The ‘Time of Troubles’ Is Back for America’s Spies
If you want to understand the tensions between policymakers and spooks under Donald Trump, look to the 1970s.
Last week was an extraordinary one for U.S. policy-intelligence relations, with almost every day widening an already dangerous rift between President Donald Trump and the intelligence community. That’s not to suggest, however, that the rift is unprecedented. There is an apt analogue from U.S. history—and it offers valuable insight into how the present tensions will likely develop and eventually resolve.
It’s certainly not an exaggeration to call the present moment a crisis. Trump, who had sought a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin without any stated goal, excluded advisors from that session in Helsinki on July 16 for almost two hours. To do so was, to say the least, “totally unusual,” Thomas Pickering, one of America’s most experienced former diplomats, told Foreign Policy. When the president finally emerged, the words that came out of his mouth about U.S. intelligence shocked an unusual consensus of politicians and pundits alike. In response to a question about the intelligence judgment that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Trump said: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, within hours, put out an official statement reiterating the matter-of-fact duties of the agencies under his management. He didn’t call out Trump by name. He didn’t accuse him of misleading the American public about what the intelligence assessments have said. But his simple restatement of the apolitical, objective mission of intelligence—reminding both the public and Trump that intelligence judgments don’t bend to the political whims or the odd personal proclivities of policy customers—was rightly seen as a challenge.
Then, on July 19, at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Coats told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “I don’t know what happened in that meeting,” confirming what most observers assumed: Trump was keeping his discussions with Putin either to himself or within a circle so tight that it didn’t even include his own top intelligence officer. Especially given that the president sought this meeting, and demanded that advisors not be present, one would think he’d want to bring his top national security team into his confidence about what happened—if nothing else, to help dissuade their doubts about what was said in that session and why.
But Coats’s moment in the spotlight wasn’t over. News that Putin had been invited to Washington for a visit broke while the director remained on stage, leading to his very human reaction: a laugh, followed by an off-the-cuff, “That’s going to be special!” It didn’t take long for an anonymous senior White House official to tell the Washington Post, “Coats has gone rogue,” merely for reacting, in the moment, to something that Trump could have prevented him from being blindsided on. And Coats issued a statement acknowledging that his “admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president.” By then, Trump had not only claimed that in Helsinki, he’d meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” (while gratuitously adding it “could be other people also”) but also walked back that correction by tweeting anew that claims of Russian interference in 2016 were a “big hoax.” We had come full circle from Helsinki, all within one week.
The phrase that comes to mind to describe such extraordinary tension between the U.S. intelligence community and policymakers is “time of troubles.” For intel professionals, that term from the 1970s stirs memories of an uncomfortable history.
Back then, the CIA faced its biggest crisis ever as revelations of illegal and ill-advised intelligence actions, along with allegations of even worse, led to a dark view of U.S. intelligence among the public that hasn’t fully gone away. Intelligence officers, it was shown, had exceeded legal mandates and crossed ethical lines. The range of actions unearthed by journalists and, ultimately, congressional committees—covert funding of think tanks and foundations, drug experimentation on unwitting suspects, surveillance of Americans, ill-conceived assassination plots—put a blot on the reputation of the CIA and spurred new watchdog measures via congressional intelligence oversight committees. The clash boiled down to the widespread belief that intelligence officers had been violating America’s core values in their very efforts to defend those values.
The current rough patch, the second time of troubles, is similarly stressful for many in the intelligence community—though quite different in the details.
Even at the peak of the earlier time of troubles, executive branch leaders still backed their intelligence services. Instead of putting distance between the Oval Office and the community by skipping George H.W. Bush’s swearing-in ceremony as director of central intelligence, for example, President Gerald Ford made it a media event—bolstering the embattled agency and its new leader.
This time, the president is the one ratcheting up the tension. It’s not a crisis about overzealous intelligence officers violating ethical norms or evading aggressive congressional oversight. The intelligence community is doing its work precisely as intended: delivering objective, timely analysis to political leaders, including the president. The problem is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Trump just can’t seem to accept the intelligence community’s analysis about Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election—even as its declassified, high-confidence conclusions are now complemented by a bevy of indictments against individual Russian government officials.
It’s not that presidents and other senior officials have always appreciated or liked intelligence conclusions. Far from it. Uncomfortable truths from the intelligence agencies about what’s going on in the world have annoyed every president since Harry Truman because they point out the on-the-ground obstacles to the execution of preferred policy options. As a result, most presidents have disagreed with at least some of the analysis they’ve received. Richard Nixon, at the extreme, may not have even read the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) delivered to him every working day throughout his presidency.
But we’ve never had a commander in chief, on foreign soil, publicly undercut his own intelligence agencies to show favor to a Russian autocrat. This would be a tricky thing for the intelligence community to manage if it were a lower-level executive branch policymaker. The fact that it’s the president of the United States presents a unique challenge. Much of the community’s identity, for right or wrong, comes from its privileged access to the Oval Office; incredible resources and attention, exemplified by the PDB, go into serving the “first customer.” A collapse of that relationship, risking the budget that comes with it, would spur serious soul-searching.
And let’s not forget: continuing to get classified information and analysis to the president matters. If you think Trump’s foreign policy has already been disruptive, imagine his actions uninformed by any of the world’s best intelligence.
How will this second time of troubles play out? Predicting Trump’s actions is hard, but we’ve had enough history of policy-intelligence relationships to feel confident about two things.
First, because the tensions are not between the intelligence community and U.S. society but, instead, between intelligence judgments on Russia and the president, this second time of troubles will probably remain narrower and less public than its 1970s predecessor. Back then, the details of intelligence officers’ escapades made the nightly news and magazine covers. Now, despite Trump’s periodic complaints via Twitter, the bulk of the tension probably plays out most via awkward moments during the occasional PDB sessions at the White House and in what must be frustration-filled discussions at conference rooms at the country’s intelligence agencies—where leaders must be scratching their heads trying to figure out how best to get uncomfortable analytic judgments across to this unusual first customer.
Second, officers at CIA and other agencies will continue to uphold their responsibility through the second time of troubles to the best of their abilities. The fact that intelligence, like law enforcement, is nonpartisan and apolitical is hard for many polarized Americans to accept. But even in extraordinarily difficult times, intelligence officers will honor their oath and do their jobs. During the closing days of Watergate, for example, when public opinion had swung overwhelmingly to “get the bum out,” intelligence officers still prepared reports for Nixon.
And the intelligence community understands that most policymakers in Washington who aren’t Trump continue to appreciate the advantages that good intelligence gives them. Wise intel officers are probably using these troubled times to bolster their often underappreciated efforts to meet the needs of customers at all levels of government other than the president.
By bolstering relationships with other customers throughout the national security-related policy departments and in Congress, officers at CIA and other intelligence agencies look poised to weather this second time of troubles better than the last generation did in the 1970s. The problem here, after all, isn’t with them. It’s with Trump.