The relationship between U.S. intelligence agencies and policymakers has long had built-in tension. The agencies’ very reason for existence entails a commitment to objectivity and to describing reality accurately whether or not that description suits the wishes of whoever is making policy at the moment. But the agencies are part of the executive branch, headed by the president. When the agencies’ output clashes with whatever message a president may be pushing publicly in support of his policies, it can be a bad day at the office for intelligence officers.
Bad days at the office come with the territory for intelligence officers, but what is bad for the country is when intelligence agencies start succumbing to the pressure from above and no longer speak truth to power, or at least no longer do so clearly, directly, and unhesitatingly.
Such succumbing need not mean that intelligence agencies start saying that two plus two equals five, or start reversing their judgments. Pressure-induced bias can take subtler but still significant forms. Intelligence judgments can be shaded, qualified, or couched in countless ways — each of which intelligence officers can justify in their own minds as legitimate, but which have the net effect of shifting emphasis in a direction that policymakers prefer. The pressure from above also can make the difference in difficult judgment calls in which, absent such pressure, objective analysis could easily have gone in either of two different directions. If it is more likely to go in a specific direction because of policymakers’ preferences, that’s bias.
Another possible response of intelligence agencies under political pressure is withdrawal — simply not venturing judgments on some important issues, or at least not doing so in highly visible ways before Congress and the public. Again, intelligence officers and agency heads can justify such behavior in their own minds as a prudent course that does not directly violate their professional ethic. But it means the nation is not getting the full benefit it is supposed to get by funding the agencies, and the reason it is not getting that benefit is policy preferences.
The Challenge of Working Under Trump
This set of problems in intelligence-policy relations has taken a distinct turn for the worse in the presidency of Donald Trump, for several reasons.
One reason is that Trump’s presidency, far more than any previous U.S. presidency within memory, is built on lies. The Washington Post’s fact checker has tallied more than 16,000 false or misleading statements by Trump personally during his first three years in office. Intelligence agencies are in the truth business. Clashes are inevitable when the administration under which those agencies work is so heavily in the business of falsehoods. The natural desire in the agencies to avoid clashes encourages a shying away from clear declarations of truth.
It is not only the outright lies that lead to such a dynamic, but also Trump’s penchant for exaggerated claims of success in any foreign problem he has touched, whether it is trade with China, North Korean nuclear weapons, or something else. The claims clash sharply with objective, and necessarily much gloomier, descriptions of reality regarding these subjects.
Another reason is Trump’s insistence on agreement and even adulation from others in government. This tone of his presidency was set early on, as illustrated by his first cabinet meeting, which was largely devoted to repeated paeans to the president that would have done the North Korean politburo proud. The tone has only intensified since then, as illustrated by Trump’s post-impeachment victory rant in the East Room of the White House.
Former FBI director James Comey comments that the most important and disturbing thing about that event “was what happened in the audience,” which “laughed and smiled and clapped as a president of the United States lied, bullied, cursed and belittled the faith of other leaders.”
Related to Trump’s insistence on total agreement is the vengefulness and ruthlessness with which he has gone after those who has dared to express disagreement — even when, as in Comey’s own case, the disagreement was an inevitable and proper result of recognizing truth in the course of performing official duties. Since the Senate vote on impeachment, Trump’s vindictiveness and the purges associated with it have shifted into overdrive. Trump’s technique of keeping an unusually large number of senior officials in his administration in an “acting” status has, in addition to circumventing senatorial confirmation requirements, made purging all the easier and the implied pressure from above all the greater. This has been true of the intelligence community, which has not had a confirmed director of national intelligence for the past six months.
A direct shot at the intelligence agencies, in response to an intelligence judgment that was politically inconvenient to Trump, was Attorney General William Barr’s assignment of a federal prosecutor to examine the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. A disturbing aspect of this move, explained by Robert Litt, former general counsel to the director of national intelligence, and John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, is that the information that intelligence analysts work with is much different from what prosecutors use in making a case. An intelligence analyst “does not have a prosecutor’s luxury to decline to proceed in the face of ambiguous information.” Analysts often must make their best judgment on matters on which the only available information is fragmentary and ambiguous, and on which any analytic conclusion is subject to argument.
Handling and communication of information in the world of criminal law enforcement, with its legal requirements for discovery and sharing of evidence, also are much different from in the intelligence world, where compartmentation of sensitive information even within portions of the intelligence community itself is standard procedure. John Durham, the prosecutor whom Barr sent after the intelligence community, reportedly is pursuing a theory that the CIA’s protection of certain classified reporting, rather than being standard procedure, was somehow a nefarious hoarding of information designed to protect a preconceived conclusion from criticism.
Many intelligence judgments certainly deserve post-mortem scrutiny, but a prosecutor is the wrong person to perform it. Appointing one is a form of intimidation.
Intimidation is Succeeding
Several indications suggest that Trump’s larger campaign of intimidation is working and that the intelligence community is — in those subtle ways that enable intelligence officers to preserve a self-image of professionalism — knuckling under to his pressure. One indication is the community’s reluctance to testify in open session to congressional committees about this year’s edition of the community’s statement on worldwide threats. Not having such open testimony would be a major break from an established pattern. The annual worldwide threat statement is the intelligence community’s most comprehensive, and in many ways most important, publicly available product. The statement is issued in both classified and unclassified versions, and its issuance has been followed by open as well as closed testimony before multiple congressional committees, with the heads of all the major intelligence agencies participating. The House intelligence committee had hoped to have hearings on this year’s statement begin in mid-February, but whether and when such hearings will take place is still under negotiation between the committees and the community leadership.
After the testimony on last year’s threat statement, Trump reacted angrily and denounced the intelligence agencies for judgments that — while noncontroversial and even obvious to outside observers — were inconveniently at odds with some of Trump’s rhetoric. These included judgments that North Korea was not about to give up its nuclear weapons, that Iran was not pursuing a nuke of its own, and that Islamic State was not dead and was still a threat.
Naturally the intelligence chiefs would like to avoid a reprise of the presidential ire, but not agreeing to public testimony would be a major act of submission and a failure to serve the public with their full, unvarnished, and highly visible judgments about threats facing U.S. interests.
Another indication is a tussle, which came into the open last month, between the National Security Agency and the House Intelligence Committee over whether NSA should share with the committee material it had collected on Ukraine. Disagreements between intelligence agencies and their oversight committees over the sharing of classified reporting are hardly unprecedented, but the connection of Ukraine with issues at the heart of the impeachment of President Trump ought to raise eyebrows. Trump would strongly oppose any cooperation with committee chairman Adam Schiff, who was the lead impeachment manager, and any providing of additional incriminating material to the committee. That opposition undoubtedly has weighed heavily on NSA leadership and would be a motivation to resist the committee’s requests.
Yet another indication, only symbolic but just as disturbing, came at this month’s state of the union address. CIA director Gina Haspel not only attended (for the second year in a row) but participated in standing ovations after lines in the speech about various domestic issues. Seated among political appointees such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the pressure on Haspel to stand along with them and even to clap at times must have been enormous. It was similar to the group pressure that Comey saw taking place in the East Room event, where he says “good people” succumbed to the group and “went along” with it.
But it was highly improper for the head of an intelligence agency to express openly such support for policy positions, let alone domestic ones, some of which are quite partisan and controversial. Most CIA directors have stayed away from the state of the union address to avoid the pressure to express such support. John Brennan never attended while he held the post under Barack Obama, and Michael Hayden said he never attended the speech while heading the CIA because “it’s not my job.” The fact that a career officer such as Haspel, not just a political appointee and partisan figure such as her predecessor Pompeo, departed from that previous pattern makes the succumbing to Trump’s intimidation all the more apparent.
Consequences of Biased Judgments
Those are the visible indications. We ought to worry even more about the effects of the intimidation that we cannot see but might be affecting the work of the intelligence agencies. It is the sort of worry that former deputy secretary of state William Burns expresses when he writes about the state of the foreign service, which has been subjected to at least as much abuse from Trump as the intelligence services have.
“The risk,” writes Burns, “is that the temptation to go along to get along will become irresistible — that well-meaning officials will become unaware of their own complicity in feeding the callousness of this administration and distorting and undermining the principles that inspire public service in the first place.” For intelligence officers, going along to get along means shading intelligence judgments in the direction they know the administration wants.
A recent example where this kind of pressure and response may have come into play was the rocket attack on a military base in Iraq in December that killed an American contractor and wounded six other people. The Trump administration claims an Iranian-supported militia called Khataib Hezbollah was responsible. The administration’s subsequent escalation included the assassination of senior Iranian general Qasesm Soleimani and brought the United States and Iran close to all-out war. The administration has never released evidence in support of its claim about who was responsible for the rocket attack. Subsequent press reporting indicates that Iraqi military and intelligence officials believe with good reason that Islamic State, not Khataib Hezbollah, conducted the attack.
We in the public do not have enough information to sort out these conflicting conclusions. But it is easy to reconstruct the pressures felt by U.S. analysts who had the intelligence task of assessing the nature and provenance of an unclaimed attack in a far-off place. Similar situations have arisen in the past. In August 1964, intelligence analysts charged with assessing ambiguous data about a nighttime encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin knew that the Johnson administration was eager to blame North Vietnam for an attack at sea. The analysts concluded — incorrectly — that such an attack had occurred. Analysts assessing the attack in Iraq have been working under an administration that they know is eager to blame Iran for every bit of mayhem in the Middle East. The conclusion that Khataib Hezbollah was responsible has not led — yet — to the consequence of a much larger war as happened in Vietnam, but the risks are obvious.