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The hidden costs of the Trump admin's politicization of intelligence

The American people are not getting straight information about foreign happenings that ought to concern them.

Analysis | Washington Politics

John Ratcliffe, the Trump partisan and former Texas congressman whom the president installed as director of national intelligence in May, has politicized the intelligence community far more in his less than five months in office than any of his predecessors at DNI ever came close to doing, and probably more than any senior U.S. intelligence official of the past.

Julian Barnes and Adam Goldman of the New York Times aptly summarize Ratcliffe’s record to date by noting that he “has approved selective declassifications of intelligence that aim to score political points, left Democratic lawmakers out of briefings, accused congressional opponents of leaks, offered Republican operatives top spots in his headquarters and made public assertions that contradicted professional intelligence assessments.”

The selective declassification of raw intelligence has been Ratcliffe’s principal method, most recently with a Russian report asserting that Hillary Clinton had planned in 2016 to tie the Trump campaign to Russian election interference. The report possibly was Russian disinformation, which was one reason intelligence professionals, including the CIA director, reportedly objected to Ratcliffe’s move. Even if the report were valid, raising an issue of the Trump campaign’s ties to election-trolling Russians would have been — as subsequent investigations have made clear — a valid and appropriate issue to raise.

Evidently making such a report public was intended to be one more Hillary Clinton-centered distraction from Trump’s political liabilities such as mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even viewed through a partisan lens, it hardly seems worth the risk to intelligence sources and methods — which intelligence professionals have a duty to protect and which reportedly was another reason the professionals have objected to Ratcliffe’s releases.

What Ratcliffe has been doing on behalf of Trump’s prospects is patently purposeful. Ratcliffe’s conception of his duties is all about politics and little about intelligence, thereby conforming with Trump’s conception. Joseph Maguire, who was acting DNI before Ratcliffe was installed, notes that Ratcliffe “is doing exactly what the administration brought him in to do as DNI.”

Broad politicization

This misuse of the DNI position can be viewed more broadly as part of Trump’s politicization of just about anything in the executive branch conspicuous enough to get his attention. The politicization is a matter of public record when it has involved, say, COVID-19, including what has caused the pandemic to get as bad as it has in the United States and what measures are needed to control it. The same is true with the problem of domestic violence and what sorts of groups pose the greatest threat of such violence.

Fortunately, the professionals in those parts of the federal government charged with addressing these other problems continue, despite pressures from above, to perform much non-politicized work and even to make public some of the truthful conclusions of that work. Anthony Fauci still speaks publicly about how masks help to curb spread of the coronavirus and about how certain White House gatherings have been super-spreader events. The conclusions of responsible analysts at the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI about how right-wing white supremacists pose the greatest threat of domestic violence are still being made public. And law enforcement officials are still rolling up plots that would otherwise have produced such violence.

Much straightforward, non-politicized professional work still takes place in the intelligence community as well, despite the politicization at the top of the community hierarchy. The public remains unaware of most of that work because of the nature of the subject matter. The topics the community addresses have a foreign focus and lack immediate domestic visibility comparable to deaths from COVID-19 or armed militants practicing intimidation at a state capitol. 

The public also cannot see, however, most of the costs of the politicization that does affect the intelligence community, even though the costs are serious. A major reason is that the community lacks a continuous professional public face. There is no intelligence counterpart to Anthony Fauci who can get on the airwaves and speak frankly and truthfully about Russian election interference or North Korean nuclear-armed missiles or other foreign topics that ought to concern American citizens and about which citizens deserve to receive straight analysis and information. And so there is no basis for the public and the press to contrast that kind of unvarnished talk with the messaging from the White House.

The intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat statement has been the most comprehensive and useful way for the public and the press to become aware of how the community assesses foreign dangers, but this year Ratcliffe and the White House have stifled a full public presentation of that assessment. What is left is Ratcliffe’s cherry-picking of raw reporting, leaving out reporting that may point in a different direction and leaving out the kind of context and analysis that are needed to make sense of the reporting.

Multiple costs

The first and most basic cost of the kind of politicization that Ratcliffe practices and personifies is thus that the American people are not getting straight information about foreign happenings that ought to concern them — about Russian election interference, North Korean nukes, Iranian recalcitrance, Chinese trade policy, and much else. There are several other costs, however, that are even less visible but also serious.

One concerns the important function of warning — of ringing an alarm bell about something that may go bump in the night with serious consequences for U.S. interests. The possible bumps include invasions, coups, the outbreak of infectious diseases, and other sudden hazards. Warning is not about certainties but instead about risks, which might require risky moves in response. Successful warning thus requires a robust, trusting, and truthful relationship between the producer of intelligence and the policymaker who consumes it.

It is hard to imagine such conditions prevailing under the current intelligence community leadership. One problem is the distortion of risks to conform with domestic political messaging. Another problem is bandwidth; given so much preoccupation in the DNI’s office with performing domestic political errands, the sensitivity and responsiveness needed for successful warning are apt to be lacking.

Another cost concerns the possibility of politicization infecting, even at some subconscious level, the work of professional analysts. They often are called on to make judgments in the face of ambiguous and fragmentary information. It is human nature to let heavy pressure and strong preferences from above influence such judgments — at least as a matter of emphasis and presentation — even as individual analysts strive to be objective. This has happened before when an administration’s policy preferences were strong, and it can happen again.

A further cost involves allocation of resources. If, say, an administration’s political objective is to play down Russian interference in U.S. elections and to play up anything that China is doing along that line, then anyone pursuing that objective has an incentive to shift intelligence resources away from the former topic and toward the latter one. Then more reporting about Chinese actions starts accumulating not because that’s where most of the foreign action is but instead because that’s where U.S. collection efforts were concentrated. And with intelligence resources always limited, important happenings are more likely to be missed on any topics not so favored.

Finally, a long-term cost involves degradation of the U.S. intelligence community as an institution clearly dedicated to the best and most objective collection and analysis of information about events overseas. The cost entails everything degradation implies regarding problems in recruiting and retaining skilled professionals to staff the institution.

Contrary to the “deep state” nonsense that is a favorite theme of the current administration, the intelligence community has been an attractive place to work for many professionals who want to apply their skills to matters important to U.S. national security without getting immersed in the Washington political maelstrom. That was an attraction for me when I joined the profession 43 years ago. That attraction is now lessening, and recruitment of some young talent will suffer as a result.

Admittedly, this type of degradation is not unique to the intelligence community. The current administration’s politicization of so many things has also been affecting other nonpolitical professions in the executive branch, from the Foreign Service to the Forest Service. It is one of the types of damage from the Trump experience that will take longest to repair.

President Trump with then Congressman John Ratcliffe March 17, 2017 (Photo: White House)
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