Just two days after Donald Trump implied that President Obama sympathized with terrorists, provoking a backlash that included members of his own party, the presumed Republican presidential nominee declared himself “right,” based on a published report claiming administration “support” for the Islamic State.
In a post to his Twitter account early Wednesday, Trump said “Media fell all over themselves criticizing what Donald Trump ‘may have insinuated’ ” about Obama. “But he’s right,” it said, linking to a story published by the conservative website Breitbart News.
The story was based on a declassified 2012 cable written by a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) official, addressed to about two dozen military and national security agencies and officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Labeled as “information report, not finally evaluated intelligence,” it refers to “the general situation” in Iraq and Syria in the early days of the armed insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It describes al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic State precursor, as part of the anti-Assad opposition, and notes that opposition forces fighting in eastern Syria are backed by “Western countries, the [Persian] Gulf states and Turkey.”
But the document appears to be an initial intake of spot intelligence from the early days of the Syrian civil war. That intelligence had not yet been vetted or verified. Trump’s embrace of Breitbart’s interpretation of the cable fits a pattern of careless handling and circulation of facts, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Such missteps have piqued concerns among foreign policy experts and Republican strategists about Trump’s understanding of complicated policy issues and his fitness for office.
“The main worry by those folks that I talk to in the national security and foreign policy universe is that he’s just winging it. And winging it . . . at this period in time is clearly dangerous,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran GOP strategist and former adviser to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“Some days I expect him to come out and say, ‘I’m not an expert on national security, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night. Let me tell you what I think,’ ” Madden said.
There has been hesitation among foreign policy experts to join the Trump campaign or his transition team, at least partially born out of fear that aligning themselves with Trump could damage their professional reputations.
“It’s kind of frightening to me if the Trump foreign policy people can’t distinguish between a spot intelligence report and a finished report. That’s scary,” said former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who left the State Department in 2012 and has been sharply critical of Obama’s Syria policy. “They should know better.”
Clinton, who like Trump will begin receiving CIA briefings on world hot spots once the two parties’ nominations are official, has aggressively sought to brand Trump as erratic and uninformed on issues of global consequence. At a campaign event Wednesday in Hampton, Va., she called him “temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to be commander in chief.”
Obama, without mentioning Trump by name, had emphasized the same theme Tuesday in criticizing Trump’s response to the weekend terrorist attack in Orlando. On Monday, Trump had said Obama should “resign” over his refusal to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism” and suggested that the president had an ulterior motive in relation to the Orlando attack. “There’s something going on,” Trump said.
Trump subsequently withdrew The Washington Post’s credentials to cover his campaign after the newspaper said he suggested that Obama was complicit in the attack. In his Twitter post Wednesday, however, Trump appeared to agree that that was, in fact, what he had “insinuated,” and he asserted that he was “right.”
Ford, currently a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the cable, which Breitbart said had been obtained by Judicial Watch in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, has been “circulating on the Internet for years.”
“I’ve seen it several times. . . . Assad government apologists and people connected to the Maliki government in Iraq have posted it and linked to it,” he said. “It has been used as ‘evidence’ to show that the Americans are really working with the Islamic State against Assad.”
Ford said he was “90 percent sure” the cable was a report by a U.S. military official in Baghdad of a briefing by the Iraqi military. “To be really cynical,” he said, “it’s the Iraqis giving the Iranian line.”
Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time, was close to Iran, which continues to be among Assad’s leading backers along with Russia.
Fred Hof, who served as the administration’s special adviser for Syria until he resigned in 2012, said, “I’ve had a lot of problems with the administration’s Syria policy, but the suggestion that it’s ever supported al-Qaeda in any form or any manner is purely ludicrous.”
Not every participant in Syria policymaking in 2012 questioned the import of the declassified cable. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, then-director of the DIA, said that it was “written by a professional intelligence officer with DIA and . . . I stand by its accuracy.”
Flynn, who has advised Trump on foreign policy and has been rumored in some news outlets as a potential running mate, said in an email that the information in the cable was “accurate and it was very timely but it didn’t meet the political narrative at the time — especially reports such as the one in the Breitbart News article. AQ was never on the run, then or now.”
By withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, Flynn said, “this administration decided, for purely political reasons not to sustain our victory over AQI and therefore we now face an even stronger global jihad movement of radical Islamists.”
The August 2012 cable, which Breitbart said stated that “the Obama administration was actively supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq,” offers an Iraq-centric scenario of what was happening on the ground at the time but leaves out much detail and connective tissue in what subsequently became a complicated, multi-player battlefield.
Most of its initial paragraphs, indicating who composed it and the circumstances under which it was written, are redacted. Instead, it begins by saying that events were taking “a clear sectarian direction” and that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria. . . . The West, Gulf countries and Turkey support the opposition, while Russia, China and Iran support the regime.”
At the time, moderate opposition forces called the Free Syrian Army had driven the Syrian army out of towns in the eastern part of the country, near the Iraqi border. They were soon dislodged by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Al-Nusra, initially allied with a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq — the Sunni extremist group largely vanquished by U.S. forces before 2011, whose remnants had gone underground or fled into Syria — later split with AQI after it declared itself a caliphate and in early 2014 renamed itself the Islamic State.
By the summer of that year, Islamic State forces were fully in control of much of eastern Syria, had burst across the border into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and were headed toward Baghdad.
Two years earlier, at the time of the cable, U.S. military aid to the moderate opposition was largely rhetorical. The CIA was training and otherwise assisting a small core of vetted fighters, and pushing for the opposition elements to organize themselves into a political force. To the extent they were receiving assistance, most was from the Persian Gulf states and Turkey