Sporadic tweets and swirling rumors of ties with Russia have the global intelligence community on its toes as Donald Trump begins his presidency.
US intelligence agents reportedly warned Israel that information shared with the White House risked being leaked to Russia, Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported last Thursday. The story is disputed, but many analysts are worrying how the spy communities at home and abroad will respond to the brash new leader’s itchy Twitter fingers.
“I think the world is watching now what Mr. Trump says, and listening very carefully,” said John Brennan, CIA director during the Obama administration, to Fox News. “If he doesn't have confidence in the intelligence community, what signal does that send to our partners and allies, as well as our adversaries?”
One longtime ally may be listening more carefully than most. Israeli and US intelligence reportedly collaborated to take down 20 percent of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with the jointly developed Stuxnet virus in 2010, continuing a history of working together to monitor and slow a nuclear program that Yedioth Ahronoth says goes back at least 20 years.
Now US agents have allegedly warned the Israelis that their worst fears could come true: information could travel from the White House to Tehran, via Russia.
The New York Times, McClatchy, and the BBC all report that multiple law enforcement agencies have been investigating Trump's potential ties to Russia since last spring. US intelligence has been united in asserting that Russian president Vladimir Putin attempted to swing the US election for Trump with the DNC hack. Furthermore, persistent rumors allege that the Kremlin holds sensitive material that could be used to blackmail President Trump, who strongly denies the rumors as a “political witch hunt” and “fake news.”
Citing US intelligence that seems to have made its way from the Snowden documents to Iran after Edward Snowden won political asylum in Russia, Israeli officials are concerned that future information about covert Israeli activity in Iran could move the same way.
But some say the US would never undermine the integrity of the intelligence apparatus. “I don’t share those concerns. I saw the reporting. I don’t think, even looking at the dynamics we are talking about, I don’t think the Americans would do it. It is still America’s CIA,” former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden told the Jerusalem Post.
He also advised Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for CIA director, to visit Israel soon, and “reinforce the already rich relations between Israeli and American intelligence.”
Even assuming the rumors prove false, Trump has openly praised Putin, and any move closer to Russia raises eyebrows in Europe. “If there’s a sense that we’re cozying up to regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, that could have something of a chilling effect," a senior official from former President Barack Obama’s administration told Politico. "The challenge may be in places like Germany, France, potentially even the United Kingdom. If there is a reorientation toward Moscow, there could be some doubts there.”
While entrenched intelligence-sharing agreements like the one with Britain won’t be easily undermined, the US depends on many agencies around the world to increase its reach. If partner organizations don’t feel that working together is in their best interest, American intelligence may find some information streams drying up.
Trump’s public dismissal of the CIA and FBI’s conclusions regarding Russia’s DNC hacking could prove troublesome, too. “How many foreign intelligence agencies might say, 'I’m not sure giving this information to the Americans will do any good anyway. So why should we share it in the first place?' " Hayden explained to Politico. “If they come to the conclusion that the decision-makers don’t pay attention to the intelligence and the intelligence community is not respected, then why take the risk?”
Another complication is president Trump’s heavy Twitter use, which was producing friction with China and crashing stocks even before he took office, prompting debate in finance and media as to how to interpret the pithy 140-character policy announcements.
The Christian Science Monitor previously reported on the effects of one tweet as an example, which caused F-35 developer Lockheed Martin’s stock to drop by at one point $4 billion.
“I equate it to seeing a scary movie for the first time,” says Steve Quirk, executive vice president of TD Ameritrade, in a telephone interview. “It scares you. But the 17th time you see it, it's not scary anymore.”
In reality, presidents have limited power over procurement. “Do we really think there's going to be this draconian change to the way that the Pentagon purchases equipment based on this tweet?” Quirk asks. “What people are starting to figure out is: It’s less about a personal vendetta or a political outlook. It's about putting people on watch” that the new administration will be taking a hard look at government spending.
But will foreign intelligence agencies come to the same conclusions? In the spy world, information is power, and like toothpaste, it can’t be bottled back up once released. Trump has shown a willingness to attack perceived critics on Twitter, and such attacks could have serious consequences if directed overseas and backed up with sensitive information.
Nevertheless, former CIA Director Michael Morell, who supported Hillary Clinton during the election and had previously called Trump an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” expressed cautious optimism that the weight of the presidency would produce a calmer commander in chief in an interview last year with University of Chicago publication The Gate.
When asked whether Trump’s “America First” comments would have a negative impact on intelligence partnerships, he expressed faith in the resilience of the apparatus:
"No," he said, "Intelligence relationships are below the radar. They continue, they stay healthy no matter what’s going on in the politics, so no, it wouldn’t."
But while the relationships would survive, the comments might blunt US effectiveness, Mr. Morell continued.
"It would have a huge impact on what we try to do in the world, who is going to be willing to help us and who is not, and the power we can project in the world. Our alliance system is one of the ways we project power, so it’s incredibly important."