I’ve spent nearly 20 years looking at intelligence challenges, including failures. That means getting into what I call the “silent but deadly” organizational causes of failure—so while the news tends to gravitate toward the salacious elements of a story like allegations about President-elect Donald Trump that broke Tuesday night, and ask what’s true and what’s not, there are organizational questions that this new reporting raises about how well the intelligence community is working.
With intelligence, the devil really does lie in the details, so it’s important to distinguish between what we know the community has said, and what they don’t know yet. In the case of CNN’s report that senior intelligence officials had told both Trump and President Obama “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump,” neither the FBI nor the numerous news organizations that have been investigating those allegations have verified their substance. The memos detailing them, released by Buzzfeed shortly after CNN’s story broke, came not from the intelligence community itself but from a person claiming to be a former operative with the British intelligence service MI6 who compiled them “over a period of months” while conducting opposition research on behalf of Trump’s political rivals, both Republican and Democrat. That material from the former MI6 official may not be all of what the intelligence agencies have; the “compromising” information about President-elect Trump that “Russian operatives” reportedly claim to possess may not be what they actually possess; and what they actually possess may not be completely, or even partially, true.
Here are my top four unknowns as I read this story:
1) Trump team communications with the Russian government before the election
Did anyone in the Trump orbit—intermediaries, campaign staff, family, confidants—know that the reported information was in the hands of the Russian government before the election? Did anyone in the Trump orbit communicate with Russian government officials before the election as the documents allege? (Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, for example, was not in Prague in August 2016, when the documents allege he was there meeting with Kremlin officials.) If anyone else in Trump’s orbit was, were these new allegations the subject of any communications?
2) Whether the FBI screwed up
What did the FBI do once it got the memos in August 2016, when reports say the former MI6 agent first approached an FBI official in Rome? Who took what steps, and why? Why didn't the public hear anything about this matter until five months after the FBI received the memos?
CNN does not report on when exactly the FBI in Washington got the information; only that the Rome contact took place in August. So it is possible the FBI was slow in reacting to the initial “over the transom” communication in Rome. I’d like to know the precise timeline of activity from the point of first contact to better understand whether the bureau should have been moving with greater effort and urgency on a matter of such significance. Four possibilities:
a) Organizational fragmentation. The FBI is highly decentralized into 56 field offices, with a history of left hand/right hand coordination problems—which explains why, before 9/11, three different field offices each had clues about the plot, but nobody knew what the others knew, so more concerted action was never taken. Was this another case of coordination problems impeding success?
b) Cultural pathologies. FBI culture is still rooted in crime-fighting, which means it's slow and careful, oriented toward collecting evidence for a court after something bad has already happened. An intelligence culture, by contrast, is focused on prevention, speed, and integration—pulling and weaving together threads as fast as possible to prevent disaster.
c) Misjudgment. FBI Director James Comey misjudged when and with whom to share this information. We've seen this movie before.
d) Degree of difficulty. The FBI didn’t do anything wrong. The investigation was hard—getting greater confidence and protecting sources and methods took time.
3) Is the two-page intelligence report officials provided to Trump and Obama, which in part summarizes the longer set of memos compiled by the former MI6 agent and made public by Buzzfeed, primarily aimed at the past or the future?
Does the revelation that the Russians have this supposedly embarrassing information (whether it is true or false) suggest an ongoing risk that the president-elect could be pressured by a foreign power into taking actions that are not in the best interests of the United States? One key lesson in intelligence: Information need not be true to be damaging.
4) The obvious unknown: Is the embarrassing information about Mr. Trump true?
CNN reports that, in the time since the former MI6 operative approached the FBI over the summer, “US intelligence agencies have now checked out [him] and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough” to warrant briefing the president and president-elect on his findings. Many of Tuesday’s reports, in other words, depend on the credibility of one anonymous source and what he told the intelligence community. The cautionary tale there is that “Curveball,” an Iraqi defector the U.S. relied on to build its case about WMD in Iraq, was also thought to be credible—until many of his claims proved false. And, as Buzzfeed notes, the full document contains errors of spelling and fact.
The fact that the intelligence officials thought the allegations serious enough to bring to the attention of the president and the president-elect is something we need to give serious weight to. But there’s also an unprecedented element in this story, which concerns claims about politicization of intelligence. What intelligence officials don’t want to have is for news to leak before the president or president-elect sees it directly—they want Obama and Trump to hear it from them first. Then the problem is, once that’s happened and the news leaks anyway, it seems to have more credibility precisely because it was brought to such high-level attention.