How can America's spies navigate today's political minefields?

Politics is always a risky arena for intelligence agencies, as they seek out and supply information that may not fit with government agendas. But President Trump's decision to fire FBI Director Comey has brought the tensions into stark relief.

J. David Ake/AP
A member of the news media walks in front of the FBI headquarters building early in the morning in Washington last week.

As Mark Lowenthal climbed the CIA’s ranks, he prided himself on staying level-headed even in tense political moments. But even for the agency’s then assistant director, the 2004 presidential race proved unusually stressful.

When popular CIA Director George Tenet resigned that July after US intelligence leads failed to turn up suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, reports in The Wall Street Journal indicated that CIA rank-and-file officers had begun supporting President Bush’s Democratic rival, John Kerry. White House officials quickly seized on those rumors, accusing the agency of playing politics.

"It was beginning to affect the entire building," says Mr. Lowenthal, who retired from the agency in 2005. "It's hard to go to work when you know that your main client doesn't like you."

Those difficulties seem to be returning to Washington amid a hyper-partisan climate. President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey amid an FBI investigation into suspected Russian interference in November’s election.

It’s the latest episode, after Mr. Trump criticized US intelligence officials for leaking sensitive material, to raise worries that the revelations could make spies more reticent to share their secrets – or uncomfortable analysis – with the Oval Office.

To carry out the bureau's unique mission – providing information to help policymakers protect the US from devastating surprise attacks – intelligence officers must think about the worse case scenario stemming from White House policy. To do that, spies are strictly warned to steer clear of politics to avoid compromising blunt their national security analysis.

“The intelligence community is not loyal,” Lowenthal says. “We're the skunk at the picnic.”

That often means picking holes in conventional wisdom or policies. "We're the ones telling you why Kim Jong-un isn't giving up his nuclear weapons," he adds. 

Meet the new boss

Many new occupants of the West Wing struggle to adjust to the intelligence community's independent style. Trump found out earlier this year, when he asked Mr. Comey to shut down the Russia investigation and the FBI chief refused to pledge his loyalty to the commander-in-chief, according to New York Times reports.

But in politically challenging climates, spies don’t just worry about their job security. Once a briefing ends, the president can do what he wishes with intelligence, which can sometimes even put at risk the information that goes into that analysis.

After a Washington Post report surfaced on Monday that President Trump unveiled highly classified information regarding the Islamic State to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the US, experts worried that the commander-in-chief may have damaged relationships with foreign intelligence partners or members of the US spy community by revealing "sources and methods" – human resources and data-gathering techniques – that are critical to the conduct of their work.

“Do you suddenly have qualms about passing intelligence to the White House?” Lowenthal says. “The very fact that intelligence officers might be thinking that is problematic.”

Opportunities for change

But the Trump administration’s recent flare-ups with the intelligence community could be attributed to a broader trend, that comes alongside suspected Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election: The emergence of espionage as an important facet of politics in the digital age.

“Intelligence has historically done its work in the shadows, the only time you’ve seen it in the news is when it fails,” says Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer and director of the Intelligence and Defense Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “That long ago has been stripped away. It’s something that’s making everybody uncomfortable.”

Yet despite that discomfort – and the ability for intelligence agencies to draw upon the frenetic pace of the 24-hour news cycle – spy units around the globe have managed to find new ways to get the eyes of elected officials glued to their analysis.

The British government has found success with the creation of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a cabinet-level office developed after World War II that creates standards for intelligence analysis and creates priorities for British spy agencies.

To provide challenging intelligence analysis to a media-consumed president, spy agencies could take a page from journalists, too. While junior analysts focus on day-to-day reports and senior analysts look at long-term forecasts, experts think smaller, tightly-knit units could take on a larger role in collecting and analyzing intelligence that looks at both angles. 

"Maybe you create these units that do both simultaneously,” says Stephen Marrin, an associate professor at James Madison University and a former CIA analyst.

In 2010, as director of intelligence for the US mission in Afghanistan, then-Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn proposed deploying 2,000 intelligence analysts to the battlefield to report on the conflict as a newspaper reporter might do. 

"We were so focused on driving our intelligence system to collect on the enemy," Mr. Flynn told The Atlantic. "We were missing these vital components of information that were out there. And that’s what I wanted." That could have relevance to the current White House. Trump counted Flynn as a close confidante before his dismissal as US national security adviser in February.

Safety valve

In other areas of the intelligence community outside of the FBI and CIA, there are areas for political dissent that are sometimes welcomed. The State Department, for instance, maintains an internal “Dissent Channel” that the agency allows all employees to use – including those in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research – without facing potential retribution. It’s a feedback outlet that some of the other 17 US intelligence agencies could implement to surface their concerns.

Though the CIA conducts extensive exercises designed to vet its analysis for holes, a dissent channel might allow a wider system of checks and balances to be implemented inside spy agencies when internal probes, such as the Russia investigation, go awry.

"Intra-agency checks, like the Dissent Channel, help recreate some checks and balances within the executive, giving rise to more informed discussion and innovative solutions," Neal Katyal, former acting US solicitor general, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. "Agencies with differing missions — like, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department — enrich the policy debate every day."

And honoring those differences of opinion, Mr. Katyal said, might help cut down on US government leaks, a problem that Trump continually cites. "Leaking, particularly by whistle-blowers, is predictable when the executive branch does not heed dissent," he wrote. "One thing we know about government after the New Deal is that checks and balances through whistle-blowing is terrible policy."

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