President Donald Trump’s animosity toward the Intelligence Community (IC) and its assessments is not new. For years—from his candidacy to the transition and through his occupancy of the Oval Office—he has ignored or dismissed the IC’s clear warnings, belittled the IC, embraced Vladimir Putin’s denial of election interference instead of endorsing the IC’s assessment, demonstrated disinterest in the IC’s written products, and reflected a lack of respect for intelligence in the policymaking process by making certain decisions with, at best, questionable intelligence or national security grounds.
Over the past few days, this unfortunate trend has continued. On Tuesday, the IC released its Worldwide Threat Assessment, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified on Capitol Hill regarding its content. Through this assessment, however, the IC clearly challenged some of Trump’s deeply entrenched beliefs, notably those associated with Iran and North Korea. Also included in the report was a warning of the national security threats posed by climate change. Trump made no secret of his fury with the IC’s assessments. On Wednesday, he disagreed via Twitter with several of the assessments, dubbing the “Intelligence people” as “naive” and suggesting they “should go back to school!”
Yet we write today not to comment on the content of the assessment or Trump’s substantive positions on the issues. Rather, we write to emphasize that Trump’s hostility toward and derision of the IC undermines national security in serious ways.
Consider first the very real possibility that the president might need to rely on the IC’s credibility to secure domestic and international support for crucial and potentially grave decisions in the future—a lawful use of force, for example. If and when this happens, adversaries can point to Trump’s own criticism of the IC to erode confidence in entirely accurate intelligence assessments. In a sense, Trump has handed our adversaries ammunition for their information operations. And if adversaries understand—as they certainly do—that they can weaken the president’s hand by discrediting his IC-based decisions, they will feel emboldened to engage in more adventurous behavior on the international stage. Meanwhile, allies who rely on U.S. intelligence support in their own assessments may be left bewildered by the president’s contradictions, not knowing whom to trust on the U.S. side and fearing that U.S. intelligence may bend under the president’s political pressure. As early as December 2016, Matthew Waxman, who served in senior roles in the George W. Bush administration, called attention to the issue of Trump needing to rely on the IC’s credibility while simultaneously undermining it. Any hope that Trump has grown out of this amateur mindset has by now been shattered.
Next, as one of us has argued in the past, Trump’s attitude also risks denting the sense of purpose driving intelligence professionals. Echoing this idea, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) noted on Wednesday that members of the IC “risk their lives for the intelligence [Trump] just tosses aside on Twitter.” Trump’s previously reported disinterest in reading intelligence products was bad enough, though collectors—and sources—could still hope that customers below the president would make good use of the products. But when Trump affirmatively disparages the IC and its assessments, he elevates his demoralization campaign to another level. Through his attacks, the president damages the ability of the officials below him to credibly use the products as a basis for decisions. In December 2016, Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and NSA, asked, “If what is gained is not used or wanted or is labeled as suspect or corrupt — by what moral authority does a director put his people at risk?”
Trump’s continued criticism of the IC also increasingly suggests that he wants the IC to conform to his own beliefs, notwithstanding their inaccuracies. This politicization of intelligence is dangerous, and many have warned against it. Intelligence should inform policy, not vice versa. When the IC bends to the will of an administration’s efforts to politicize its assessments, it’s no overstatement to say that human lives are unnecessarily lost. Instead, it’s imperative for the IC to remain objective and candid. It is surely the president’s prerogative to prioritize certain issues or decide that particular threats may not merit serious responses. After all, intelligence is only one of many factors that drive the policy process. And though foolish and unsafe, a president may even outright ignore or deny IC assessments. But manipulating IC assessments to justify a desired result ventures into even more perilous territory.
It’s clear, however, that the IC is currently not shifting its assessments to please Trump. It was, of course, the IC’s assessments, at odds with the president’s views, that triggered Trump’s outrage this week. This, in turn, begs an obvious question. With such a wide gap between the president and the IC, what precisely is informing Trump’s decision-making? Several problematic possibilities come to mind. Is he guiding his policies based on flawed personal beliefs and mercurial whims? Does he believe that attacking the institutions of the so-called “deep state” appeals to his political base and makes it easier to label them as illegitimate if the results of the Mueller probe are politically or personally damaging? Joshua Geltzer, a former senior Obama administration national security official, floated some other ideas—that Trump may rely on news programs that parrot disinformation, and that foreign countries may have employed financial means to sway his views. Even worse, is it possible that he’s somehow vulnerable to the influence of a hostile foreign power that would seek to discredit the IC?
At bottom, what’s at stake is the ability of the president and other officials to rely on the IC’s labors and credibility. To be sure, the IC has made mistakes in the past—sometimes very costly ones. Yet the IC has worked hard to implement reforms and rehabilitate its reputation in the wake of those mistakes. The IC takes pride in objectivity, analytical integrity, its credible voice, and the selfless risks its members assume. Astonishingly, the president continues to impair the confidence the IC deserves. Trump’s behavior is not only self-defeating. It is a real danger to the national security of the United States and our allies.