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.