Trump’s Politicization of U.S. Intelligence Agencies Could End in Disaster
Purging seasoned professionals and politicizing the work of analysts and agents endanger American lives.
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred because the work of Soviet nuclear engineers—trained to analyze complex systems based on inferences drawn from objective facts—was politicized. Instead of speaking the truth as they saw it, they were intimidated by their government to conceal the true dimensions of the catastrophe unfolding before them. The result was the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, published an op-ed in the Washington Post outlining his growing concern about the politicization of the intelligence community. Warner wrote: “Efforts by this president to intimidate … U.S. intelligence services may be politically advantageous in the short term, but over time the consequences for our country will be disastrous.”
We share Warner’s concerns.
Analytical objectivity—intelligence officials writing and saying what they believe to be the truth without consideration for policy or politics—is fundamental to U.S. national security. Simply put, good policy decisions require fact-based, objective, and rigorous analysis.
Politicized intelligence, by contrast, simply reinforces preexisting beliefs, depriving leaders of a foundation for developing sound policy. That is why intelligence analysts are trained, from the very outset of their careers, in presenting objective analysis, and why the intelligence community has institutional safeguards, including ombudsmen and inspectors general, to push back against pressure that leads to bias and politicization of intelligence analysis.
Every president since the creation of the U.S. intelligence community after World War II has supported this principle—until Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly pressured the intelligence community to present analytic judgments consistent with his views, rather than those of its expert analysts.
He has done this via public rebukes, as he did after the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment before Congress, attacking his team’s testimony that Iran, at that time, was living up to its commitments under the 2015 nuclear agreement and that North Korea was unlikely to ever give up its nuclear weapons. His response was to tell his own intelligence experts to “go back to school.” He took the same tack in Helsinki in 2018, when he told the world that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
And he has demonstrated this attitude through his actions. Most significantly, as Warner noted, Trump has removed intelligence leaders for doing their jobs when it didn’t serve his political agenda. Most recently, he fired the intelligence community’s chief watchdog, Inspector General Michael Atkinson, simply because Atkinson followed the law that required him to inform Congress of a whistleblower complaint (that later led to the president’s impeachment by the House of Representatives and the Senate trial that acquitted him).
The firing of Atkinson simply added to the growing number of intelligence officials who have been pushed out due to their perceived lack of loyalty to this president and their unwillingness to act on the basis of political pressure—a list that includes a director of national intelligence, an acting director of national intelligence, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and many others.
This pressure is having an impact; the intelligence community is becoming politicized.
We see it when intelligence leaders fail to protect their own personnel. Not a single intelligence community leader said a word publicly when former U.S. Attorney Joe diGenova attacked the whistleblower who prompted impeachment proceedings as a presidential assassin, the equivalent, he said, of John Wilkes Booth. They presumably were fearful of a reaction from Trump, but their silence sent its own message to the intelligence workforce regarding their willingness to appease the president.
We see it in the intelligence community leadership’s desire this year not to participate in the annual, unclassified Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress. These sessions provide the American people with a direct account of analysis of security threats facing the United States and the work that the intelligence agencies are doing to mitigate those threats. Today, these sessions also serve the purpose of making it difficult for policy officials to inaccurately portray the views of intelligence analysts when they speak publicly. This is exactly why Trump does not want them to participate in public events.
Finally, we see it in what some members of Congress say are gaps between what intelligence officers tell Congress regarding key issues, such as Iran and election security—which they say is consistent with the principle of analytic objectivity—and what intelligence community leaders tell members of Congress, which more closely tracks with the president’s views. This is worrisome, because it suggests that perhaps even in private, agency leaders may be pulling their punches.
This pattern of politicization is particularly concerning now, as the country confronts the coronavirus pandemic. The answers to key intelligence questions—Did the coronavirus emerge from nature or escape from a Chinese lab? To what extent did the Chinese government misrepresent the scope and scale of the epidemic?—will have profound implications for the future of U.S. national security policy, especially concerning China. We know Trump’s preferred answers to those questions. What we don’t know is whether the career analysts in U.S. intelligence agencies will be allowed to speak the truth when they uncover it.
At the very end of the recent TV miniseries on Chernobyl, the main character declares, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth; sooner or later the debt is paid.” In the case of Chernobyl that meant a nuclear meltdown. If Americans cannot rely on the intelligence community to work objectively to uncover the threats they face, U.S. national security will suffer, perhaps catastrophically.
Michael Morell was the deputy director and twice acting director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013.
Avril Haines was deputy director of the CIA from 2013 to 2015 and deputy national security advisor from 2015 to 2017.