Donald Trump and the Future of Intelligence

Joshua Rovner, SMU's Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics & National Security Policy, writes about the incoming administration's scorn for intelligence professionals.

By Joshua Rovner 

It started with a tweet.

Shortly after the news broke that the Central Intelligence Agency suspected Russian intelligence of using cyberattacks to help Donald Trump win the presidential election, the president elect’s transition team took to Twitter to dismiss the news—and denounce the Agency. “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s transition office said in a statement. Trump told Fox News that the notion of Russian meddling was “ridiculous” and speculated that the story was planted by disappointed Democrats. This was consistent with the view of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his choice for national security advisor, that the CIA is a political tool of the Obama administration.   

The fallout over the Russia affair has led to a flurry of news reports about the CIA and the incoming administration. Trump’s apparent contempt for intelligence, combined with fears of political reprisals, suggest that intelligence-policy relations are at a historic low.

Trump’s apparent contempt for intelligence, combined with fears of political reprisals, suggest that intelligence-policy relations are at a historic low.

This is not the first time that a new president has been doubtful of intelligence, however. Leaders enter office with their own networks of friends, advisors, and associates who provide information and insight about world affairs. They also have their own experience and worldview, of course, and may reasonably ask why they need help from anonymous intelligence analysts. 

New leaders sometimes view intelligence agencies as bureaucratic obstacles—or worse. Intelligence agencies control secret information, and well-timed leaks can undermine policymakers’ plans or damage their political careers. The fear of intelligence subversion is not entirely unwarranted, given the history of intelligence in the United States and elsewhere. As a matter of self-preservation, presidents and their advisors may prefer to keep intelligence at arm’s length.

President Truman was initially opposed to the idea of a peacetime foreign intelligence agency. He reluctantly changed his view as the Cold War intensified, signing the National Security Act that created the CIA in 1947. In retirement, he downplayed his own association with espionage and covert operations, despite doing more than any other president to shape the modern American intelligence community.

Some of Truman’s successors also entered office with serious concerns about intelligence. President Nixon privately suspected that the CIA had conspired against him in 1960, costing him his first shot at the White House. Nixon had little use for intelligence in any case, believing the White House and the NSC staff was perfectly able to perform the kind of assessments that normally came from the CIA and the Office of National Estimates. President Carter campaigned against the CIA in 1976, at a time in which it had a reputation for wanton and terrible abuses, and pledged to move U.S. foreign policy in a more ethical direction. According to then-Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush, Carter “harbored a deep antipathy to the CIA.” 

Post-Cold War policymakers also questioned the usefulness of intelligence. President Clinton rarely met with DCI James Woolsey, whom he mentioned only in passing in his memoir. President George W. Bush may have been more interested in intelligence, but others in his administration were skeptical at best. Richard Perle, a longtime associate of Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, said that “CIA’s analysis isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

But while there is a long history of intelligence-policy friction, the hostility between the incoming administration and the intelligence community is unprecedented. This is not just due to Trump’s tweets, though they have certainly played a role. Gen. Flynn’s statements about the CIA must sound ominous to insiders, given his checkered past. As director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he reportedly alienated subordinates by telling them “that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.” Because the White House is the CIA’s most important consumer, rejection by the president’s national security advisor would be particularly troubling.

Flynn’s reputation for bullying staff, along with Trump’s fondness for power plays, has led to fears of political reprisals within the intelligence community. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, recently warned intelligence analysts and congressional overseers to be on the lookout for signs of political pressure and retaliation against analysts who refuse to comply. One retired intelligence officer described Trump as having “a reflexive, defensive, monumentally narcissistic personality, for whom the facts and national interest are irrelevant, and the only thing that counts is whatever gives personal advantage and directs attention to himself.”

If similar views are shared among current officers, intelligence-policy relations in the early days of the administration are likely to be quite cold. It is safe to assume that the intelligence community will struggle to achieve a good working relationship with the Trump team. The normal growing pains that accompany new leadership are exacerbated in this case by the ongoing fight over Russian meddling and lingering but politically charged questions about intelligence on the Islamic State.

Intelligence Under Trump

The intelligence community faces two looming dangers in the next four years. The first is neglect. If the president elect means what he says, he is likely to downplay intelligence or ignore it completely. Trump has already announced that he won’t receive the President’s Daily Brief on a daily basis. Instead, he’ll get intelligence briefings three times a week and rely on his advisors to alert him when international events require his attention. The issue of neglect, however, goes beyond the number of formal interactions between the president elect and his intelligence officials. The real question is whether such actions will have any value to the policy process, or whether they will descend into brief pro forma exercises. Policymakers can easily ignore intelligence while going through the motions.

The fear of being ignored has long occupied intelligence officials, who understand that their work is irrelevant if their principal consumers are unwilling to listen. Policymakers are under no legal obligation to pay attention to intelligence, and they have a variety of other sources of information and insight. Friends, colleagues, and business associates may provide all the intelligence they need. Moreover, leaders come into office with strongly held worldviews, and can always fall back on their own beliefs rather than entertaining analyses from the intelligence community. “I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people,” Trump said recently. “But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”

Just as policymakers can ignore intelligence, intelligence agencies can remove themselves from the policy process. Organizational self-isolation occurs when intelligence officials become utterly disillusioned from their policy counterparts, or when they worry that interaction with policymakers will lead to politicization. 

Healthy intelligence-policy relations are a natural barrier to this kind of tunnel vision. Ignoring intelligence, on the other hand, opens a pathway to policy myopia.

Whatever the cause, neglect has serious consequences for the conduct of foreign policy. Intelligence agencies have access to unique sources of information, along with personnel who are specially trained to make sense of it. As a result, ignoring intelligence removes a potentially important source of information from policy deliberations. It also removes an important check on policymakers’ assumptions. Like anyone else, leaders are susceptible to cognitive biases that reinforce prior expectations. Healthy intelligence-policy relations are a natural barrier to this kind of tunnel vision. Ignoring intelligence, on the other hand, opens a pathway to policy myopia.  

The second problem is politicization, or the manipulation of intelligence to reflect policy preferences. Politicization comes in many flavors. Direct politicization refers to crude arm-twisting, as leaders try to coerce intelligence officials to deliver politically convenient estimates. Indirect politicization is more subtle: rather than threatening or cajoling intelligence officials, policymakers send repeated tacit signals about what they expect to hear. And like the problem of neglect, intelligence agencies can also be responsible for politicization if they let their own policy preferences affect their estimates.

Several commentators and former intelligence officials have already warned about politicization in the Trump administration. The danger will increase if Trump publicly commits to a controversial foreign policy. Suppose, for instance, that he provokes a military confrontation with China in the face of substantial domestic opposition. Under these conditions he would have powerful incentives to use intelligence to emphasize the seriousness of the threat, because intelligence agencies are extremely effective public relations vehicles. When leaders point to supporting claims from the intelligence community, they can reasonably claim that they have access to special information and thus deserve the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that leaders may have to pressure intelligence agencies to make sure that the community’s conclusions are consistent with its own public statements.     

Politicization is pernicious. It skews the quality of analysis by forcing intelligence estimates to adhere to policy positions, even when the underlying information points in other directions. It also inhibits later reassessments, even if new information becomes available, because intelligence agencies that have gone public are loathe to admit earlier mistakes by changing their conclusions. Finally, it damages the quality of intelligence-policy relations for years or decades after the fact. Episodes of politicization reinforce mutual mistrust and negative stereotypes.  And while policymakers and intelligence officials are different in some respects, they both have long memories.

The Trump administration’s apparent lack of interest in intelligence suggests that neglect will be the biggest problem in the early days of the new administration. But politicization will become more likely if intelligence officials try too hard to get back in the good graces of the White House. If they are too eager to repair intelligence-policy relations, they might be too willing to bend to policy pressure on divisive issues. This is an unenviable challenge: how to avoid irrelevance without corrupting their organizational integrity. 

Intelligence After Trump

Intelligence leaders should also consider the long-term effects of their immediate decisions. Not only do they face possible pressure from the new administration, they are also under scrutiny from Congress and the public, who increasingly expect to see more detailed intelligence. The nature of their response is important for the future of intelligence and intelligence-policy relations. Thus, as community leaders navigate the current controversy, they should consider three related questions.  

First, how can the intelligence community regain a reputation for impartiality among policymakers? Any hope of playing a productive role in the policy process rests on the belief that policymakers will value the community’s input without automatically suspecting its motives. The more that intelligence leaders enter the policy fray, the harder it will be for them to avoid such a suspicion. In general, it will be easier to recover if they err on the side of silence. 

Any hope of playing a productive role in the policy process rests on the belief that policymakers will value the community’s input without automatically suspecting its motives.

Second, how can it restore public confidence in the institutions that make up the intelligence community? Eroding faith in intelligence is part of a broader decline of trust in government. This is problematic for society as a whole, but it is particularly damaging for intelligence agencies, which require a kind of special dispensation to do their jobs. Democratic institutions must be transparent so that they can be held accountable. This is not true for intelligence agencies, which enjoy a large measure of secrecy given the nature of their activities. This may not continue if the public comes to believe they are incompetent. Why sacrifice basic democratic norms on behalf of a failing institution? 

Finally, how can the intelligence community attract and retain the best personnel? Intelligence professionals are not terribly well-paid compared to what they might receive on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. They also face repeated public criticism for supposed failures, which are hard to rebut given secrecy restrictions. Moreover, the extraordinary burst of information via social media has led to speculation that traditional intelligence has become less important. “In a world in which the information is available to everyone,” one veteran lamented, “the intelligence community is simply a second opinion.”

Working long hours for low wages in an institution with declining prestige may not be attractive to bright young job seekers. Intelligence managers will have an increasingly hard time recruiting and keeping the best talent. Bolstering the community’s external prestige and internal esprit de corps will help. Doing so will require making a convincing case that the intelligence community not only provides unique professional opportunities, but that it is also something more than just another partisan player.

There are no simple answers for the underlying problems in intelligence-policy relations. There are no obvious remedies for restoring policy trust, public faith, and professional morale. Nonetheless, these issues are unavoidable for intelligence leaders who are forced struggle with a complex set of international security challenges at a time of remarkable change at home. The controversies surrounding the Trump transition will pass. The intelligence community’s reaction, however, may have lasting consequences.