Trump isn’t first president to distrust US intelligence

Peter Grier

THE president-elect was hostile towards the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. He believed their mistakes had helped his political opponents. Partly due to this he seldom bothered to remove CIA briefing papers from their envelopes. Instead he relied on one powerful foreign policy aide to read everything and tell him what he needed to know. No, this isn’t a description of the Donald Trump transition. The president-elect at issue here was Richard Nixon.
Mr. Nixon loathed the Ivy League types who then dominated the CIA. He felt their overestimation of Soviet missiles strength had boosted John F. Kennedy to victory in the 1960 election. So he ignored the CIA and turned to Henry Kissinger for a daily summary of world events. What this shows is that Trump’s not the only incoming president at odds with US intelligence. Other newly elected US chief executives have had rocky beginnings with the agencies designed to keep them informed. In the end, however, almost all presidents have come to terms with and benefited from intelligence agency information flow. In part that’s because they all eventually face a global crisis where they need to know as much as possible, fast. In part that’s because the CIA and its fellows focus on making the relationship work. They see the president as their First Customer and know that POTUS can determine the extent of their influence on US national security.
President-elect Trump, in his press conference last week, has now admitted he believes Russia was behind the email hack. But he has also generally attacked the competence and the US intelligence hierarchy. He’s mocked it for its mistaken conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 US invasion. He’s accused CIA Director John Brennan of leaking to the media the dossier of alleged scandalous Trump personal information. He’s implicitly compared his situation to living in “Nazi Germany”.
Mr. Brennan, who is retiring this week, denied leaking the material to media outlets and took great umbrage at Trump’s Nazi reference. “I found that to be very repugnant, and I will forever stand up for the integrity and patriotism of my officers who have done much over the years to sacrifice for their fellow citizens,” said Brennan.
In the end, Trump’s slaps at the CIA and other intel agencies will come back to haunt him, according to Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism in the Obama administration. The words will demoralise the CIA rank-and-file while causing top officials to start looking around for other work, according to Mr. Benjamin. They unnecessarily devalue an important asset. If at some point Trump wants to take action in a foreign nation in part due to intelligence information, how can he now explain that to the public? He can’t very well promote the conclusions of agencies he’s now trashed, writes Benjamin in a Brookings analysis.
But one thing that may help in that regard is Trump’s pick for the new CIA chief, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas. A West Point graduate and former Army tank commander, Representative Pompeo is widely regarded on Capitol Hill as smart and competent, though at times partisan. Pompeo glided smoothly through his confirmation hearing last week. He denied that the CIA produces politicised intelligence and said he was sure Trump would come to value its expertise. “I am confident that the Central Intelligence Agency will play a role for this administration [that] as it has for every previous administration, providing powerful intelligence that shapes policy and decision making,” he said.
Perhaps it’s just as likely the relationship between the president and his intel team will go in some other direction. In studying how chief executives and the CIA worked together, former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson noted that some liked written material, some liked videos, some wanted generalities (Ronald Reagan) and some asked so many questions the briefings took extra time (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush). “Both briefers and former presidents are agreed on the simple but important fact that each president is different,” Helgerson said.
— Courtesy: Christian Science Monitor

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