As the 2016 election receded and the New Year began, there emerged a curious confrontation between the President-elect and the intelligence communities.
Day after day, we saw news roll out of clashes over scheduled meetings, the accuracy of information and analysis, and what the future holds for the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and indeed the future orientation of America’s intelligence organs. This tension has continued unabated.
It is important to recognize that there is always some friction between an incoming president and his (or, in the future, her) intelligence agencies. During the transition and the early days of the presidency, the occupant of the Oval Office and his intelligence representatives participate in a choreographed dance — each learning about the other and adjusting styles and tones (delivery, not facts) to suit respective needs.
What is unique about these most recent incidents is the public nature of the disagreements between President-elect Trump and the intelligence officials. Of course, in the past, stories of how and what intelligence the president consumed would leak out. It is part of the insider politics of Washington.
But never before have the disagreements taken on such a high profile in the media. President-elect Trump takes to Twitter to air his disagreements with, or criticisms of, the intelligence community and just as quickly the agencies themselves fire back.
While discomforting for many and interesting for others, there is an unrecognized consequence of these public disputes and one that greatly risks our future intelligence collection capabilities.
Chief among these is the message it sends to our current and future intelligence professionals. Our greatest resource is the quality and capabilities of the hardworking, dedicated women and men that make up our intelligence cadre.
These disputes may well already be taking a toll on that workforce, with experienced professionals possibly choosing to leave for the private sector, rather than continue their service under these conditions. We can’t afford to lose these individuals; the wealth of experience and knowledge they possess is immeasurable.
Moreover, constant bickering between the Oval Office and the various agencies risks reducing the attractiveness of service to future applicants; why join to serve if your service and analysis will be belittled, ignored or be unappreciated?
Let’s look internationally: Picture yourself as a government official in a foreign country that is hostile to the United States. For various and deeply personal reasons you have decided that you want to betray your country and begin passing sensitive, useful information to CIA officers. In so doing you are risking your life, the lives of your loved ones, and certain imprisonment, or worse, if you are caught.
You do this not only for your own reasons, but because you believe that the information you will pass on to CIA officers will be accepted, reviewed and used to inform American policies. You fundamentally believe that you will be listened to and taken seriously.
This is how, and why, countless spies and intelligence “assets” have provided critical information to the United States. While some stood to gain personally, others were motivated ideologically, by pride, or something else, but all believed that in so doing they would be listened to and respected.
In light of these very public disputes, it is entirely possible that they may no longer have that certainty. If the president and his intelligence chiefs are at odds, what is the likelihood that the intelligence information will be heeded? If there isn’t a high degree of confidence, why would you risk your life?
Moreover, implicit in the officer-agent relationship is trust and secrecy. CIA officers protect their sources often at great cost. If the information is accidentally or intentionally disclosed, agents’ lives are put at risk. Without complete confidence in their handlers, agents or potential agents will undoubtedly be wary of volunteering or cooperating in the future.
On an international level, we should be equally concerned about how this ongoing dispute appears to our partner intelligence services in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Some of our greatest intelligence successes have been due, in part, to the cooperation our intelligence agencies enjoy with their foreign counterparts.
If it appears that the president does not trust the quality and accuracy of CIA intelligence assessments, why should Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service or Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst?
It is critical that the president and his intelligence team work to establish a good working relationship. While there will be friction and conflict, it is necessary that this takes place behind closed doors.
Make no mistake about it, our allies and adversaries, potential spies and agents, and everyone in between are watching, listening and waiting. We can’t afford for internal disputes to affect real-world operations.