Elephants in the Room

This November, America’s Safety Is on the Ballot

Americans are already less safe because of growing distrust in their intelligence. Dangers will multiply without a change in political leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump talk at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump talk at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

In the popular imagination, espionage is all about lies, deceit, and deception. But the ability of the United States’ security agencies to warn against threats and inform sound foreign policies depends on a more elusive condition: trust. Slow to grow, easy to break, and painstaking to rebuild, trust is flagging in four essential intelligence relationships. The country will be less safe until it is restored. When Americans vote in November, this trust—and their nation’s safety—will be on the line.

The first relationship where trust is eroding is with the human sources on whom intelligence-gathering depends. Every day around the world, courageous foreign sources risk everything to provide information that protects the United States, relying on a promise that the U.S. government will safeguard their identities, alert them to hazards, and, in extreme cases, extricate them from danger. The reasons why sources cooperate with U.S. intelligence are invariably complex, but if the U.S. government falls into the habit of compromising clandestine sources and creates the perception of being indifferent to their fate, it will inevitably diminish its future ability to collect intelligence from human sources.

Last year, for example, media reported on the 2017 exfiltration and resettlement of a source from Russia who had knowledge of the Kremlin’s role directing interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If these accounts are true, U.S. intelligence leaders deserve credit for honoring their pledge and removing the source from harm’s way. But, according to what government sources told journalists, this high-value operation did not end because the Russians uncovered the source. Rather, it was curtailed because U.S. intelligence officials concluded that they would not be able to continue to protect the source’s identity amid the political maelstrom unleashed by the U.S. administration’s campaign to discredit all evidence of Russian interference in the election—in other words, because they feared a leak in Washington. As a result, U.S. policymakers are now deprived of important insights into Russia’s policies, including the game plan for disrupting this year’s election.
Trump has been persistently hostile to agencies whose purpose is to help him better understand external threats.

The worry over politically motivated exposure of intelligence sources was not misplaced. Earlier this year, the attorney general declassified and released redacted FBI records to one of President Donald Trump’s allies in the Senate. These were promptly made public and resulted in the public identification of a source who had agreed to provide confidential help to the FBI in its investigation of Russia’s actions during the 2016 election. Whether the disclosure was malicious or inadvertent, cases like this reinforce a perception that U.S. intelligence officers’ promises to their contacts cannot be trusted. It is safe to assume that Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and other counterintelligence services are already busy spreading this narrative that will harm the ability of U.S. intelligence to recruit new sources.

The second, even more critical, relationship where trust has collapsed is between the intelligence services and the U.S. president, whose direct control of the security agencies is firmly established in law and practice. If the information and expert assessments these agencies provide about the world beyond the United States’ borders do not demonstrably shape the views and actions of the commander-in-chief, a serious re-examination of the entire national security enterprise is in order.

When this relationship between the producers and most important consumer of intelligence works best, a president trusts that the intelligence agencies’ assessments are fact-based, unbiased, and policy-neutral. His intelligence briefers, in turn, respect his scarce time, safeguard the confidentiality of Oval Office exchanges, and can count on his public support when they are unfairly attacked.  For reasons that only he can explain, Trump has been persistently—and publicly—hostile to agencies whose main purpose is to help him better understand external threats that he is constitutionally obliged to address.

This hostility surfaced even before Trump was inaugurated—when he dismissed the intelligence community’s consensus judgment that Russia had interfered in the election that brought him to power. That judgment has subsequently been affirmed by Trump’s own intelligence leaders, members of his cabinet, and a bipartisan oversight panel in the U.S. Senate.

The president inflicted his most crippling humiliation on U.S. intelligence from a stage in Helsinki in 2017.  Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, an unreconstructed former KGB officer, Trump said he believed the Russian leader’s word over the findings of his own intelligence community. Last year, Trump publicly dismissed the full slate of intelligence officials—whom he himself had appointed—as “passive and naive” and suggested they “go back to school” because Trump disagreed with professional assessments they had provided during an obligatory congressional hearing.
Trump suspects both the facts and assessments he receives, and treats the experts who brief him as convenient scapegoats when his own ignorance is publicly exposed.

Trump is, by all reliable accounts, a reluctant, inattentive, and incurious consumer of intelligence. He suspects both the facts and assessments he receives, and treats the experts who brief him as convenient scapegoats when his own ignorance is publicly exposed. A government enterprise consisting of 17 agencies funded to the tune of $80 billion a year cannot be expected to function effectively in a climate of distrust deliberately created by its leader and primary customer.

The third intelligence relationship where trust is fast dissipating is with U.S. allies and partners around the world. U.S. intelligence is a uniquely capable information service with significant resources and global reach. Notwithstanding its impressive capabilities, the intelligence community cannot master all the security challenges generated by a fluid and unstable world order. To address this gap between resources and responsibilities, U.S. intelligence it has over decades built an extensive network of relationships with foreign security services. Indeed, it would be difficult to identify a major U.S. intelligence success that did not include contributions by one or more of these so-called liaison partners. This interdependence is sometimes mischaracterized as a weakness—but in practice, close working relationships with foreign partners are a decisive advantage enjoyed by U.S. intelligence in both peacetime and war.

Intelligence partnerships—which provide vital intelligence information and operational support—hinge on trust. Most often, the U.S. side provides money, technology, or information in exchange for a foreign service’s specialized expertise, physical access, or manpower. Both services in a liaison relationship commit to confidentiality and to safeguarding each other’s officers, sources, and methods of operation.

These foreign security partners were still grappling with Trump’s surprise election victory when they were served notice that the confidences underpinning their dealings with U.S. intelligence were in jeopardy. According to media reports, during a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, Trump disclosed information he had received in a classified intelligence briefing that was derived from a sensitive intelligence collection operation being conducted by a valued foreign partner. Whether this lapse was attributable to malice, naivete, or poor staff work, the damage was done.

Foreign intelligence counterparts are unsentimental in calibrating their cooperation with U.S. intelligence.  We will never know what information and operational opportunities have been withheld and remain unavailable to U.S. policymakers because of foreign partners’ diminished confidence in the Trump administration’s ability to responsibly handle hard-won intelligence information.

Finally, the fourth relationship where trust has deteriorated is with the U.S. Congress, whose oversight is crucial to the democratic legitimacy of the intelligence services. Building and sustaining popular support represents a particular challenge for large, powerful intelligence bureaucracies that operate largely in secret. Since their establishment in the 1970s, the select oversight committees in the House of Representatives and Senate have served as an important link to the American public.
The fabric of trust that allows U.S. intelligence to successfully complete its essential mission has been badly frayed—and even destroyed.

The equation for effective legislative oversight of intelligence is simple but has proven difficult to achieve with consistency. Traditionally, the agencies share sensitive information—including advance notice of high-risk operations—with congressional committees and their vetted staffs. In return, legislators agree to handle that information with discretion, conduct oversight in a non-partisan manner, and defend the agencies when their activities are misunderstood. With the exception of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s commendably bipartisan investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the hyper-partisanship that energizes both Trump’s supporters and his detractors in Congress has crippled legislative oversight of intelligence. When Republicans controlled the House in the first half of Trump’s term, they surrendered the Intelligence Committee to the White House for use as a platform to discredit Trump’s enemies—real and imagined. The Democrats, after their 2018 mid-term victory, shortsightedly entangled the committee in Trump’s impeachment.

Both the House and Senate intelligence committees will have another opportunity to prove their worth during upcoming investigations into allegations by a whistleblower in the Department of Homeland Security that the White House crudely suppressed intelligence for political reasons.

Dysfunctional oversight by Congress distracts and weakens U.S. intelligence. But more importantly, it removes an essential link between poorly understood agencies normally working in the shadows and the people they defend.  There is, however, a solid foundation on which the intelligence agencies can build greater legitimacy. Recent polling suggests that—notwithstanding Trump’s disparagement and the low profile adopted by battered intelligence leaders as a result—a strong majority of Americans still believe that intelligence agencies are both necessary and effective in carrying out their national security missions.

Durable democratic legitimacy for the United States’ secret services will remain an elusive goal until a president provides informed leadership of this powerful government bureaucracy and Congress credibly monitors its performance. Agency leaders themselves must step out and reengage directly with the public to explain their contributions, their fidelity to U.S. laws and values, and the existing safeguards that protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.

The fabric of trust that allows U.S. intelligence to successfully complete its essential mission has been badly frayed—even destroyed—within key relationships. Americans are already less safe because of growing distrust in their intelligence, and these hazards will multiply without a change in political leadership. When Americans vote for a president in November, those who value the integrity and effectiveness of the country’s first line of defense should pick the candidate they judge best able to restore and sustain trust.

Stephen Slick is a former member of the CIA's clandestine service, special assistant to President George W. Bush, and senior director for intelligence programs and reform on the National Security Council staff.

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