Trump vs. the intelligence community: Is scuffle damaging?

Presidents criticize and heatedly disagree with intelligence analysts 'all the time,' experts say, but in private. To publicly discredit them 'is almost taboo.'

Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, seen here arriving at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Dec. 13, 2016, has been receiving the presidential daily brief, which President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed as tiresome and repetitive.

President-elect Donald Trump has a well-established reputation for taking public pot shots at his opponents before sitting down privately to smooth things over.

Whether this tactic will negatively affect his relationship with the US intelligence community that serves him is now in question.

In recent days he has called the assessment that Russia intervened in the US election in his favor “ridiculous” and dismissed the presidential daily intelligence briefings – which incoming presidents have used to get up to speed on complex issues – as tiresome and repetitive.

“I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years,” he told Fox News. “I don’t need that.”

So, how damaging is his latest scuffle with the intelligence community – and is the presidential daily brief (known as the PDB) really that boring?

That Mr. Trump has picked a public fight with the intelligence analysts reporting to him is “a pretty big deal,” says Gary Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“You may not like them, or even trust them, but to openly pick a fight with them right off the bat is to bring a motherlode of trouble if you want to be an effective administrator,” says Mr. Schmitt, a former staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Not that presidents don’t disagree with their intelligence analysts. This happens privately “all the time,” he adds, recalling that when he was brought into the Reagan administration, it was his job precisely to “criticize and improve the efforts of the intel community.”

“I was seen as somebody who had something critical to say about everything,” he says.

That is as it should be, he adds. Senior policymakers, including the president, “are absolutely right to say, ‘That’s not a fact you’re giving me. It’s an analysis,’ ” Schmitt adds. “It’s a very large bureaucracy with all sorts of different personalities – but [to criticize them] publicly, no.”

Heated debates, in private

Julianne Smith, who served as both deputy and acting National Security Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, recalls heated debates in the privacy of the White House situation room.

“You’re always welcome to disagree on specific points, and that happens all the time,” she says.

“But to have the president take a public stance and discredit an entire agency writ large is nothing short of breathtaking,” she says. “It’s been a longstanding bipartisan view that the men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis try to provide the best intelligence possible. It’s almost taboo to call that into question.”

Rather than blast the intelligence coming from the briefers or dismiss the PDB as tedious, it is possible instead to ask them to delve deeper on a matter, or get more specific, or bring the new president or staff members up to speed on a particularly complicated intelligence matter, she adds.

“When I came into government, I could say, ‘Listen, I’m not particularly well-versed on all the rebel groups in Syria,’” and request in-depth briefings.

The daily intelligence briefings are tailor-made for those with intellectual curiosity, and can serve as a tasking mechanism. “Having people come in and being able to answer any question you can think of – that’s pretty cool,” says James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs. “It’s really fun – it’s a perk.”

Building blocks for policy

That said, sometimes the daily briefings can also include more obvious points, and they can get repetitive, Mr. Lewis and others concede.

“We used to laugh about it, that 80 percent of the stuff in the PDB you can get from open source,” like newspapers, he says. “It’s that remaining 10 or 20 percent that’s critical stuff.”

“It’s not always right, and it’s not always the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard. Some briefers can be dry, others make it so fascinating that you never want them to leave your office,” Ms. Smith adds. “There’s no question that themes repeat. When you’re in the middle of a war, you get a lot on that war. But you can also walk in in the morning and there’s breaking news.”

Rather than sit through it every morning, Trump has said his “generals” are being briefed. So is Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Beyond that, Trump added, “If something should change from this point,” staff can “immediately call me.”

Trump’s approach to date fits a pattern. “What he’s been adamant to message is that he’s not going with mainstream analysis, group thinking, the elites – he’s not going to align himself with Washington,” Smith says.

The problem is that the intelligence community doesn’t make policy, “but certainly provides you with the building blocks for making policy. One wonders: What will be Trump’s building blocks? He’s about to take over Washington. If you discredit the generals, the Congress, and the intelligence community, what’s left?”

It could be that Trump is waiting to get his own people into place in the intelligence agencies, Lewis says.

“If he’s not getting the PDB now, it’s not the end of the world. The thing to watch is his first year in office.... What people say before they’re president, and what they say after, often changes abruptly.”

Partisanship decried

Yet the idea of Trump first getting his own people into place before he feels comfortable with intelligence agencies undercuts what should be a bipartisan or non-partisan realm, says Mike McNerney, a cybersecurity specialist and former Army officer who interacted frequently with Central Intelligence Agency analysts.

“I saw a CNN show where the Republican guy was saying, ‘We talk to our own intelligence guys,’” about the Russian hacking. “That worries me about the loss of faith in intelligence agencies. It used to be fairly bipartisan or non-partisan.”

For those laboring on the ground and in war zones to produce the intelligence, the seemingly partisan nature of Trump’s remarks have been disheartening, Mr. McNerney says.

“The people I’ve spoken with are feeling pretty bummed about it. If you’re going into what’s already a thankless job, one of the things that keeps you going is the thought that you’re making a difference, and that what you’re collecting and providing is being appreciated by the president, frankly,” he says.

“When that part goes away – when what you work hard for and in many cases put your life on the line to get is being politicized – you have people asking, ‘Why am I doing this? I could go work for Google.’”

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