Trump and the Intelligence Community Tangle
A simmering battle between President-elect Trump and the national intelligence community broke out into a nasty conflagration when a report came out this week that Trump had been groomed by Russia and that Russia had considerable embarrassing information on him that could be used for blackmail. Trumps’ response to the report was that the national intelligence community was, “disgraceful.”
Within hours, major parts of the story were being proved as hoaxes. It also came out that the stories had been shopped to the New York Times and Washington Post, who refused to print them because they were unproven. The result was a black eye for some anti-Trump media like CNN and further embarrassment for the intelligence community.
Needless to say, if the intelligence communities were responsible for circulating some of the false material, it will have a major impact on how a President Trump will view them. Trump, who knows the truth, will use this event as a touchstone in terms of deciding how to reform a community that has become very political in the last few decades.
The American intelligence community suffers from a “Mission Impossible” complex (named after the successful TV show of that name in the 1960s and 1970s). Every week the agents in the show would carry out complex intelligence missions without failure. It was easy to see how they and other would see themselves as infallible.
Although American intelligence has an enviable record in technological intelligence (spy satellites, communications intercepts, and even recovering a Russian nuclear submarine from off the floor of the Pacific Ocean, they have a poor record that stretches over decades.
Since its inception, the CIA has a string of intelligence disasters like the Bay of Pigs, Castro assassination attempts, bungling in Vietnam, failure to foresee the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, failure to see the collapse of the Soviet empire, failure to see the breakup of the USSR, the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, failure to see the 9-11 attacks, bad information on Iraqi WMDs, failure to predict the so called “ Arab Spring”, and failure to predict the success of ISIS.
The result of these failures was to impose an additional layer of bureaucracy on the intelligence community after 9-11 with the Director of National Intelligence – an action that has made no measurable improvement on intelligence gathering.
But, that wasn’t the first attempt to reform the intelligence community. Nixon saw the problems early on and tried unsuccessfully to reform the CIA. Carter brought Stansfield Turner onboard the CIA, only to see his efforts fail.
So, can Trump make any measurable changes? Maybe.
Trump has asked his national intelligence team to come back within 90 days with recommendations on improving US intelligence, including the hacking threat and how to defend against it.
Although the assumption is that Trump is unaware of intelligence and its uses, the fact is that Trump, like all rich, successful businessmen collects and uses business intelligence. And, how Trump has used intelligence in the past will determine how he will consume it in the future and how he may reform the intelligence community.
As a successful New York City real estate developer, with international business relations, he has had a need for practical intelligence like who may need to sell prime real estate, what the price may be, how negotiations will proceed, and how local governments may view his involvement.
This is called practical intelligence – information that must be accurate and has practical implications.
Trump’s national security team, which consists of military veterans and the former CEO of Exxon, have also been consumers of practical intelligence.
The White House, on the other hand has preferred intelligence with a political impact – information that can be used to further its political agenda. This leads to intelligence reports like those that see a WMD threat from Iraq so Bush has reason to invade that country or the suppression of reports that warn about the threat of ISIS – which are diametrically opposite of the Obama Administration narrative.
The problem is that political intelligence and practical intelligence have differing goals and can even provide differing results. For instance, a practical intelligence report on ISIS a couple of years ago would have warned of its growing strength and given information on how to weaken it.
Political intelligence, on the other hand, was designed for the White House to use to show that its Syrian policy was s success. These reports would have focused on a totally different set of information.
The Trump national security team, as previous consumers of practical intelligence will opt for practical intelligence and are likely to reform the community to provide that mix of information.
Potential Trump Reforms of the Intelligence Community
Political and bureaucratic reforms. Over the past few decades, the intelligence community has become more political. Not only is there another layer of political appointees thanks to post 9-11 reforms, the professional leadership has been rewarded for politically correct intelligence. Meanwhile, professionals who preferred providing accurate intelligence were discouraged and frequently resigned.
Not only will the Trump Administration bring in a new team of political appointees, expect the upper layer of professional intelligence leaders to come under scrutiny for the quality and thrust of previous intelligence reports.
Trump and his national security team have a demanding reputation and have shown themselves to be quick to fire subordinates who don’t come up to standards. Those who may have provided bad analysis in the past may be required to defend their work and could very well be sidelined if they can’t defend their results.
Reforming the quasi-military mission of the intelligence community. During the Obama Administration, the intelligence community has become a covert Pentagon – waging wars that the White House wanted to keep away from the public. The result is that the CIA is carrying out a controversial drone war in the Middle East and is relying on US Special Forces as military muscle on the ground.
The problem is that CIA operatives aren’t warriors and US Special Forces have been over taxed and are facing serious attrition as highly trained non commissioned officers are coming to the end of their enlistment and are returning to the civilian world.
Trump and his national security team are likely to agree that those best qualified to carry out wars are found in the Pentagon and those best able to use Special Forces are military leaders.
More productive intelligence briefings. There are growing questions about the value of the presidential intelligence briefings. Not only have they become more political, the actual value of them has to be questioned as both Trump and Obama have been known to skip their intelligence briefings.
Trump is a busy, successful businessman who values each minute of his time. Consequently, redundant, uninformative, and questionable briefings will probably receive a response from Trump like, “Why are you wasting my time?” This will not be limited to Trump. His former military advisors are also attuned to bad intelligence and will make briefers quickly know what they want and need.
Another problem is that intelligence briefers can read the president and tend to tailor their briefings to fit the desires of the president. One briefer for Bush recalled telling the president something that he didn’t want to hear. The result was that the briefer decided to tone down the bad news.
As a practical intelligence consumer, Trump will not want an intelligence report that caters to his desires rather than his needs.
Expect shorter and less frequent intelligence briefings.
Aggressive action against media leaks. There are serious anti-Trump leakers within the US intelligence community. In his press conference on Wednesday, Trump mentioned that he had kept information about an intelligence meeting away from his aides, only to see it mentioned in the media. This means that the leak is within the intelligence community, not the Trump team.
The seriousness of these leaks was demonstrated with the release of what is clearly now known as false intelligence about Trump and the Russians. Someone in the intelligence community is clearly willing to damage the credibility of the US intelligence community in order to damage the President-elect.
No doubt, Trump and his national security team will attempt to find and eliminate the leak.
Although it’s easy to see Trump as a neophyte, the fact is that he is an expert consumer of intelligence. However, as a businessman, expect him to expect more practical intelligence, without political slant, and delivered in a more efficient way
Report on Trump and Russians Quickly Proves to be False
Within hours of the allegations about Trump and the Russians, major news groups were discounting the information as false.
NBC News reported: A senior U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the preparation for the meeting with Trump told NBC News that the president-elect was not briefed on the so-called two-page addendum to the dossier originally generated as part of anti-Trump Republican opposition research.
Multiple officials say that the summary was included in the material prepared for the briefers, but the senior official told NBC News that the briefing was oral and no actual documents were handed to the Trump team.
“Intel and law enforcement officials agree that none of the investigations have found any conclusive or direct link between Trump and the Russian government period,” the senior official said.
According to the official, the two-page summary about the unsubstantiated material made available to the briefers was to provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted “disinformation.”
One thing this event does prove – some in the media will do anything to disseminate false information about him. Be careful of taking any damaging information about Trump at face value until it’s rigorously vetted.
Does the U.S. Military Actually Protect Middle East Oil?
By John Glaser
January 9, 2017
America’s experience in the Middle East over the past fifteen years has been bruising, to say the least. For his part, President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly, if inconsistently, exploited Americans’ frustration with what are widely viewed as foreign policy failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. At a rally last month, Trump promised to “stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about,” adding that “this destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally come to an end.” On the other hand, Trump has also used brazenly hawkish rhetoric and has filled his cabinet with people not at all averse to bold U.S. interventionism. Trump’s inconsistencies aside, it seems voters welcomed his blunt criticisms of U.S. military action in the Middle East. But scrutiny of U.S. foreign policy in the region should go beyond a potent skepticism of regime change or exasperation with chasing after terrorists. In addition to our ill-fated nation-building effort in Afghanistan and the fight against ISIS, the traditional rationale boils down to oil. As it turns out, though, forward deployment isn’t all that useful in securing the free flow of oil.
From Awareness to Action; A Cybersecurity Agenda for the 45th President
By Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-TX)
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 4, 2017
This report lays out specific recommendations for the next administration’s cybersecurity policy. It identifies the policies, organizational improvements, and resources needed for this. It builds on the 2009 Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, a foundational document for creating a strategic approach to cybersecurity. In the eight years since that report was published, there has been much activity, but despite an exponential increase in attention to cybersecurity, we are still at risk and there is much for the next administration to do. We are still at risk because the intricate structure of networks we have built is based on technologies that are inherently vulnerable. In addition, the enforcement of laws in cyberspace is intrinsically difficult, and some countries refuse to cooperate in prosecuting cybercriminals. Nations are also unwilling to forsake the benefits of cyber espionage or military cyber operations. Domestically, the conflicting political imperatives that lead to stalemate for many initiatives also slow progress on cybersecurity.
Iran, Mattis, and the Real Threat to U.S. Strategic Interests in the Middle East
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 10, 2017
The events in Iran and the Gulf during the last week have been a grim reminder that Iran remains the major threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Gulf and the Middle East, and that General James Mattis has been all too correct in singling out Iran as such a threat. Islamist extremism and terrorism are very real threats—but they are limited in scope and lethality. In contrast, Iran has the ability to trigger a major war in the region, and to threaten the world’s main source of oil and gas exports—the 17 million barrels of oil a day that flow through the Strait of Hormuz. Any such Iranian action threatens the stability of the entire global economy, the global (and U.S. domestic) price of oil and of transportation fuels, and the import and export capabilities of America’s key trading partners in Asia—more than a third of U.S. manufactured imports.
Russia and Cyber Operations: Challenges and Opportunities for the Next U.S. Administration
By Ben Buchanan, Michael Sulmeyer
December 13, 2016
On October 7, 1996, well before such things were commonplace, the Colorado School of Mines suffered a digital break-in. The intruders gained access to a computer nicknamed “Baby Doe” in the school’s Brown Building. To do this, they exploited vulnerabilities in the machine’s Sun OS4 operating system. From there, they hopscotched to NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Navy and Air Force, and a long list of other computers spread across American universities and military installations. The operation went on for years, with the intruders collecting sensitive information as they went. A later investigation would conclude that the data taken during this period, if printed out, would stretch as high as the towering obelisk of the Washington Monument. The investigators noticed something else: the bulk of the intruders’ activities took place at night. From this fact, and from the tangled international web of hop points through which the intruders carried out their operations, the case acquired a name—Moonlight Maze. As the investigation proceeded, the perpetrators came more clearly into view: Russian operators.
Trump’s Arsenal Against Iran
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
December 29, 2016
What will the new president do about Iran? While still on the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump railed repeatedly against President Obama’s “disastrous” nuclear deal with Iran. He pledged to tear up the agreement, or at least amend it substantially, as one of his first acts in office. Yet, for a host of reasons, the nuclear pact concluded between the Iran and the P5+1 powers (the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany) last summer is likely to prove more resilient than either the president-elect or his advisers hope. However, recent days have seen the addition of a new tool to America’s “soft power” arsenal – one that is liable to prove very useful to the incoming Trump administration as it crafts its policy toward Iran and other rogues.
Re-Shuffling of the Cards in Lebanon: Meet the New Government
By Benedetta Berti
Foreign Policy Research Institute
January 9, 2017
The end of 2016 brought important changes in Lebanon. Michel Aoun’s election in October finally ended the destabilizing presidential vacuum in place since May 2014, ushering in a new government of national unity under the premiership of Saad Hariri. These significant developments reflect ongoing shifts in the balance of power and in the broader political dynamics within Lebanon. The new government signals both deep change and profound continuity. It reiterates that, much like in the past, Lebanon’s political fate continues to be tied to both the outcome of the Syrian civil war and the broader geopolitical balance of power in the region. But it also reveals that the main lens through which we have looked at Lebanese politics since the fateful assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005—namely the sectarian-cum-political “March 14” (M14) vs. “March 8” (M8) rivalry—may no longer be able to adequately capture the actual situation in the country.
Can Trump Overcome Obama’s Israel Failure?
By Robert Satloff
January 3, 2017
At a moment when Russia, Turkey and Iran are carving up Syria, when the U.S.-orchestrated battle for Mosul seems stuck in neutral, and when America’s two leading Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are fighting their own debilitating cold war, how should one interpret the Obama administration’s decision to spend its closing days in office focused on carving a legacy of critiquing Israel under the umbrella of proclaiming to safeguard a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians? A few observations: President Obama has been remarkably consistent in his view that Israeli settlement expansion is the principal obstacle to progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. This view animated the president’s decision to disregard his predecessor’s constructively nuanced understanding with Israel on the issue as well as his ill-conceived demand for a total freeze on Israeli construction over the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem. Both played a major role in producing impasse in peace diplomacy. Indeed, for all his protestations, President Obama is the first chief executive since President Johnson to register neither achievement nor even progress toward Arab-Israeli peace on his watch. That the Obama administration ends where it began, with a near-obsessive focus on Israeli settlement construction as the key to unlock the Middle East peace process, suggests that it learned virtually nothing from its experience of the last eight years.