Dangerous Liaisons: A CIA vet’s thoughts on Trump, loyalty, and the agency
I shudder at the idea of a president — any president, from either party — expecting ideological and personal loyalty.
By “Denise Matthews”
Best Defense guest columnist
A much-missed friend and colleague from my time at the CIA, let’s call her “Cathy,” would probably have been delighted with President Donald Trump’s election. I can imagine Cathy rushing to get her name on the list to welcome Trump to headquarters last Saturday. Another friend and regular lunch date, “Michelle,” would likely have spent last Saturday downtown, marching in a “pussy hat” for the liberal issues she held dear.
I’ll never know for sure, of course, since Cathy and Michelle shared more than just agency employment. Each has a star on the CIA’s Wall of Honor. Each died in the line of duty supporting the policy of a president she had voted against.
I shudder at the idea of a president — any president, from either party — expecting ideological and personal loyalty. Last Saturday, Trump walked into a room of CIA officers — career civil servants subject to Hatch Act laws against partisan activity — and speculated they all had voted for him. He missed the point. However we voted, our oath was to the Constitution. I served under every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama; my husband dates to Jimmy Carter. That matters. Our country needs the expertise that transcends a single presidency. More importantly, we need the protections that come from an intelligence service obedient to the law, and not a man.
What would a politicized intelligence service give us? Could a president trust assessments from an intelligence service that sought only his approval? Politicized intelligence gave us the “slam dunk” assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein. Ideologically driven leadership gave us Fidel Castro’s exploding cigars and the Bay of Pigs. Intelligence needs skeptics, not yes-men.
What, too, would come of American citizens’ protections from misuse of Intelligence Community capabilities? Today, I have faith in our systems for protecting against invasion of Americans’ privacy. I know how long I was trained to avoid unnecessary snooping, how carefully I was supervised, and the penalties I faced for breaking the rules. This system rests on a personal and organizational commitment to following the rules. When Trump states that we “have not used the real abilities that we have,” I wonder whether these abilities also include expanded domestic surveillance.
To be clear, I expect the Intelligence Community leadership to fight all efforts to politicize their mission. Most would resign before following an illegal order. Individually and organizationally, CIA officers have long records of resisting political agendas. The Iran-contra affair showed us that it is entirely possible, though, for ideologically driven officials on the National Security Council to build indirect links to supporters within the CIA. It only takes a few to implicate an organization. Our ability to function in secret rests on the trust of the American people, who have every right to be question an organization that operates in secrecy on their tax dollars.
Finally, Trump’s statements suggest little understanding of the full range of CIA missions. Yes, the agency plays a leading role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. My own involvement in the fight against terror dates to the 1980s, both in Washington and abroad. I’ve lost dear friends to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Even so, I can remember no other visiting president who mentioned only a single mission among our many hundreds.
More than hurt feelings among other specialists is at stake. This implicit identification of the Islamic State as the CIA’s primary mission ignores the reality that our greatest foreign policy challenges have been surprises. Defeating the Islamic State is and should remain a critical mission, but this mission should never be allowed to blind us to the need to cast our nets widely. Alert analysts gave warning of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, Afghanistan in 1979, and Iraqi forces massing on the Kuwait border in 1990. We missed the call on the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union. Breadth of coverage saves lives and treasure, allows our leaders time to plan their responses, and prevents foreign policy failure.
I’ve been told that I’m taking the president’s words too seriously, that a rambling off-the-cuff monologue shouldn’t be viewed as more than isolated musings. Maybe. The lesson I learned in decades of service is that a new leader’s comments provide a window into his world view, a roadmap to his assumptions. Not every thought becomes action, but these assumptions do shape policy.
I can make one prediction with utter certainty: Trump will soon be confronted by an international crisis that will threaten U.S. lives and interests. This crisis may indeed come from the Islamic State, but it is equally likely to arise somewhere else on the planet. When that crisis comes, I can only pray that the CIA I remember still has the resources and access it needs to fulfill its mission: speaking truth to power, conducting covert actions abroad, and protecting our nation’s secrets.
“Denise Matthews” is the pseudonym of a recently retired CIA officer.
Photo credit: CIA
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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