During the 2016 presidential campaign, many observers worried about what Donald Trump might do with the U.S. intelligence apparatus. These organizations kill people, after all, with scary flying robots. They have the ability to spy on huge numbers of people all over the world. And they have a history of scandal. So it was reasonable to wonder: What happens when you put organizations such as the CIA and the NSA in the hands of a person as vindictive, petty, and contemptuous of law and his political enemies as Trump?
The answer, for a while at least, was a somewhat uneventful interlude. Trump had his eyes on other bureaucratic targets. The president rejected important intelligence conclusions, particularly vis-à-vis Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. And he reportedly had little patience for briefings and tended not to believe the community’s conclusions when they were inconvenient to him. But his abusive energy focused far less on the agencies that collect and analyze foreign intelligence than it did on the Justice Department and its investigative component, the FBI.
That changed this past week, when Trump moved decisively to politicize the intelligence community, beginning the process of transforming a group of agencies that produce apolitical analysis of regional and global trends and threats to the United States into a blunt tool of presidential power. The changes will make it easier for the president to lie about matters of the gravest consequence. The move is objectively alarming—and yet, for some reason, has not generated the alarm it is due.
On Wednesday, Trump dismissed the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, following a blowup over a briefing to Congress on election interference. Trump was reportedly enraged by the briefing, in which, as The New York Times reported, “intelligence officials warned House lawmakers … that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected.” According to the Times, the “disclosure … angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.” In particular, “Mr. Trump was particularly irritated that Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the leader of the impeachment proceedings, was at the briefing” and “the president berated … Maguire … for allowing [the briefing] to take place.”
In Maguire’s place, Trump installed on an acting basis Richard Grenell, the current ambassador to Germany and a Trump loyalist of no particular intelligence background. Grenell has moved swiftly to put his stamp on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, removing the No. 2 official, Andrew Hallman, and replacing him with Kashyap Patel, a White House national-security official who had gained notoriety earlier as an aide to Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chief of the House Intelligence Committee , himself a peddler of conspiracy theories.
The politics here were not subtle; the president’s own tweets on the subject made his concerns perfectly clear. Over the course of several days, Trump tweeted his rage that Schiff has had access to the briefing about Russia once again intervening on Trump’s behalf. “Just another Shifty Schiff leak. Isn’t there a law about this stuff?” he wrote. Later, he added: “Somebody please tell incompetent (thanks for my high poll numbers) & corrupt politician Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff to stop leaking Classified information or, even worse, made up information, to the Fake News Media. Someday he will be caught, & that will be a very unpleasant experience!”
All of this was taking place as Trump was simultaneously attempting to prevent former National Security Adviser John Bolton from publishing his book, which reportedly contains new information about Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden. The Washington Post reported last week that Trump has taken the position that “everything he uttered to [Bolton] about national security is classified and that he will seek to block the book’s publication.” Again, the politics don’t even have the shame to lurk beneath the surface; they are right out in the open. According to the Post, Trump has determined that the book “should not see the light of day before the November election”—as though legitimately classified material would be any less sensitive after the election.
So the president spent the week reshaping the intelligence community to serve his political needs, removing those who speak inconvenient realities, and using control over classified material to suppress criticism. And the result was, within a remarkably short period of time, exactly the sort of public abuse of intelligence one might expect from such conduct.
This weekend, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusions regarding Russia’s election interference. On CBS’s Face the Nation, he told the host, Margaret Brennan, that “there's no briefing that I've received, that the president has received, that says that President [Vladimir] Putin is doing anything to try and influence the elections in favor of President Trump.” Instead, he argued, “what I've heard is that Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination.” On ABC’s This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked whether O’Brien was “flatly denying that the intel community has analysis that Russia is favoring Trump.” O’Brien responded that he “hadn’t seen that analysis.” And yet again, he claimed that “there are these reports that [Russia] wants Bernie Sanders to get elected. But that's no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow.”
In other words, O’Brien capped the week of the shake-up by both declaring on national television that the intelligence community hadn’t concluded something known to upset the president and implying that it had concluded that Trump’s emerging Democratic rival was benefiting from Russian assistance.
It is possible that O’Brien was carefully speaking to some genuine ambiguity on the first point. In the hours after O’Brien’s television appearances, reports surfaced that seemed to call into question whether the intelligence community really had concluded that Russia was aiming to help Trump in its current interventions. But the factual dispute here is exceedingly narrow. And even with the new reporting in mind, O’Brien’s comments are still a stretch. According to a “senior national security official” who spoke with CNN, the intelligence community has assessed both that Russia views Trump as someone the Kremlin can “work with” and, separately, that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election.” This, the official told CNN, is “a step short” of saying that Russia has a preference for Trump. Likewise, The Washington Post reported that, according to an official, arguing that Russia prefers a Trump win “may overstate the underlying intelligence.”
Fair enough. If some space exists between the conclusion that the Kremlin is working to help Trump and the view that the Kremlin is both meddling in the election and regards Trump favorably, it is not unreasonable for the national security adviser to clarify that. But O’Brien went well beyond such a clarification, suggesting that he was unaware of any analysis of the sort. What’s more, if O’Brien’s comments stemmed from a desire to preserve nuance, it’s hard to see why he would have claimed that “reports” indicate the Kremlin’s desire to elect Sanders. Instead, he seems to be reading intelligence-community analysis narrowly in order to cast doubt on any Russian support for Trump, while also seizing on the broadest possible reading of the available material—including not only intelligence-community work, but also unspecified “reports”—to exaggerate Russian support for Sanders. (The Democratic candidate himself, meanwhile, has condemned Russia’s efforts, telling the Post: “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”)
O’Brien’s comments offer a template for the politicization of intelligence to the president’s advantage in an election season. A politicized intelligence apparatus can be used both to deny truths the president doesn’t like and to justify falsehoods the president wants to propagate—not to mention create an environment of distrust so that people don’t know what to believe.
This is really dangerous stuff. Removing intelligence officers for having the temerity to give their unvarnished assessments is a recipe for groupthink and analytic distortions based on what people think the boss wants to hear. Remember, these are the people the president needs to rely on when he decides whether to take military action. Do we really want them worrying about whether he will like their honest assessment, about whether telling the truth to Congress will give the opposition party information to use against the boss during an election season, or about whether they can blow the whistle on political lies about intelligence without retribution?
Imagine that it’s August 2020. The presidential campaign is in full swing. A group of hackers believed by cybersecurity analysts to be affiliated with Russian military intelligence has released documents appearing to contain information damaging to the Democratic nominee. After some hemming and hawing, the press publishes story after story based on the new releases. Meanwhile, Congress continues to get briefings about election security, but they are milquetoast analyses that assiduously avoid assessing Russian intentions to favor or disfavor either side.
And once again, the national security adviser appears on television and announces that the U.S. intelligence community has seen nothing to suggest that the hack-and-leak operation is linked to Russia, or that Russia has any interest in securing Trump’s victory; in fact, he says once again, “reports” indicate that the Kremlin is backing the Democratic candidate.
Who exactly will contradict him?