Did U.S. intelligence analysts betray disdain for President Obama and Hillary Clinton during recent classified briefings with Donald Trump, as the GOP candidate claimed Wednesday?
Doing so would represent an almost inconceivable violation of training and tradition, former U.S. intelligence officials said. They added, however, that those accused briefers may be quietly muttering and shaking their heads about at least one of the presidential candidates now.
“Those selected for this task would have been the most professional of an elite corps of intelligence officers,” said Paul Pillar, a former high-ranking CIA analyst. “One of the last things they would do is express either verbally or through body-language preferences” about candidates or policy.
Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director who has endorsed Clinton, put it more bluntly, saying that Trump’s comments “show that he’s got zero understanding of how intelligence works.”
Trump’s claim came during a candidates forum Wednesday when he was asked whether he learned anything that shocked or alarmed him during a pair of briefings designed to provide an overview of security issues confronting the United States.
Trump could not name anything of substance he learned from the sessions, which are part of a long tradition of giving candidates access to classified information about global trouble spots. Instead, he said he was mainly struck by the briefers’ obvious disdain for his political opponent and the current president.
“There was one thing that shocked me,” he said, suggesting that the briefers had made clear that Obama and Clinton had ignored their expertise and recommendations. He added that he is “pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what [the intelligence experts] were recommending.”
The assertion was delivered as a throwaway line during a lengthy discussion of foreign policy. But among U.S. intelligence officials, Trump’s claim amounts to an accusation of a serious breach of professional ethics.
The CIA and other spy agencies are supposed to collect information and assemble analysis to help policymakers make decisions. But their roles require spy services to steer clear of seeking to influence policy. Analysts trained to remain impartial are particularly allergic to domestic politics.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the candidates’ briefings, declined to comment.
Officials said it was the first time they could recall a presidential candidate providing a readout of a briefing he had been given, let alone exploiting it to make a political point.
“This is unprecedented,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer who delivered daily briefings to senior members of the George W. Bush administration. “We’ve had other presidential candidates mention that they got a briefing and talk in platitudes about it. We’ve never had somebody talk about what happened in a session.”
Asked whether he learned anything that might make him reconsider campaign pledges, including his vow to swiftly defeat the Islamic State, Trump said, “No, I didn’t learn anything from that standpoint.”
U.S. officials had previously expressed concern that Trump might be abusive toward his briefers. Instead, he described them as “terrific people.”
Trump was accompanied during his initial Aug. 17 briefing by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, both avid supporters. Trump and Christie listened politely, but Flynn repeatedly interrupted the briefers and disparaged their work, according to former officials familiar with the matter.
“There will be other opportunities to be abusive — the higher priority now is to cast a negative light on his opponent,” Pillar said. The briefers’ reaction to Trump’s depiction of their session probably involved “shaking of heads and rolling of eyes,” Pillar said, “but part of the professionalism is to keep that thoroughly private.”