Leak-Shopping and the Politicization of Intelligence

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by Paul R. Pillar

Consistency has not been a hallmark of the Trump Administration’s posture regarding the divulging to the press and the public of information that had been the stuff of behind-closed-doors deliberations inside government.  Members of the press have noticed how on the same day that President Trump fulminated in a speech to a conservative conference about reporters’ use of anonymous sources, the White House invited reporters to a briefing on condition that the briefers remain anonymous.  This was in addition to Trump’s longstanding habit of citing anonymous sources in support of assertions such as that Barack Obama was foreign-born.

Amid the White House’s further fulmination about leaks, it has become apparent that what concerns Trump and his circle is not leaking but rather the public disclosure and dissemination of any information that contradicts administration assertions.  In this respect, this administration’s sounding off about leaks stems from the same motives as the president’s attempts to discredit mainstream media as an “enemy of the people.”  And the administration has been attempting to respond in kind. It reportedly tried to get the FBI to speak to news organizations to counter stories about the ties of Trump associates to Russia.  When the FBI balked, the White House turned to two other senior members of the intelligence community—anonymous, of course—to downplay the stories.  According to the Washington Post, those officials “broadly dismissed Trump associates’ contacts with Russia as infrequent and inconsequential” but refused to answer questions, and their comments evidently were deemed too inconsequential by the reporters and editors involved to make a published story out of them.

This kind of effort by the White House is similar to leaking in that it involves people with an agenda endeavoring to tell a partial story of, or impart spin to, some subject that is more complicated than that, involves information gaps, and in which the available information is subject to differing interpretations.  These characteristics certainly apply to the Russian connections of Trump associates, which is why a thorough and impartial investigation of the subject is necessary.  In each case, something is divulged to the press not to inform, but to support a political or policy position.

Just five weeks in power, this administration already has gone even farther, and in an even more corrupting way, down this road, and not just regarding the issue of Russian connections.  The White House is reported to have reached into the intelligence and security services, including the intelligence and analysis arm of the Department of Homeland Security, to try to extract interpretations of data about terrorism that would support the decisions the administration made, and subsequently were struck down in the courts, about limiting travel from specified Muslim-majority states.  This is a classic case of politicization of intelligence: using intelligence not to inform a policy decision yet to be made, but instead to try to muster public support for a decision already made.  This is the opposite of how a healthy intelligence-policy relationship ought to work.

This episode recalls a similar recent experience of such politicization: the George W. Bush administration’s repeated efforts to extract from the intelligence services material to support publicly its already-reached decision to launch a war in Iraq.  In so doing, the Bush White House also strove to negate intelligence judgments that inconveniently did not support the pro-war case, on topics such as supposed terrorist alliances that did not exist.  One specific instance was remarkably similar to the Trump White House’s efforts to get the FBI or intelligence officials to lobby with reporters to tamp down the story about Russian connections.  After the Senate intelligence committee publicly released an intelligence community judgment that Saddam Hussein, even if he had the feared weapons of mass destruction, was unlikely to use any such weapons against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists—unless the United States invaded Iraq—national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked intelligence chief George Tenet to give a briefing to a New York Times reporter to play down the inconsistency between this judgment and the administration’s pro-war message.  Tenet did, and he later admitted he should not have.  By doing so, he wrote in his memoir, “I gave the impression that I was becoming a partisan player.”

The Trump administration is still very young, and it remains to be seen whether it will produce foreign entanglements as disastrous as the Iraq War.  We do see already how intense is the administration’s assault on truth, an assault that can be at least as disastrous for American democracy.  As columnist Charles Blow puts it, “Trump simply wants the truth not to be true, so he assaults its quality. He wants the purveyors of truth not to pursue it, so he questions their motives.”  This description applies to Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community as well as his relationship with the press.  Because intelligence inherently deals with incomplete information, trying to uncover the secrets of others, and thus uncertainty, it cannot claim to have full grasp of the truth at any given moment or on any given topic.  But dedication to the pursuit of truth is an essential part of its mission.  A search for officials within the intelligence and security services who can give reporters spin that is helpful to the White House is the opposite of such a mission.

The very fact that different interpretations of fragmentary evidence, and different willingness to offer such interpretations, can be found within the intelligence community is one of the reasons the notion of a single-minded “deep state” should be dismissed as silly.  Not to be dismissed, however, is the danger of those with political power using the apparatus involved for their own political purposes.  In George Orwell’s 1984, it was not bureaucrats at the Ministry of Truth, doing their own thing, who decided to disorient the public and crush its ability to distinguish reality from unreality.  It was those who held the political power, and to whom the ministry was answerable, who did that.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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2 Comments

  1. “…the notion of a single-minded “deep state” should be dismissed as silly.”

    That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The deep state may not be “single-minded,” probably because membership in it is always in flux, but it definitely should not be “dismissed as silly.” Obama went so far as to point toward it when he reported the existence of a “playbook.” Maybe, if we’re lucky, he’ll write his memoirs and tell us more — but don’t hold your breath.

    One problem Trump has that Baby Bush didn’t is the absence of a Cheney figure (a long-standing member of the deep state) with plenty of experience at manipulating public opinion and the press. By contrast, Trump has surrounded himself with businessmen,
    old generals, and far-right ideologues — none of whom have as much as five minutes of previous experience of Washington, much less the deep state. I’m daily reminded of that medieval king-for-a-day festival, when the lowliest surf is made the highest in the land for 24 totally chaotic, topsy-turvy hours. I think the intention of the lords was to convince the populace of how fortunate they are to have such strong and intelligent leaders leading them on the other 364 days.

    If you want to wield political power successfully, you’ve got to have had sufficient experience before the reigns of power get passed into your hands. (Obama didn’t have enough.) That those reigns were passed to Trump by the least informed fraction of the electorate should be a lesson to Washington and its stenographer-journalists to be far more transparent and scrupulous about the truth. Stupid leaders and stupid journalists make for a stupid electorate.

  2. It is certainly true, and you rightly refer also to George W. Bush’s fitting the facts around decisions made (as with Tony Blair, I remember, too). However, to quote the WaPo is strange, since that paper is in the forefront of the recent “fake news” controversy, when so much anonymous and unsubstantiated material was publicized and repeated about alleged hacking and contacts with Trump, blaming Russia with no real evidence.

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