President Trump’s attempts to craft a public narrative that a government conspiracy was aimed at his presidential campaign moved off Twitter and into the real world of official documents last month. Trump issued a directive assigning Attorney General William P. Barr to probe the origins of the Russia investigation, giving Barr the authority to declassify secret intelligence. As the president stated, “We’re exposing everything.”
The order directly undercuts Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who is responsible for both protecting and potentially releasing intelligence. And it suggests that Trump is still disputing the fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
The president hardly needs to create a public furor to determine what the intelligence community knew about Russian interference, when they knew it or how they learned it. The CIA would gladly provide detailed briefings to him, the attorney general or anyone Trump might request one for. There are well-established means of sharing information within the executive branch. If the president wants to see the specific intelligence, he can.
But a private inquiry would not provide Trump with the political weapon of a public scapegoat. If he’s looking to discredit the intelligence behind the unanimous assessment by U.S. agencies in 2016 — since affirmed by the Mueller report, numerous indictments and no shortage of public evidence — he seems to want someone to blame. The recent directive hints at Trump’s eagerness to find a CIA version of his favorite targets at the FBI: James B. Comey, Peter Strzok, Bruce Ohr, Andrew McCabe or Robert S. Mueller III’s “angry Democrats.”
Creating a boogeyman inside the CIA is probably an effective tool if Trump’s goal is to persuade voters that he faced a “coup” and that the Russian attack was a “hoax,” as he has claimed. The necessary secrecy of the CIA’s activities makes it easy to spin a conspiracy and scare the public. A weaponized charge can appear simple and compelling, while the CIA’s ability to respond is limited; the issues involved are complicated and hard to explain in the length of a tweet. It is not hard to whip up fear and assume the worst of a powerful and shadowy secret agency if the most powerful man in the world is willing to deceive the public in the process.
There is danger in playing this game, though. The CIA and other intelligence agencies are primarily responsible to the president and executive branch policymakers and will seek to get Trump the information he needs. But they are also responsible to a range of other critical constituencies. As intelligence professionals engage Barr in reviewing the Russian intelligence, they also need to determine how public release of information will affect their efforts to recruit and protect sources, the trust of allied security services, adversaries, the public and the agencies’ own workforces.
Trump’s public comments disparaging his intelligence community have already made it harder to recruit and protect sources. Why risk your life to provide information to a U.S. president who doesn’t understand the stakes, doesn’t respect the work of his security professionals and may even disclose source information? As with Trump’s alarming Oval Office comments to the Russian foreign minister, in which he revealed details of a covert operation, the threat of declassifying sensitive intelligence information for the sake of partisan politics will further erode the ability of officers to ensure the safety of their sources and to reassure sources that they can protect them.
U.S. operatives collect secret intelligence to inform policymakers, but most human-sourced intelligence comes from trusted relationships with cooperating security services overseas. Our allies and partners are a tremendous force-multiplier for U.S. efforts. They contribute on-the-ground information otherwise unavailable, and they often put their own officers at risk to provide information that keeps Americans safe. Trump’s threat to investigate their role in providing sensitive intelligence on Russia or releasing intelligence benefiting from foreign liaison sources will erode the trust required to maintain these critical relationships. At the same time, it will supply ammunition to our adversaries and serve to weaken the very institutions that protect against malign activity. The Kremlin has surely been thrilled to watch the president abuse and weaken its nemesis, the FBI. Undercutting the CIA is icing on the cake.
The threat to “expose everything” or look for scapegoats also affects the day-to-day work of the intelligence workforce. It was certainly hard enough for intelligence professionals to maintain focus and take the necessary risks to collect secrets when Trump called them Nazis, commented to Bob Woodward that “I don’t believe in human sources,” or disparaged their assessments on Iran, Russia and North Korea. Community leaders already adapt and contort their professional conduct to avoid the fickle ire of the uniquely ignorant current occupant of the White House. Further undercutting community leadership will have the effect of diminishing their credibility and ability to manage the workforce. Protecting your workforce from abuse is Leadership 101.
But the worst problem is that Trump’s effort to demonize intelligence professionals further erodes the public’s trust in its institutions. Like his earlier assaults on the FBI, comments referring to the Obama-era CIA or conspiracy theories excoriating the “deep state,” this new order has the effect of amplifying the false notion that public servants in the intelligence community are involved in partisan political warfare.
Trump clearly wants to find anything he can use to paint former CIA director John Brennan or national intelligence director James R. Clapper Jr. as nefarious insiders who opposed his candidacy and twisted intelligence to damage him personally. Brennan’s strident criticism of Trump since his retirement has made him a target for the president and his supporters to blame and attack. It’s true that Brennan’s public stance has probably made it harder for the present CIA leadership to convince a president with little previous understanding of intelligence that even the director of the CIA cannot conjure up false intelligence or steer the organization to target Americans and engage in political campaigns. But of course, the goal of the Barr review is not the mundane truth, but rather to come up with a compelling narrative of sinister doings.
Even if the attorney general’s investigation doesn’t turn up anything of interest — and I can’t imagine that it will — the president’s public allegations will further risk the politicization of intelligence. The CIA was specifically set up in 1947 to operate as an independent civilian agency untethered to the needs of any other department of government. Its primary mission is to inform policymakers and tell truth to power. We are taught that there is no greater sin than politicizing intelligence. Trump may believe that he will gain personal political benefit from this inquiry, but he is further weakening a fragile system that we all rely on. And if he’s going to do his job of keeping Americans safe, he’ll need to rely on that system, too.