Is there anything else that President-elect Donald Trump can do to ruin his relationship with the intelligence community?
From the standpoint of many current and former intelligence officers, the damage has already been done; short of Trump physically tearing up the briefing materials in front of their faces or telling the CIA Director to “go f**k himself” during a meeting, it’s hard to see what further damage can be done. As a former intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal when asked about his colleagues’ reaction to Trump’s consistent degrading of the IC, “They are furious about it.”
As much as some disingenuous Democrats on the Hill claim otherwise, it’s actually healthy for a Commander-in-Chief and his national security team to question the analysis and conclusions of the intelligence community (I don’t remember Democrats being this steadfast with the CIA during the George W. Bush administration). Intelligence professionals — like every other human being on the planet — have faults and biases, and can make mistakes. This column is too short to go over all of the intel failures over the last three decades (the CIA’s underestimation of Saddam Hussein’s WMD after the Gulf War, its overestimation of Saddam’s WMD in 2002-2003 and agency predictions about the Arab Spring), so Trump isn’t wrong to be skeptical about the CIA and NSA’s findings.
Trump, however, is going above that healthy skepticism and taking his gripes public for the entire world to see. Trump’s entire presidential campaign was a run against the establishment, and apparently this includes the intelligence establishment in Washington, Maryland and Virginia as well. His “I don’t trust them, I won’t use them” bromide against U.S. intelligence professionals this summer could be excused as campaign hyperbole. The language, though, hasn’t changed since; when the principal audience of the CIA’s analysis takes to Twitter and seems to place more credibility on Julian Assange than on America’s intelligence officers, we are stepping on territory that we’ve never really visited before. Sure, Richard Nixon didn’t trust the CIA either, but he didn’t trust anybody in his administration. According to one intel official who spoke to CNN, “We’re heading into this different era, where it’s hostile.”
Friday’s briefing on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election is therefore all the more important. The men and women of the IC are dedicated professionals who have thick skin and the foresight to carry on with their duties regardless of the last few months of bashing. But they also need a degree of comfort and assurance that the next president and his national security adviser won’t simply throw their work in the trash or use it as kindling. And whether the Trump national security team wants to admit it or not, they aren’t all-knowing. The world is incredibly complicated, with crises erupting at a moments notice, and they will need the intelligence community to track events as they unfold and bring potential crises to the president’s attention before they escalate.
Tomorrow’s briefing can be the first step in a more cordial, productive, respectful dialogue between the two.