by Paul R. Pillar
As serious as is the Russian interference, including hacking, related to the U.S. election, of even more concern is what the U.S. president-elect’s (along with some of his co-partisans’) comments on this matter foretell for how he will function as chief executive and steward of U.S. foreign relations. Not in living memory has a president-elect, in just two months of a transition period, given so much additional evidence that some of the well-founded concerns about how he might operate as president will in fact materialize. Then again, never in memory has any U.S. president-elect so indiscriminately flouted long-established convention regarding transitions, or tried to make policy with dark-of-the-night tweets. Or indiscriminately sprayed insults, including against parts of the government he is about to lead.
Despite the thinness of Donald Trump’s knowledge of, and experience with, foreign relations of the United States, he has shown little interest in educating and informing himself with whatever the U.S. intelligence community has to offer. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it is consistent with the habits that have resulted in that thinness that he has eschewed help from the intelligence community. Either way, he has declined most of the intelligence input offered to presidents-elect, with the explanation that “I’m, like, a smart guy.” He prefers to delegate the task of receiving intelligence briefings to his national security adviser-designate, an Islamophobic ideologue with many bizarre notions about the outside world.
Then Trump disseminates doubt and disparagement about the U.S. intelligence community that might, after one peels away the invective, contain a kernel of reason if it were coming from someone who had interaction with the community that was long and deep enough to show where and how the community’s judgments most need to be questioned. But coming from Trump, without such interaction, it is instead a matter of prejudice and preconception. His tweet about this—dripping with disdain, with “intelligence” in quotation marks—evidently was erroneous in what it said about the scheduling of a briefing. More serious is his innuendo that the intelligence community, for unstated and unknown reasons, supposedly decided in advance what it wanted its message to be about the Russian hacking issue and was scrambling to make a case.
Understanding when and how politicization can infect the work of intelligence agencies requires reflection about the mission and raison d’être of such agencies. For a wholly foreign intelligence organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency, objectivity is essential to the organization’s existence. If the handling of information were a matter of politically-driven case-building rather than objective analysis, then the task could be left to policy and speech-writing staffs, and we might as well dismiss all the intelligence analysts. Such an agency doesn’t even have another major mission to relate to, as, for example, the FBI does with its traditional role as a domestic law-enforcement organization. Politicization can set in when the policymakers—the bosses and customers of the intelligence officers—have a very strong policy objective driving a need for shaping information into a public case. The most salient example of that in recent times was the George W. Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq War. There is nothing remotely resembling that policy impulse that could be affecting the intelligence community’s current work on the Russian hacking.
Such politicization as is occurring on this issue is coming from Mr. Trump, and from others with a stake in downplaying the idea of Russian interference having affected the result of the U.S. election. Trump went so far as to invoke as a reference Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder and accused rapist who is holed up in an Ecuadorian embassy. Assange himself has disavowed his ability to ascertain the ultimate source of material he leaks, so the reference is mostly meaningless. What is extraordinary is that a U.S. president-elect would refer in even a neutral way to someone who has demonstrated himself to be an enemy of the United States by compromising as much U.S. national security information as he can without regard to the consequences. Trump later tried to back off from his invocation of Assange, although for the likes of Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin, partisanship evidently is so strong that it trumps even national security.
There are many things deeply worrisome in this whole picture. One frequently mentioned topic that, though important, may not be among the biggest problems is morale within the intelligence community. The large majority of intelligence officers are professionals who realize that such abuse comes with the territory. They might privately wince but will continue to try to provide the best information and analysis they can to whomever the American people, or at least the electoral college, chose.
A bigger worry is that beginning two weeks from now, U.S. policy will be made by someone who not only has already plumbed new depths in post-truth politicking but still seems to show little inclination to move onto a more truth-illuminated path if it doesn’t suit his personal and political urges to do so. Those billions that reportedly are spent on U.S. intelligence programs will continue to serve many useful purposes, but right now it does not look like they will be able to do much during the next administration to help ensure that presidential decisions are firmly grounded in reality.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest. Photo: Paisley Abbey gargoyle.