But if Donald Trump is really, “like, a smart person” he’ll realize the CIA isn’t out to get him.
- By David PriessDavid Priess is an intelligence and national security speaker and consultant who served at the CIA during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as an analyst, manager, and daily intelligence briefer. He is the author of The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents From Kennedy to Obama.
This president-elect knows how to hold a grudge; few of them seem stronger than the one he harbors toward the CIA.
He laments its analysts’ incorrect judgments from many years ago. He sees political bias in their current assessments. And he remains convinced that they worked behind the scenes to get his opponent elected in his place. The CIA’s access and influence with the commander in chief, which has waxed and waned during previous administrations but has never failed to bounce back, appears to be at an all-time low.
Sound familiar? Not so fast — this describes 1968, and the president-elect is not Donald Trump but Richard Nixon.
On the surface, the two men look quite different. Few modern presidents entered office with more national political experience and foreign-policy understanding than Nixon, the former senator and eight-year vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. Trump is the only president-elect with neither political nor military experience.
Beyond this, however, the parallels are indeed strong. Trump’s digs at intelligence during the campaign and his reported light pace of briefings thus far during the transition — once per week, as opposed to the normal daily briefings that most presidents-elect have accepted — presage a relationship with intelligence much closer to Nixon’s pattern than that of any other chief executive. Understanding the dynamics that were present in 1968-1969 sheds light on what may come to pass in the coming months — and offers a glimmer of hope for a better intelligence-policy relationship during the Trump administration than now appears likely.
Most of the similarities are worrisome. During his very first post-election session with Henry Kissinger, who would become his national security advisor, Nixon excoriated the agency as a group of “Ivy League liberals” who lacked analytic integrity and had always opposed him politically. Even decades later, Kissinger echoes Nixon’s mindset. “I thought the analytic branch was occasionally a subdivision of the New York Times,” he told me. “Biased very much to the liberal point of view.”
The effect was clear. While in office, Nixon denied CIA officials access to his most sensitive policy deliberations, blocking any insights they could have gained into what intelligence inputs would help most. In a June 1969 National Security Council meeting, with CIA officials in the room, the president accused agency analysts of trying to “use intelligence to support conclusions, rather than to arrive at conclusions.” Even today it remains unclear if Nixon actually read the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the agency’s flagship top-secret product tailored explicitly to each president’s perceived preferences.
Trump also started off on a negative note with the intelligence community. Before he’d even had his first classified briefing as a candidate, Trump took a question about whether he trusted intelligence. “Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country,” he replied. “I mean, look what’s happened over the last 10 years.” At the NBC News presidential forum on Sept. 7, Trump said he “didn’t learn anything” during his subsequent intelligence briefings to alter his views on how to fight the Islamic State.
Most notably, Trump has repeatedly pushed back publicly against assessments of the Russian role in, and motivation for, hacking inside the United States during the election. After the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and Department of Homeland Security on Oct. 7 issued a joint statement that the U.S. intelligence community had become “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” Trump claimed the Russians might not have done the hacking and even “maybe there is no hacking.” In early December, Time magazine quoted Trump as saying — after winning the election and sitting in on at least three full PDB briefings — “I don’t believe they interfered.… It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
On Dec. 9, the tension between the intelligence community and the Trump team escalated again. Reports emerged that key senators had received classified briefings moving beyond the judgment that Russia aimed to merely undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system to an assessment that Russia intended to help Trump’s campaign. The Trump transition office quickly issued a public statement, which started, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Trump himself expanded on this in a Fox News interview on Dec. 11, in which he said, “I don’t have to be told — you know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day.” It’s not hard to imagine similar words coming out of Nixon’s mouth.
Yet in one important respect, Nixon and Trump are worlds apart. And this difference provides hope that Trump’s relationship with intelligence may yet grow into something more satisfactory: Trump has been more open to intelligence briefers in 2016 than Nixon was in 1968.
Back then, the president-elect did not take a single face-to-face meeting with the CIA officers in place to provide transition support. When they instead sent him envelopes containing copies of the PDB and other intelligence documents for him to read at his convenience, they heard no feedback. Their suspicions about Nixon’s lack of interest were confirmed near the end of the transition when the president-elect’s office returned to them a towering stack of top-secret PDB envelopes — all of them unopened.
Not so in 2016. Despite Trump’s remarks about being told the same things over and over, his reaction has included positive elements. At the NBC News forum in September, Trump called his campaign intelligence briefers “experts” and implied that they had impressed him: “When they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason.”
And he has sat down for top-secret sessions, apparently each week, with briefers from the ODNI — far more direct exposure to intelligence officers than Nixon had during his transition. On Dec. 11, he told Fox News that these were “very good people that are giving me the briefings.”
Unlike Nixon, Trump has also given the intelligence community insight into what he wants from intelligence. Back in early 1969, CIA officers were so desperate for insight into what would work for Nixon that they took an offhand comment from Attorney General John Mitchell — “The president is a lawyer, and a lawyer wants facts” — to reformat the PDB, separating facts and opinions such that analysts’ commentary appeared only after the relevant intelligence reporting. The change seemed to have little effect.
Trump, however, has given intelligence officers something to work with. By saying that he doesn’t want to be told “the same thing in the same words every single day,” he gives more insight into what might work better for him than anything intelligence officers got directly from Nixon.
The President’s Daily Brief has always been tailored to the preferences of the new Oval Office occupant, and it’s easy to imagine that efforts are now underway to change the PDB’s format to minimize repetition and instead emphasize what is new and different. A shorter and punchier PDB may be the result, more akin to a top-secret Twitter feed than a series of long articles thick with analytic language and nuance. Briefers would need to focus on varying their language and pointing out the nuggets of intelligence that give the president opportunities for immediate action.
The Nixon years tested the patience of intelligence analysts, perhaps more so than in any other administration. There is little doubt that trying times again are ahead for the intelligence community. Unlike 1968, however, there is now at least a minimal dialogue to build on. Trump may yet realize that building a bridge to his intelligence officers — instead of burning it — will pay dividends in his new business, the presidency of the United States.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration