenly some people are screaming at war on the rocks being politicized.
      Same thing with Fake news. People are pointing out to obvious fake news manufacturers based in Russia, and the answer is : “Yeah but X or Y (traditional news organisations) are biased to the left!”.
      Its an old nihilism we have learned to fear in europe “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Hopefully, you still have people like senator MC Cain or Evan Mc Mullin on the right that are standing out from principles. To answer some of the points raised by Mike Mc Cannon : nobody said disagreeing on some points of a CIA briefing is bad in itself. The problem is that Trump never gives detail or reasons. He just flat out deny they can have any expertise. His points are vague and dismissive and particulary sound uninformed. If you add the fact that he DOES appoint to important position people that have known ties with Putin (Exxon’s Ceo is known to have lost money due to sanctions over Russia) AND the fact that people like Alexander Duguin recently said on his facebook “Washington is now ours !”… Its not baseless, its not politics or opinion. All of those are facts. If you take time and read katehon.com or listen to RT, you cannot tell us Trump is not activelly promoted by Russian agents and propagandists. As for your point about Trump buisnesses and career there are several examples where Trump refused to hear from people and suffered from it. When he decided to expand his casinos in Atlantic city, he was warned by many that he shouldn’t, and ended up bankrupting a Fricking CASINO. Actually, there are countless example of Trump’s buisneses failing because of his refusal to accept criticism. And he rarely suffered from it thanks to his father and frieds, but his investors did. His little contractors too. I don’t want to see the american ppl in the same position.

      1. Not your choice. It’s the American people’s choice, and they made it. And yes, politicizing WOTR diminishes it. Particularly when it is fear-mongering about future actions by someone who has not yet been sworn in.

        What is it with liberals? Obama spent seven and a fall of his eight years blaming his failings on his predecessor and is currently blaming his successor for things that he fears are going to happen. If he were all that concerned, he might better have use his time and influence to see that the Dems ran a candidate who was able to be elected. Too late now.

        1. Its more the Russian choice lol. HRC is close to 3 million vote lead right now. So even with the electoral college, if you add this 3 million more votes for Hillary to the Russian meddling, its a good case for Trump not having a mandate and having low legitimacy.
          And believe me, the whole world is impacted by the US choice. If it wasn’t the case, if it was only “the american people’s choice” why do you think ppl would fund fake news factories in Russia ? The whole western world is looking up to the US, and yes sometimes we try to warn or to speak up. Funny thing is, when an ally tries to point this to you its : “Not your choice. Its the american ppl’s choice !” But when Putin weaponize wikileaks its “Yeah thank you, we got it she’s the worst corrupt human being, let’s elect your guy president”. Weird. As for Obama legacy, I’ll just tell you that our leaders are all looking up top him in terms of his economics. USA’s unemployment rate is with Germany one of the lowest of all OCDE. Your job participation rate has slowly declined for the last 15 years but its still in the to tier of the OCDE too (and if you look closely, job participation in the US dropped for the 15-21 because more and more ppl are going to college). So yeah, full employment, covering 20million ppl with healthcare, killin OBL (while he was in Pakistan.. It meant violating Pak airspace without telling them.), fighting ISIS with almost no boots on the ground. Only bad things that are said around here about Obama is because of the whole Syrian debacle. But nobody tells us what should have been done or what the good solution was (without boots on the ground).

          1. “Its more the Russian choice lol. HRC is close to 3 million vote lead right now. So even with the electoral college, if you add this 3 million more votes for Hillary to the Russian meddling, its a good case for Trump not having a mandate and having low legitimacy.”

            Apparently you didn’t read the constitution about how the game is played. As for Clinton’s 2.8 million popular vote lead, she had a 4 million plus popular vote lead in California alone. You might, I suppose, argue that he has low legitimacy as the President of California, but you can scarcely argue that for the country as a whole.

            Also, to my certain knowledge, neither Obama nor our ex SecState killed OBL. That was done by a SEAL team.

          2. I’m not against the electoral college per say, and I do understand how US elections work. But those huge gaps between popular vote and the electoral college result are rare. Really rare. And it does have an impact on the president legitimacy and mandate. But I’m ok to debate on all of this except for your last statement.

            “Also, to my certain knowledge, neither Obama nor our ex SecState killed OBL. That was done by a SEAL team.”

            This is straight out crazy talk. Not only OBL was killed thanks to countless hours put by the intel community. But moreover it was a political choice. US biggest ally in the region is Pakistan. You have intel operatives, boots on the grounds in Afgh that are litteraly depending of Pakistan’s help to stay alive ot get intel. When the Abotabad base was discovered, it could have been a major diplomacy blunder with Pak who has nuclear weapons… The choice to go there in person and bring back the body (not just bomb the thing) meant violating Pakistani airspace. It was a decision only the president and secstate could have taken. A very, very hard call that could have meant countless death of US troops and a possible war to come. So yeah, Obama totally deserves credit for that. OBL was discovered before during Bush admin, and the call was not made at the time… During the Iran hostage crisis, in a similar operation president call meant losing lives because of an helicopter (or plane?) crash… This is exactly the example why Trump’s skipping intel briefing or braging about his ignorance on those subject are worrying. Sometimes, those calls have to be made and I cannot see how seal team 6 have something to do with that except for doing their jobs (and yes doing it well)

  2. So you mean politicize CIA more than it’s current director has?

    Perhaps this is why Team Trump is cautious as attributions regarding DNC hacking?

    And why is it that the IC can nail Putin for the DNC hack, but Hillary’s unsecured basement server was never havked…?

  3. Will Trump politicize intelligence?

    Is the Pope Catholic?

    Does the bear you know what in the woods?

    Duh.

    Trump politicizes everything, because he is the most ignorant as well as stupid Commander in Chief we’ve ever had in the USA. He knows how to politicize intelligence – with Putin’s ample help he used it to win the election.

    That other presidents including the incumbent have politicized intelligence does not make it right nor intelligent.

    Intelligence needs to always work under the radar. It needs to be a resource that is not taken out and used like the proverbial bloody shirt.

    1. Putin didn’t make HRC rig the Dem primaries with Wasserman Schultz and in the process take a [I WASN’T ABLE TO FINISH THIS SENTENCE WITHOUT SWEARING SO THE MODERATORS HARD TO EDIT IT]. Nor did he get HRC to compromise top secret Signals intel with an unsecured server because government rules on information security don’t apply to her royal clinton-ness.
      It’s funny too how Wikileaks was doing the Lord’s work when Snowden gave Bletchley park to the Nazis but now it’s nothing more than a Kremlin mouthpiece now [I COULDN’T FINISH THIS SENTENCE EITHER WITHOUT AN AD HOMINEM ATTACK AND ANOTHER CURSE WORD. ME OH MY].

  4. Post-truth consequences and choosing your own facts:
    So pumping water to Flint was expensive with another water source at hand. Budget pressure said use the local source. Those damned know-it-all experts said “OK, but we need to treat it or it will ruin the pipes and make the water unsafe.”

    At that moment in time, there is an educated expert telling you a fact.

    Choosing your own facts has consequences. In this case it is costing all of us money as the long term cost not only exceeded the savings, but exceeds the ability of the state to recover from. A national embarrassment and expense.

    FACTS:
    1) Through a variety of evidence, it actually was the Russians.

    2) It was not some random email account, these were the DNCs professionally maintained servers. No one stands up to State level tools.

    3) The RNC was hacked too, their emails were not leaked.

    4) The FBI’s New York office was in contact with the RNC leaking information to the campaign.

    Without considering the possible effects on the outcome at all, it is the job of the incoming administration to address these facts and determine whether this is acceptable.
    That is their duty.
    It is in the oath.
    “will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

    The party is over, time to get down to governing. Like grownups.
    Next time the Russians may decide it would be more fun to support Jill.

    1. Bravo.
      But some of those authors and analysts are now experiencing what they helped create.
      Like I said many times, even on a quality publication like this one aswell as on some self described “center right” high brow hawkish publications, seeds were planted for the post fact world.
      When you have foreign policy experts mocking Obama’s “red line” with Assad, like they had a simple solution for intervening in Syria without boots on the ground / without having to shoot Russian airplanes / without the help of Iran… Then you plant the idea that there are simple solutions. When you hear the same experts bringing back the talking point about Obama’s “leading from behind” or that his positions were weak.. When they don’t give him credit for the OBL raid (he had to violate Pak airspace for christ sake, without telling them)… Then you have GOP’s elite on FNC (Karl Rove, Krauthammer) giving some credibility to a channel that is spreading straight out lies… All of this is piling on. Slowly destroying facts and reality.
      In this very article I can read that CIA is not to blame for Iraq’s invasion. It was a political push from the Bush admin.. Strangely, not that long ago, when we (France) tried to warn the USA about Iraq invation/Iraq war, I remember some very intelligent people calling us cowards, renaming french fries “freedom fries”. Their argument was that if our intelligence community was telling us there were no such things as WMDs in Iraq, its because they were weak. The proof were there in the US and in Great Britain. Saddam had them. We just didn’t know and we were coward. Now, be my guest ! Try to explain the intricacies of foreign policy, the shades of grey to an audience that have been fed red meat for close to 10 years. I remembered how some of those same clear minded ppl explained to us that the IRan deal was horrible. Iran was a terrorist state. Now try to explain that Iran’s shia and ISIS’s sunni. That Iran’s shia militias can help us get rid of ISIS. Go on. So while I enjoy some foreign policy hawks waking up to the post factual world, I would have love to hear them when the lives of 4000 US soldiers were on the line in Iraq. And countless civilians.

      1. “Strangely, not that long ago, when we (France) tried to warn the USA about Iraq invation/Iraq war, I remember some very intelligent people calling us cowards,…”

        And who though that destabilizing the Libyan government would be a great idea?

        1. Yeah, Lybia ended up to be a mess, and we were totally a part of that. But you know what ? At least, there was a real reason for the intervention. Ghadaffi was threatning to leave “rivers of blood” in the streets because of the arab spring contagion. But like with every intervention or every topic in international relation, sometimes you try to have the “less horrible” option. Its like Syria, it’s horrible yet even after the red line drawn by Obama, solutions were scarce. But in Mali for ex, France intervened (Malian ppl called for help), and it ended up working and bringing stability. The big difference is that there wasn’t a massacre waiting to happen in Iraq in 2003, there wasnt any link with Al Qaida or anything like that. Few intel sources with not much credibility. And yes, people in power at that time were writing articles about reshaping the middle east in conservative think tank publications.

    2. What is also a FACT is that HRC maintained an unsecured server because she didn’t consider herself bound to government rules about information security.
      Another FACT is that the Russians did not and could not have tampered with the vote count, it would have been easily detected, just like these hacks were.
      What these FACTS mean, is that Trump won the election fair and square (I know that’s a difficult pill to swallow, but you’re gonna have to…) and that these Russian hacks proved to the American people what they already knew – that HRC is corrupt and venal.
      To suggest that those Russian hacks are the only thing responsible for putting Trump in power in the face of the evidence is just sour grapes.
      To believe also that the objective truth and all the facts are the sole property of the left is the exact arrogance that lost you the election and is responsible for the crisis of leftist politics in the west in general.
      We’ve been living in a post truth world ever since you progressives invented ‘Post Modernism’ and started relatavising everything.

      1. The server thing is straight out laughable.
        On the 30 000+ mails covering 4 years as a sec state they only found less than 80 that contained classified info.
        Its less than 0.01%. Does it show you she used this mail server for her sec state/classified stuff ? Of course I don’t. Those 80 mails were mostly sent to her, and she did warn the senders a lot of times that they were using the wrong Email. Collin Powell said himself that he used a yahoo account. But he said “I never told her to set up a private mail server”… Yeah, except everything we know now shows us private servers are actually more secure. Podesta’s mail ? Hacked. Was on a gmail account. Powell’s ? Hacked. Was on a yahoo account. Hillary Clinton’s private server ? Never hacked, no leaks. So you just don’t have your facts right. She did use her .gov secure email for classified stuff, and her private server for her other work/fundation/personnal. Just like Powell did, but more secure since it wasnt hacked. Also, for anyone who took the time to read the FBI reports, plenty of high ranking members of the intel community testified to say that sometimes they did send classified infos on a private mail in order to have a more efficient and quick response (in very rare/urgent cases). So nothing much here.
        Nobody is suggesting now that Russia hacked the machines themselves. They did information warfare, you have plenty of great documented pieces on this very website about this. And its compelling.

  5. Politicization of intel is not new. In his book “Diplomacy” Henry Kissinger noted that intel agencies have always told their policy masters what they wanted to hear. I’ve seen this myself–in the Balkans, for example, Army intel analysis told senior officers uninteresting in arresting war criminals that doing so would create unmanageable civil disturbances, a view with which analysts from no other agency agreed. People who get to wear stars on their uniforms, or who reach the top of the political/policy pile, are very unlikely to listen to the views of middling intel analysts who tell them that their plans are unwise or not feasible. That they’ve achieved such lofty positions is, after all, easily understood by big-shots as validation of their vision. This looks to be even more characteristic of Trump than most–my close-up observation of Flynn is that he has more faith in his own vision than anyone I’ve ever seen, contrary facts be damned.

  6. I really don’t know if you’re right or not in all this. Bush had analysts’ overriding scientists in his intelligence game. Terrible politicizing! Obama is just as bad. Honestly, don’t you think this ‘blame Russia’ thing is a little far fetched? The intelligence people won’t even appear before Congress! You can bounce your hacking off a hundred other servers. BRENNAN: I wouldn’t want to trust him as far as I could throw a camel. On duty in Iraq and is converted to Islam and now Director of the CIA, unbiased towards the Muslims? And with other Muslim Brotherhood figures running around the Whitehouse!? Eek! The NSA head: He’s lied before Congress. Homeland Security run by an election campaign attorney who doesn’t know shit 💩 and is just another Toadie!? The Attorney General is knee deep in controversy and lies. Looks like a dog and pony show to me. No transparency. Obama not showing up for all his briefings! Obama, the great advisor and hypocrite. Obama, whose experience in life is less than anyone in the world, until he got to the Whitehouse from being non existent for decades, really. And now he’s so wise, but showed up not knowing really anything except Chicago politics; which means he never really held any responsible job!
    I think Mr. Trump will figure it out. And maybe the retired generals know more about how intelligence REALLY WORKS, after spending decades working with the Spooks! The military has always not trusted them; I know, being in the Army. You take everything they say with a grain of salt because, mostly, their asses will gone or nowhere to be seen when the fighting and dying starts. And, if they’re wrong, ‘Ah well; that’s what our sources told us. Sorry!’
    We’ll see as it plays out. Sure, Mr. Trump seems egotistical, but has been very successful carrying on the business. But so are a lot of other people, including Obama and all his staff. And remember, there is a fine line between egotistical/arrogant and high confidence/high ability. But you can’t see it until you REALLY get to know the team.