Michael Leiter was director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011.
North Korea. Iran. The Islamic State. Russian meddling and aggression. Chinese influence. Global cyber-insecurity. The list of national security challenges and potential flash points facing the United States and our allies is long and deeply worrying. But increasingly we face a more foundational national security crisis that is of our own making: the breakdown of trust between the president and our critical national security agencies — the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and others. This crisis of distrust and dysfunction will weaken our ability to protect U.S. interests around the globe and put vital international cooperation at risk.
Since his election, President Trump’s words and actions have often put him deeply at odds with his national security agencies. First, there was the near-constant stream of disparaging tweets, many of which made accusations that were nothing short of fighting words. He evoked “Nazi Germany” in a diatribe about the alleged disloyalty of intelligence officials. When confronted with the intelligence community’s consensus assessment that Russia had interfered in our election, he dismissed it with a sneering reference to mistaken claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He has embraced WikiLeaks despite its universally recognized undermining of U.S. intelligence.
More recently, the president crossed the line from words to action with the unceremonious firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. Although the president of course has the constitutional authority to fire the director, the manner in which Comey was terminated, combined with Trump’s deeply troubling mention of the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling, casts a serious pall over his actions. The president’s subsequent tweet referring to still-mysterious “tapes” darkened the picture even more.
And finally, there is the president’s apparent disclosure of sensitive intelligence information to Russian officials during their curiously timed visit to the Oval Office last week. Taken on its own, this might be viewed as an inexperienced president stumbling in the relatively arcane world of classified intelligence. Unfortunately, however, it is part of a larger pattern. It is but the most recent ingredient in a toxic stew of distrust between the president and our national security organizations.
Such distrust makes all Americans less safe for several reasons. First, and most obviously, we all rely on the quiet and good work of our intelligence organizations to collect and analyze intelligence as professionally and objectively as possible. This is not a partisan imperative; it is an American one. Attacks on the members of the intelligence community — and on objective factual analysis more broadly — contribute to demoralization, intensify aversion to risk and challenge our ability to find sources who will risk their lives for the United States.
Second, current trends endanger our indispensable relationships with our global partners. Our allies will hold back intelligence information because of our inability to control that information, whether via the president or other leaks. And they will question the nonpartisan, professional nature of our intelligence services after the humiliating firing of Comey in the midst of a critical investigation that, in many cases, reflects their own fears about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Third, the current environment virtually guarantees that leaks of classified information and sensitive policy discussions will continue to grow. Leaks are indefensible, but the reality is that thinly veiled presidential threats directed at national security agencies and their leaders will fuel distrust and, ultimately, more leaking. No presidential or congressional outrage or criminal investigation will stem this tide if the president’s relationship with his own administration remains so sour.
Finally, and perhaps most worrisome in our democracy, we are at risk of breaking the bond of trust between the public and our security services. Carefree use of phrases such as “the deep state,” “fake news” and “Nazi Germany” leads many Americans to believe there is an active war being fought against their elected representatives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Agencies and people committed to truthful intelligence collection and criminal investigation are deeply patriotic and loyal to simple principles of truthfulness and the Constitution. And although undoubtedly imperfect, our oversight mechanisms help ensure this is the case.
Concrete actions are required to quickly reverse these trends. First, the president’s nomination of a new FBI director offers a key opportunity to highlight the bureau’s law-enforcement independence and, more broadly, the importance of brutal, fact-based honesty from the intelligence community. Second, public officials should refrain from speculative or premature commentary about the Russia investigation — on all sides — pending completion of the necessary reviews. Third, bipartisan congressional leadership must vocally and forcefully voice support for our national security organizations and make clear that their oversight will guard against more conspiratorial fears.
Finally, Congress should create a nonpartisan panel of experts to examine comprehensively our systems of intelligence oversight — legislative, executive and judicial — to ensure that all Americans have greater faith in our security services. Sadly, the oversight mechanisms we have built up over the past 40 years have proved both onerous and inadequate to the task of building public trust. Failure to take such action will only deepen our own domestic crisis at the very time we must face so many abroad.
Read more on this topic: