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Here's Why Trump's Intel Bashing Matters

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listens while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listens while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. // Evan Vucci/AP

President-elect Donald Trump’s public bashing of the intelligence community could drive some agents and analysts away from their jobs, degrading the community’s overall capabilities, former officials tells Nextgov.

The public discord could also drive a wedge between intelligence gatherers and the man who will soon be their consumer in chief, eroding the intelligence community’s typical role as a check on the presumptions and preconceived notions of policymakers, analysts say.

“My impression is morale has taken a hit,” said Joel Brenner, a former National Security Agency senior counsel. “When the president of the United States disparages your work, demeans your work, insults the integrity of your work, you wonder why you’re doing it, especially for a government salary.”

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Trump has spent a great deal of time since his November election in open dispute with intelligence leaders over their conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian government officials ordered a hacking campaign against the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations that wreaked havoc on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Trump has described intelligence agencies’ investigation into those breaches as a politically motivated “witch hunt.” He suggested intel officials delayed a briefing on the breaches last week because they were scrambling to find more evidence. Intel leaders said the briefing was not, in fact, delayed.

Trump also used a derisive tone in his tweets, including putting the word “intelligence” inside quotation marks when describing the community.

Statements like that could be the tipping point for some intelligence officers and analysts undecided about sticking with the profession, said Paul Pillar, a former longtime CIA official and national intelligence officer for Near East affairs.

That could apply both to longer-serving officials approaching retirement and to younger officers yet undecided whether to make a full career in the intelligence community, said Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

“This sort of abuse might be a scale tipper for those people and that would mean a loss of talent that could otherwise be put to good use,” he said.

The dispute might also make intelligence leaders and ground-level officers and analysts warier of sharing sensitive or controversial findings with the executive branch, said Joshua Rovner, a professor of political science and international relations at Southern Methodist University, whose research focuses on the politicization of intelligence.

Rovner compared Trump’s disputes with the intelligence community to the early Nixon administration when the new president, who considered himself a Washington outsider, was deeply suspicious of the CIA.

In that case, he said, many intelligence leaders were wary of challenging policymakers and expressed fewer reservations about the secret invasion of Cambodia than they might have.

“One thing the intelligence community does is provide checks against tunnel vision and a way of testing [policymakers’] beliefs and assumptions about how the world works,” Rovner said. “If the intelligence community is deeply demoralized and doesn’t feel interested in working with the White House or other policy counterparts, policymakers lose that check and they’re more inclined to trust their instincts.”

Even if intelligence leaders continue to share their best analysis, Trump’s criticism of the Russia findings will give ammunition to U.S. adversaries and make it easier for them to dismiss or criticize U.S. global actions based on intelligence agencies’ conclusions, Brenner said.

For example, he said, if the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is urging action against a nuclear proliferator based on intelligence findings, “the North Korean or the Russian or some other ambassador will stand up and bang the table and say: ‘Don’t tell me about U.S. intelligence; the president of the United States doesn’t even believe those people.’”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., made a similar argument during an Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, arguing Trump’s comments could inhibit his future ability to take action against North Korea or another U.S. adversary.

Graham joined numerous Republican and Democratic lawmakers in arguing Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community went beyond healthy skepticism to outright derision.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told senators at that hearing that foreign intelligence leaders have expressed concern to him “about the disparagement of the U.S. intelligence community.” Clapper and NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers both shared concerns about low morale in the wake of Trump’s comments.

Clapper will be retiring at the end of the Obama administration Jan. 20. Trump has nominated Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., to replace him.

Former intelligence officials are especially piqued because Trump made his criticisms before being briefed on the full analysis.

“There have been cases where the intelligence community has blundered before and been criticized for it,” Brenner said. “But if you disparage the work before you’re even familiar with it and say it’s not credible, that’s not criticism; that’s trash talk.”

Trump denied any animosity toward the intelligence community last week, tweeting “the media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!” He described last Friday’s briefing on the DNC hacks from top intelligence officials as “constructive,” adding, “I have tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation.”  

Trump has not publicly changed his position on the Russian attribution since the briefing, though incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Fox News Sunday he thinks the president-elect “accepts the finding” and is “not denying entities in Russia are behind these particular hackings.”

Trump tweeted after the briefing the “only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big that they are totally embarrassed!” He has focused much of his ire since the report’s release on the fact details of the report were leaked to NBC News before his briefing.

Former FBI Special Agent Michael German, who has criticized the Bush and Obama administrations’ surveillance and counterterrorism programs, expressed less concern about intelligence community morale, saying most intelligence and law enforcement agents who work at the ground level “don’t pay attention to a lot of the beltway dialogue about their work and they just do their jobs to the best of their abilities.”

German, now a fellow with New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, applauded Trump’s public questioning of intelligence conclusions, though he expressed great trepidation about the president-elect’s motives and how he will use intelligence information when in power.

“While I have serious concerns that such a campaign during the Trump administration would be less about bringing actual accountability and more about reinforcing the political goals of the administration and further politicizing intelligence, I support the need for greater oversight and skepticism with which President-elect Trump is approaching the intelligence community,” German said.

“I always find it kind of humorous when intelligence officials warn that criticism will harm morale within agencies,” he said. “These guardians of our security are somehow shrinking violets that would wilt away if held accountable for errors and abuses. It seems to me a dodge of the real issues.”

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