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 SucceedingSeveral 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.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
New CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks as President Donald Trump looks on after Haspel was sworn-in during ceremony at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, U.S. May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”