Smoking guns are the stuff of spy movies. In real-life intelligence-gathering, they are exceptionally rare. That’s why the business of intelligence typically requires collecting and analyzing fragments of information—putting together secret nuggets with unclassified information—to try to make sense of complex reality. If nothing else, the whistle-blower who filed a complaint against President Donald Trump clearly followed his or her training.
I’ve spent 20 years reading intelligence reports and researching the U.S. intelligence community. And I’m not automatically inclined to believe the worst allegations about any administration; everyone has agendas and incentives to reveal information, some more noble than others. Trump and his allies have dismissed the complaint as hearsay and accused the whistle-blower of acting on political motives. But a close reading of the whistle-blower’s lengthy complaint, which accuses Trump of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” yields a lot of concrete leads for investigators to follow.
Here are three things I learned:
The whistle-blower sounds like an experienced intelligence analyst, and the complaint appears credible. Because intelligence officials are trained to be oh-so-careful with what they say and what they leave out, reading their reports is something of an art. You have to ask: Is the author clear about where the information came from, and careful about protecting confidential sources and collection methods? Does the information come from a single source or multiple sources, and what context is provided to assess their credibility? Does the overall tone suggest the author is carrying a vendetta, cherry-picking facts, discarding opposing evidence, or going further than the evidence warrants? Were other, more benign explanations considered for a given fact pattern?