Report

After Biden Win, U.S. Intelligence Community ‘Probably Doing Cartwheels’

Long maligned and vilified under Trump, the spy agencies hope to restore normality under Biden.

This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

The seal of the CIA
The seal of the CIA is seen at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on April 13, 2016. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

People working at the White House often take guests on tours of the historic building. But unlike others, during his two terms as vice president, Joe Biden made a point of taking guests down to the Situation Room, said Larry Pfeiffer, a veteran intelligence official then serving as the room’s senior director.

Biden would look over the team of analysts monitoring world events, point to them, and tell his guests, “These are the smartest people in the world,” Pfeiffer said. “That was something you didn’t have to do, but it went a heck of a long way to raising the morale of people who were working 12-hour shifts around the clock. It demonstrated a guy who really had a lot of respect for intelligence.” 

When U.S. President-elect Biden takes office in January, he will have his work cut out for him as he inherits an intelligence community that has been demoralized by President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks maligning and politicizing the work of the country’s spy agencies. But former intelligence officials said Biden’s election will likely be seen within the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community as the welcome beginning of a less turbulent relationship with the executive branch.

“I think the intelligence community is probably doing cartwheels in the halls,” said Pfeiffer. 

While Trump was easily bored by intelligence briefings, former intelligence officials who have worked with Biden say he has shown a deep understanding and respect for the work of intelligence agencies. 

I knew then-Vice President Biden as an interested, appreciative consumer of intelligence. He always asked thoughtful, substantive questions,” said James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence during the Obama administration. 

With over three decades in the Senate, including 10 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and two terms as vice president, Biden is also familiar with many of the people who make up the senior ranks of the U.S. intelligence agencies. Former CIA Director John Brennan, who worked closely with Biden during the Obama administration, described him as an “avid” and “diligent” consumer of intelligence. “He’s somebody who has intimate familiarity as well as respect and regard for the importance of the work in the mission and the people,” Brennan said.

That will be welcomed by Biden’s briefers—though, contrary to all past practice, Biden has not yet been given access to the daily intelligence briefing a president-elect normally receives.

“We’re dealing with people who know what intelligence is supposed to do, and what it’s not supposed to do,” said David Priess, the chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute, who served as a president’s daily briefer during the George W. Bush administration. 

Trump increasingly favored loyalty over experience in his choice of people to helm the country’s intelligence apparatus. For weeks there has been mounting speculation that Trump may look to fire current CIA Director Gina Haspel, who is reported to have fallen out of favor with the president for pushing back on requests to declassify information that could be politically beneficial to him. (On Tuesday, Trump fired the head of the government’s cybersecurity agency for declaring the 2020 elections the most secure in history.)

Biden has not named his picks to lead the CIA or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but those reportedly under consideration, including former acting CIA Director Michael Morell and former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, are all career national security officials with a deep understanding of the intelligence community. 

He will return the IC to pre-Trump ‘normal,’ where a premium is placed on professional competence, not incompetent loyalty,” Clapper said. 

Something that Biden could do in the early days of his presidency to signal his support for the intelligence community would be to make a visit to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Marc Polymeropoulos, the CIA’s former chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia who retired in 2019. Biden could “reassure the employees that they’re not the ‘deep state,’ that he has faith in the product,” he said. 

Another early priority for the Biden administration will be to bolster checks and balances on the intelligence agencies and rebuild the system of whistleblower statutes and inspectors general, Polymeropoulos said. Protections for intelligence community whistleblowers are relatively new, signed into law in 2012, and were little tested before Trump and his allies sought to expose the identity of the CIA whistleblower whose complaint triggered the House impeachment investigation into Trump. 

One of Biden’s tasks will likely be “expressing the sanctity of the whistleblower statutes and a robust Inspector General, all of the things that have sort of fallen apart under the Trump administration,” Polymeropoulos said. 

Trump’s attacks on U.S. intelligence agencies, which determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to bolster Trump’s chances, began even before his inauguration, when he likened them to Nazis. That has taken a toll on morale, but it won’t take much to repair the relationship.

“[The intelligence community] doesn’t need petting and stroking, it just needs not to be beat on,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years with the CIA, serving in Moscow in the 1990s and later running the agency’s Russia operations. 

One key aspect of that will be restoring balanced congressional oversight of the intelligence community. As vice president, Biden helped mediate between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA, which were embroiled in a bitter fight over allegations the CIA had spied on Senate staffers, Brennan recalled in his memoir Undaunted, which was released last month. “‘We have to get this behind us, folks. There are too many important national security matters that the committee and the CIA need to work on together,’” Brennan recounts Biden saying.

As president, Biden could seek to reprise that role. “I’d expect that to be what President-elect Biden feels his role is, to sort out these differences and make sure that there is oversight of the intelligence agencies that doesn’t cripple the intelligence agencies’ functions,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project. 

But that doesn’t mean the next administration should be unquestioning cheerleaders of the intelligence community, either.

“We want an administration that challenges assumptions,” Sipher said. “You don’t want an intelligence community that has people downtown saying, ‘Oh yeah, you guys are great.’ That’s not comfortable either.” 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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