Why you should care
Because in a matter of days, the president-elect will be the president.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The author was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000–2004 and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia.”
— Donald J. Trump, January 11
Finally, the president-elect has acknowledged what U.S. intelligence agencies have long declared all but certain — that Russia tried to manipulate the U.S. election. Perhaps not surprisingly, he also disparaged the agencies in nearly the same breath, accusing them of “leaking” a 35-page set of allegations about his alleged illicit relations with the Russians.
It was an apt capstone to a strange, weeks-long episode, during which the president-elect seemed to be at war with the very intelligence agencies on which he must rely in defending the country. Was the press conference a step toward repairing or worsening their frayed relationship? And how should U.S. intelligence respond to their soon-to-be commander in chief?
Trump’s Learning Curve
It’s a bit soon to tell whether the breach between Trump and the agencies has begun to close, but the president-elect must surely have learned something from his engagement with them on this — particularly in the briefings he received last week. I have to assume he came away realizing that “high confidence” judgments by the intelligence community, as on Russian culpability for the election hacking, are exceedingly rare. It’s a term the community hardly ever uses without being pretty close to certain. Indeed, one of the primary lessons intelligence officers took from studying their 2003 error on Iraq’s WMD program was to be very, very, very careful about statements of confidence. Few outside the profession realize how agonizingly and thoroughly the community dissected that mistake.
In this regard, the president-elect, who first cited the WMD miscall as the source of his skepticism about U.S. intelligence, took exactly the wrong lesson from that episode. The course corrections resulting from it are the main reason he can be sure intelligence officers are neither understating nor overstating what they tell him now.
At the same time, no one should lead Mr. Trump to expect perfection from intelligence. It is, after all, a profession doomed to work in the gray realm defined by the most contentious issues. The nations and people it targets work hard to deny information and to deceive; the data it gets is often incomplete and arrives only incrementally; and all the while, policymakers press for conclusions, usually about the hardest thing: the future.
What the president-elect can expect, though, is that intelligence officers will always be clear about what they don’t know — another hard lesson from the Iraq period and drilled in during training classes for newbies. Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft probably showed the most sophisticated and realistic understanding of intelligence in describing its role as “narrowing the range of uncertainty when difficult decisions have to be made.”
Intelligence Can Take a Punch … or a Tweet
Perhaps the president-elect also noticed that intelligence agencies, dedicated as they are to serving the president, are not cowed as easily as others by his trademark snarky tweets and verbal jabs. Prior to his briefing last Friday, Trump had cast doubt on the Russian role, suggested agencies needed “more time to build a case,” termed the whole thing a “witch hunt” and gave more credence to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange’s denial of a Russian role.
Then came Trump’s accusation that U.S. intelligence had leaked the allegations about him. Not true: The dossier didn’t come from intelligence agencies. Instead, it was prepared by a private contractor, reportedly first hired by Trump’s Republican rivals to do “opposition” research. The document had circulated quietly among reporters for weeks and was put out this week by a media outlet, even though none of it has been corroborated. Intelligence officers actually have big incentives not to leak. They sign a secrecy agreement forbidding unauthorized media contacts and are tested on this in periodic polygraph exams. Few other arms of government are as tough about this.
But here’s the thing: Intelligence agencies have thick skin. They know and accept that controversy and criticism just come with the territory. I once heard someone ask former CIA director and defense secretary Bob Gates whether the CIA would ever be abolished. His (humorous) response? “Of course not. There’d be no one left to blame!”
Seek Ye the Truth …
These events also point up the key intelligence job — for the CIA in particular — as the “fact witness” in foreign policy debates. That role requires intelligence agencies to sift out grains of truth from all the spin and agenda-laden noise swirling about, and these days, it’s more important than ever. We live in an era of disputatious claims, “fake” news, allegations of fake news and covert information operations by foreign adversaries. We are also at the dawn of an administration with many supporters who’ve shown a loose regard for “facts,” to put it charitably.
That is why I hope and believe that predictions of resignation at the CIA and elsewhere — some made by respected former colleagues — are wrong. What that workforce ought to be thinking is this: Now is not the time to leave; it is the time to man the barricades, the time to stay — proudly … even defiantly.
Where to on Russia?
It’s probably also fair to say that these disputes have left Trump’s Russia policy up for grabs. At his press conference, Trump argued that having Putin’s esteem would be an asset, and that during his administration, Putin would lay off the meddling during Trump’s administration.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the president-elect’s desire for better U.S.–Russian relations. But during my recent trip to Moscow, I was reminded in talks with Kremlin and foreign ministry officials of how hard that will be. Russia’s starting position is to accept absolutely no responsibility for the deterioration. Putin calculates Russia’s interests in a cold and hard-headed way. Some of what he wants, such as relief from economic sanctions, will require Mr. Trump to calculate America’s interests just as coldly and clinically. He may decide there is some trade worth making, but no “deals” will be simple.
They Serve the President
Sooner or later, the president-elect may come to realize that his intelligence officers are not that much different than the military he clearly admires. In a sense, they will be his soldiers without uniforms. Take the CIA as just one example. When a CIA officer is killed in the line of duty, the agency carves a star in the marble wall of its lobby. Few people realize that of the 117 stars, more than one-third have been carved since 9/11. It’s been a dangerous time.
So while the president-elect may continue to doubt many things about American intelligence, there’s no way to doubt dedication carved in marble. Let’s hope, for the sake of national security, that this relationship can soon heal and look to a productive future.