Spies are adapting to a president with a short attention span.
- By Jenna McLaughlinJenna McLaughlin is an intelligence reporter for Foreign Policy, focusing on the culture, dynamics, and events happening in the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the other 15 members of the intelligence community—plus the way the sensitive information they gather and analyze informs and directs the White House and policy makers on the Hill. Previously, McLaughlin was a national security reporter for the Intercept where she covered everything from the FBI’s secretive subpoena powers to cybersecurity companies in the Middle East. Before that, she covered similar topics including the rise of the Islamic State at Mother Jones Magazine. You can reach her with tips and responses securely through Signal or WhatsApp at 203-537-3949, or through her email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a large, chilly ballroom on a private island in Georgia, spies, businesspeople, military personnel, bureaucrats, flacks, and a few journalists gathered around a list of names and colors: Assignments in a simulation where attendees would be responding to a major cyber attack. After sifting through faux details on hacking groups and damaged infrastructure, the groups briefed the president, played by Gen. Mike Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
Last month, a small chunk of Washington—bonded by a shared interest in intelligence—flew south to Sea Island, Georgia with a central mission in mind: Discuss and analyze major national security threats facing the United States, and figure out how to address them, and in turn, the president.
The conclusion: President Trump is action-oriented, and comes out of every meeting with a willingness to do something, anything; spies have to figure out how to deal with that.
Trump’s trigger-happy tendencies might concern some people, but that readiness to act and respond is often well received once experts or commentators outside government actually land face time in the White House. That dynamic might create its own problematic access war among unelected experts, hoping to get the last word before Trump fires the starting pistol.
Spies and intelligence professionals are searching for the perfect formula for getting a notoriously impatient and skeptical audience of one to listen to and evaluate information about some of the most complex threats the world has faced in a long time.
Communicating the world’s top threats to Trump “would be challenging but achievable,” said John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA at a late June conference hosted by The Cipher Brief, a security media company focused on connecting the private sector with national security experts.
McLaughlin, who was present for threat briefings during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, now teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He’s used to translating information to make it immediately accessible and actionable for the Commander-in-Chief.
But he also characterized President Trump’s briefing sessions as “chaotic,” and cautioned those going into the Oval Office not to “prod him into a decision with intelligence.”
“For the operations people and the analysts here, something you put out is understood by a policymaker to demand action right now,” McLaughlin continued. “With him I’d be afraid he’d say, ‘That’s interesting, go fix that now.’
He warned intelligence professionals to “poke that fire carefully.”
The President’s Daily Brief has already been tailored to President Trump’s preferences, after initial concern he wouldn’t take them at all, because he insisted he was already well versed with the topics. Now, he requires his top national security experts to be nearby almost every day, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. He reportedly prefers images and maps over long, drawn-out analyses. Analysts have been told to keep reports short and simple, no longer than a page per topic.
The White House, in response to repeated requests from Foreign Policy, has refused to release a list of people who have access to the President’s Daily Brief—the list itself would be unclassified. One source familiar with the situation in the West Wing described the daily briefs as a free for all, with visitors like Ivanka Trump wandering in during the run-down.
For some visitors, Trump’s eagerness to hear a pitch and make a sale is an exciting prospect. If you’re invited, and gain favor with the White House, it seems more likely the President will enact policy in line with your positions.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane said during a keynote at the Cipher Brief conference that he came out of a meeting with Trump about the Middle East “with a degree of hope,” feeling that he convinced the president to stay involved in the region (Gen. Keane was helicoptered out of Georgia immediately following his keynote to advise the White House.)
But there’s a danger in having one expert from one field, such as a retired General on Afghanistan or a cyber security executive on protecting critical infrastructure, be the last word on the matter. Particularly on issues like cyber security, or in the past, nuclear weapons, there are a select few that truly understand the nuance and technicalities involved, and very few of them are elected to serve.
“Any administration that doesn’t have a basic understanding of these concepts has to depend on unelected experts” to explain and create policy, Vince Houghton, historian and curator for the International Spy Museum told FP in an interview.
“That’s not the way it was intended to be,” he said.
Susan Gordon, the deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency—one of the few administration attendees at the conference—put the onus back on the intelligence community to figure out the best way to work with Trump.
“I think the intelligence community has a responsibility in figuring out how we’re going to report differently,” said Gordon, who was recently nominated to be the deputy director of National Intelligence. “I don’t think in briefing this president you can forget that he wants to do something. Present it in a way that gives you the best chance of him understanding.”
Trump’s short attention span is just something that intelligence professionals will have to accept.
“This ‘move on, move on’ energy is something we’re going to have to deal with,” she said.
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