On March 22, at the doorstep of Parliament in London, an ISIS-inspired attacker killed a British police officer and several innocent bystanders, at a time when the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, was inside addressing members of Parliament. The attack occurred on the anniversary of the ISIS attacks in Brussels a year earlier and made one thing quite clear: Europe is still vulnerable to terrorist plots.
For every successful terrorist attack that spectacularly makes the news, scores, if not hundreds, are thwarted by the efforts of intelligence and law enforcement organizations, often working with international partners. These go largely unreported, of course, because they are not really news; the dog simply did not bark.
What also goes unreported is the intense, constant cooperation between allied security services as they undertake the unenviable and herculean task of stopping the next terrorist operation. For the most part, intelligence and law enforcement work behind the scenes, drawing on counterterrorism liaison relationships they have built over the past 20 years, or sometimes longer. These relationships are probably the single greatest defense the West has against terrorist attacks.
So it is literally breathtaking when the President of the United States, which has the largest and best-funded intelligence community in the free world, undermines these key intelligence relationships that keep not only the United States but its allies as safe as possible.
The most egregious example of late was President Trump’s fantastical claim that the British signals intelligence agency, GCHQ (London’s NSA equivalent) had agreed to a request from then-President Obama to monitor the electronic communications of the Trump campaign during last year’s presidential election. A clearly angry GCHQ and the British government immediately denied and dismissed the ridiculous and obviously political claim.
There are yellow caution lights blinking on the consoles at the headquarters of our key foreign intelligence liaison partners, and most relate to the positions taken by the new Trump administration. The White House’s penchant for attempting to use virtually anything for political gain, including sensitive intelligence relationships, is certainly cause of concern abroad.
Good politicians on both sides will correctly state that intelligence relationships with our allies, especially Britain, remain strong, but lies and posturing from the senior-most level of the US government have impact. In the business of counterterrorism intel sharing, the margins of error are small, a reality brought home most graphically by the London attack. The Brits will understandably be taking an extra look before passing sensitive intelligence to Washington in the near future (especially if it comes from GCHQ).
And it’s not just the Brits. Many of our partners are likely (and understandably) concerned about the Trump administration’s tone-deafness regarding the wide-reaching impact on intel sharing of things like the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”
A good number of Middle Eastern intelligence services also quietly share incredibly important and sensitive counterterrorism information with American counterparts, after intelligence and law enforcement on both sides have built up relationships painstakingly over the past several decades.
Many of our dialogue partners on intelligence matters in the Middle East are Muslims who see radical Islamic terrorism as anathema to their faith. Their intelligence relationships with the United States and the West are often not popular with many of their own citizens, and therefore carry some risk. Imagine, then, the reaction of these key partners to news that the Trump administration remains hell-bent on a policy that — call it whatever politically correct phrase you like — amounts to a ban on their co-religionists. Imagine the frustration in majority-Muslim intel services that, being familiar with the problem of terrorism, understand that the vast majority of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in the West are authored not by terrorists who infiltrated Western countries, but rather by citizens of those countries who self-radicalized (as looks to be the case with the recent attack in London).
Again, the White House’s policies may cause these important liaison partners to be more circumspect with what they choose to share in the future, which could have disastrous consequences.
The Trump administration is still young, and many of our intelligence partners are showing great patience and taking a wait and see attitude — but such attitudes will not last forever. And if the administration continues to take a ham-fisted approach to sensitive intelligence relationships, erosion of intelligence relationships will eventually begin. Such erosion does not make America great, but rather vulnerable.