World·Analysis

The perils of Trump's 'one-way fight' with his own intelligence community

Frayed relations between president-elect Donald Trump and the national security apparatus he’s about to inherit could spawn mutual distrust, resulting in low morale and less incentive to take risks for better intelligence, former CIA and FBI brass warn.

Former CIA, FBI directors worry rejection of intelligence could harm security efforts

Former director of the Central Intelligence Agency George Tenet touches a star carved into the marble-faced lobby wall of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Each star represents an agent killed in the line of duty. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters, a hive of hush-hush operations in Langley, Va., makes no secret of the prominent wall engravings in its stark lobby.

All the shots are coming from the president-elect's direction. But the intelligence community has done really nothing to harm him.- John McLaughlin, former director, CIA

Etched on white marble there is a field of 117 stars representing every agent who died in the line of duty while gathering intelligence for the U.S.

Former CIA chief John McLaughlin thinks about that Memorial Wall when he weighs the risks of spying for the U.S., particularly as president-elect Donald Trump goes to war with intelligence officials.

"It's a deplorable relationship so far," laments McLaughlin, who served as deputy director and acting director of the spy agency.

Trump has openly accused the intelligence community of leaking unsubstantiated allegations about his campaign's purported ties to Russia.

"It's a one-way fight," McLaughlin says. "All the shots are coming from the president-elect's direction. But the intelligence community has done really nothing to harm him."

Trump, who has been reluctant to accept the CIA's "high confidence" findings that Russian hackers tried to tilt the election in his favour, took his public disdain for the security establishment further on Wednesday. At a press conference, he blamed "disgraceful" intelligence agencies for leaking unverified memos alleging Russia has blackmail-worthy material on him.

Former CIA director John McLaughlin describes president-elect Donald Trump's relationship with the intelligence community as 'deplorable.' He worries about diminished incentive to take risks for intelligence gathering if the community's efforts aren't trusted. (Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press)

"That's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do," Trump said.

(In a deferential statement later that day, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he told Trump, "I do not believe the leaks came from within.")

The president-elect's skepticism of the intelligence agencies that will soon report to him isn't just insulting within the community; former top brass at the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation warn it could hobble national security efforts.

Diminished morale, less incentive to take risks for better intelligence and resignations at senior levels are concerns.

"For the president-elect to become so angry as to refer to the intelligence community in the same breath as Nazi Germany, it's just unprecedented in my experience," McLaughlin says.

Mike Pompeo, president-elect Donald Trump's pick for new CIA director, testified in a Senate confirmation hearing this week that Russia represents a world threat. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

It was only Wednesday that Trump finally agreed with the intelligence consensus on election meddling, admitting: "As far as hacking, I believe it was Russian."

That was one hopeful sign, as Trump's picks for new CIA director and defence secretary, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis, both testified Thursday before a Senate committee that Russia could be a danger.

'Problematic dynamic'

Even so, the Trump relationship with the intelligence community "is the most problematic dynamic I've seen in a while," says Chris Swecker, who served as acting executive assistant director of the FBI from 2004 to 2006. The president-elect, he adds, has shown a "clear mistrust" of the information laid before him.

Though Swecker is critical of the "bloated" Office of the Director of National Intelligence as an oversight body for 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, he wouldn't be surprised if senior officers enjoying second careers in the agency retire early.

"At the top level, you may see some double-dippers who say, 'I don't need this, I'm leaving.'"

Chris Swecker, a former assistant director of the FBI, believes Trump will eventually come to respect his intelligence staff after installing his own people. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

For his part, Swecker likes a "healthy skepticism." He also believes Trump will come around to admiring and respecting his intelligence agencies after installing his own people. (Former New York mayor and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani was announced Thursday as a new adviser on cyber-security.)

'Pretty damn serious'

But while previous presidents have clashed with their intelligence apparatuses before, the public nature of this feud could invite officials to try to undermine the Oval Office.

"It's pretty damn serious," says Gary Schmitt, a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and an executive director of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during the Ronald Reagan administration.

"You can get into a situation where people go, 'Why am I putting as much effort into this stuff when, at the end of the day, I'm being told, 'We really don't respect what you do'?"

James Mattis, president-elect Trump's nominee for secretary of defence, said Russia is the top security threat to the U.S. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The president-elect's dismissal of his own intelligence-gathering services could harm him eventually.

He has characterized agencies' efforts as faulty, for example, by saying that conclusions regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program were wrong.

Now that Trump has been talking about trying to change the Iran nuclear deal, Schmitt notes he'll need to rely on the same intelligence community to help make his case against the nuclear pact.

"His skepticism in the one case is justifiable, perhaps," Schmitt says. "But Trump has already given people a reason to doubt [the intelligence community's] information. So why is the intelligence good now when you didn't think it was good two months ago?"

'Expect resignations'

In a New York Times op-ed last week about Trump's "dangerous anti-CIA crusade," Michael Morell, who led the agency between 2010 and 2013, argued the president-elect could "weaken" its services if agents no longer felt their sacrifice was valued.

Without presidential backing, foreign intelligence services might be less inclined to partner with American spy agencies.

"Expect a wave of resignations," Morell added, predicting that "attrition at the CIA, which has been remarkably low since Sept. 11, 2001, will skyrocket."

Of the etched stars gracing the CIA's Memorial Wall, McLaughlin says one-third of the casualties were added since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In a recent op-ed, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell warned that unless the already strained relationship between Trump and the intelligence community is mended, 'expect a wave of resignations' within the CIA. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

"Nobody really knows that. So this is a dangerous time we're in."

Counterterrorism is risky work, "and when the incentive to take risks is diminished," McLaughlin says, "it means you accomplish less."

He doubts mass resignations will happen, reasoning dedicated operatives feel duty-bound to work on behalf of national security in spite of criticisms that may come their way.

"But it's an important time to do our jobs, and you don't appreciate being the subject of name-calling, particularly by your commander-in-chief."

That said, McLaughlin expects the rift to mend.

"This is a time to man the barricades, to serve proudly, even defiantly," he says.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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