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In latest attack on intelligence agencies, Trump ignores where they actually agree

North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons national intelligence chief Daniel Coats said on Jan. 29. (Video: Reuters)
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President Trump lashed out at the government’s most senior intelligence leaders Wednesday, his latest assault on the spies and analysts who work for him but sometimes deliver facts that he doesn’t want to hear.

Triggering the president’s rage was an annual congressional hearing on global security threats, a routine event at which intelligence agency heads testified that Iran, while still a global menace, is complying with an international agreement designed to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Trump ridiculed that assessment and the intelligence leaders themselves.

“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “. . . They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge. There [sic] economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back. Be careful of Iran.”

Trump added: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

Testimony by intelligence chiefs on global threats highlights differences with president

It was hardly the first time Trump has questioned the accuracy of intelligence reports. During the campaign and transition, when he wanted to undermine intelligence findings that Russia had helped elect him, Trump reminded his Twitter followers that the intelligence community had incorrectly concluded that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

All of the Iran findings that officials gave Congress have been presented to the president at various points, said U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s intelligence briefings.

Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing made Trump’s disagreements visible to the public and inflamed his long-standing disdain for the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and five other countries, along with the European Union.

“He doesn’t like the deal because Obama made it,” one U.S. official said. Trump’s attack had less to do with the substance of the intelligence agencies’ conclusions than it did with undermining public confidence in the agencies themselves as neutral purveyors of information, the official said.

In his criticism, Trump seemed to ignore the many points where he and the intelligence agencies agree.

In written testimony on behalf of all intelligence agencies, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats described Iran as actively plotting terrorist attacks in Europe, mounting aggressive cyber-campaigns against the United States and developing ballistic missiles that “continue to pose a threat to countries across the Middle East.”

But since taking office, Trump has fixated on Iran’s potential to build a nuclear weapon. Administration officials have pressed intelligence analysts on why they believe Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement and questioned whether there is additional information that would show Tehran is violating its terms, according to current and former officials with knowledge of conversations between the administration and intelligence officials.

Under Mike Pompeo, the president’s first CIA director, the agency intensified its focus on Iran and scrutiny of its nuclear program. The assessment that Iran is not building nuclear weapons didn’t change.

The CIA declined to comment, and spokesmen for Coats did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump supporters saw in the intelligence presentation an attempt to undermine his foreign policy.

Fred Fleitz, who served briefly on Trump’s National Security Council staff, appeared on right-wing pundit Lou Dobbs’s television program to say the president should fire Coats for airing intelligence conclusions in public.

Fleitz said the intelligence community “has basically evolved into a monster that is second-guessing the president all the time.” In the future, he added, the president should forbid the officials from testifying publicly.

The leaders always meet with lawmakers privately for a classified session following their public unclassified presentation.

Trump to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February, White House says

The intelligence officials’ conclusions on other hot-button areas were also at odds with the president’s. They said, for instance, that the Islamic State was degraded but not defeated, as Trump has claimed. And they doubted that North Korea will ever give up all of its nuclear weapons, a sobering assessment ahead of next month’s planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But at no time did they make policy prescriptions or say the president was wrong to pursue the paths he has taken in confronting U.S. adversaries.

In his tweets, Trump took issue with the intelligence community’s determination that North Korea was not likely to abandon its nuclear weapons program, which the regime sees as key to its survival.

“North Korea relationship is best it has ever been with U.S.,” Trump tweeted. “No testing, getting remains, hostages returned. Decent chance of Denuclearization...”

But Trump’s top aides, in particular national security adviser John Bolton, hold a skeptical view of the Kim regime, cautioning him against making concessions and favoring a maximum pressure campaign aimed at bending the regime to comply with U.S. demands, according to officials and diplomats familiar with the deliberations.

Trump has also had extensive discussions with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has applauded his diplomatic efforts with North Korea and even publicly declared he “should win the Nobel Peace Prize.” For Moon, the United States and North Korea are confronting perhaps the last opportunity to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear program diplomatically, and the idea that the regime will respond to sanctions and threats rather than other concrete inducements is unrealistic and dangerous.

While Trump has heard a steady dose of skepticism and doubt from his intelligence officials, Bolton and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom Trump has met more than any other world leader, Moon has helped bolster Trump’s view that the negotiations are worth pursuing.

Trump’s hostile tweets Wednesday drew rebukes from Democrats.

“It is a credit to our intelligence agencies that they continue to provide rigorous and realistic analyses of the threats we face,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “It’s deeply dangerous that the White House isn’t listening.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also weighed in.

“The President has a dangerous habit of undermining the intelligence community to fit his alternate reality,” Warner said in a tweet. “People risk their lives for the intelligence he just tosses aside on Twitter.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Coats on Wednesday urging him to meet with the president “to educate him about the facts and raw intelligence” used to produce the community’s assessments. Schumer called Trump’s criticism “extraordinarily inappropriate” and said it would “undermine public confidence” in the government’s efforts to protect national security. 

Ultimately, some experts said, it is up to the president to make clear his own views and not let the intelligence community speak for him.

“The intelligence community can only judge the information they can gather and draw an assessment. Political leaders have to assess intentions,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“In a regular administration, these distinctions aren’t highlighted in public,” Carafano said. “Trump is an unconventional statesman, so he disregards this convention. . . . The president can choose to be an unconventional statesman, but the direction of U.S. policy must be clear to friend and enemy alike. It’s his responsibility to make sure that happens.”

John Hudson contributed to this report.