The phrase “failure of imagination” is often associated with the 9/11 Commission report. The term was used to describe why the U.S. intelligence community did not anticipate and prevent the historic attack on the country. We would be wise to remember this admonition as we look ahead to the potential for a future Trump presidency, especially in light of recent reporting detailing his plan to revamp – and, in fact, deeply politicize – the federal government. Quite remarkably, Trump is not hiding his intentions. He and his surrogates are saying quite clearly that their desire is to purge the government of those not sufficiently politically loyal to Trump. We ignore these stated goals at our peril. As unrealistic as it may seem that he will bring them to fruition, it is worth considering their potential consequences if he succeeds. Indeed, given his outspoken plans, he would likely try converting them into a “mandate” were he to win the presidency.
The future scenario can and must be imagined.
During our careers in national security, we each took an oath during the first day on the job. We proudly pledged fidelity to the U.S. Constitution, not to any man or woman. We pledged to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We cannot stress the importance of taking such an oath and how moving it was for us personally. We dedicated our lives to a cause far greater than ourselves. The pride we felt in working for the American people was profound. Duty, honor, country were our paramount values, all devoid of politics. We certainly never made decisions thinking we were serving under the watchful eye of any political leader sitting in the White House.
We focus here on the threat to the U.S. intelligence community and intelligence capabilities in a second Trump administration.
Purging of Apolitical Civil Servants
Despite (or perhaps because) of its apolitical commitment, the U.S. intelligence community – and the FBI and CIA in particular – is a likely primary target for Trump’s wrath in a second term. Since comparing the CIA to Nazis even before taking office, Trump became increasingly suspicious of the intelligence community – beginning with his infamous public siding with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community in its conclusions about Russian election interference. His expressions of paranoia are now acute; he rails against a “Deep State” during almost every, if not every, campaign speech. Trump’s allies have even been calling for “defunding” the FBI – the very institution that over the last several months has caught Chinese and Cuban spies in our midst, thwarted an al-Qa’ida linked terrorist attack in Philadelphia, and cracked down on public corruption in the US Congress on both sides of the aisle.
In light of these expressions of paranoia, it is unsurprising that in 2017, the Trump transition team put together a list of CIA officials to be “purged,” according to Axios. The list included CIA officials working in the Middle East, including some who were still under cover, and was reportedly passed to Steve Bannon. At the time, “word about the ‘purge list’ was greeted within the agency more with incredulousness and bemusement than fear,” according to Axios. By the end of his term, Trump had issued an executive order establishing “Schedule F,” a class of employees in “policy-making, policy-determining, or policy-advocating” positions who would be exempt from civil service protections and be dismissed at will. The plan envisioned moving currently protected civil servants into the category who could then be purged and replaced them with employees who would be more pliant with the administration’s needs. Before the order could meaningfully go into effect, President Joe Biden assumed office and, on his third day on the job, rescinded Trump’s EO, replacing it with his own.
Against this background, we cannot have a cavalier mindset about Trump’s intentions the second time around. Having had four years to simmer over the “Deep State” in the intelligence community, Trump has already announced that he will make good on a purge list in a second term, with the apparent interest in dismissing both rank and file intelligence officers and analysts as well as senior leaders if they do not demonstrate fealty to him. He and his allies have not only openly acknowledged their intention of reinstituting the Schedule F plan, but have had time to vet over 50,000 loyalists who will replace the purged civil servants during a second Trump term.
As a general matter, the institution of a “loyalty test” in any part of the civil service would drastically undermine the effectiveness of our agencies and erode the public’s faith in their legitimacy. As a more specific concern, the politicization of the intelligence community would wreak havoc on our national security and be profoundly dangerous for America.
Losing scores of dedicated national security professionals – those who would be unjustly “purged” – as well as many who we anticipate would resign en masse in protest (and others who would never sign up) – puts all Americans at risk. Among other costs, loyalty tests instituted would be no more adults in the room to quash Trump’s autocratic impulses. At one point during his last administration, “Trump sounded personally attacked” by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Bob Woodward reported in his book, Fear. “‘Let’s f*cking kill him!’” Trump told Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “‘Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f*cking lot of them,’” Woodward writes. “Yes, Mattis said. He would get right on it. He hung up the phone. ‘We’re not going to do any of that,’ he told a senior aide.” (Trump essentially confirmed this account in a Fox News interview expressing his frustrations with Mattis.) The UN Charter and Executive Order 12333 prohibit the assassination of a foreign leader. It was incumbent on national security professionals like Mattis to ignore such orders. Under a second Trump term, with loyalty tests in place, such schemes would move forward with alacrity and little pushback.
Reduced Sharing Among Intelligence Partners
Despite the political tumult of the last eight years, with the Trump presidency and a House “weaponization” subcommittee, the FBI and CIA are seen by our foreign partners as apolitical and independent. Our liaison relationships help us understand our adversaries, catch spies in our midst, kill terrorists, dismantle nuclear proliferation networks, and more. All of this would be at serious risk under a second Trump term. Indeed, some of these relationships may already be eroded at the very prospect of a second Trump term.
A politicized intelligence community with a premium on loyalty to Trump would likely cause catastrophic damage to our foreign intelligence relationships. Our allies have already seen Trump’s disregard for protecting national security secrets while president. As the Wall Street Journal reported, he shared with Russian officials highly classified intelligence emanating from an Israeli source within days of taking office. Later, he tweeted highly sensitive images of an Iranian rocket launch site and declassified FBI documents in the Russia investigation to promote his political narrative before he left office. Our allies also know that Trump took reams of national security secrets with him to Mar-a-Lago upon leaving office (to be stored in a bathroom shower and ballroom), which may well have compromised intelligence shared by our allies.
These kinds of practices on the part of Trump himself already made our allies uneasy about sharing information with the U.S. intelligence community during Trump’s first administration. Under a second Trump term, allies would need to be concerned not just with Trump, but with their agency counterparts, as well. With national security officials who would need to fall in line with Trump’s pro-Kremlin sentiment, for example, British or French intelligence services would surely be reluctant to share their sensitive reporting on Russia. Allies may also refrain from sharing intelligence about foreign adversaries interfering in our political processes, or even intelligence relating to terrorism. After all, it was highly sensitive Israeli counterterrorism intelligence information that Trump revealed to the Russians. It goes without saying but these intelligence gaps would leave the United States vulnerable to a host of covert and overt attacks into the foreseeable future.
Fabrication of Intelligence
Finally, the most dangerous consequence of a second Trump term is that under his watch, we may not be able to trust the intelligence coming out of our own agencies. The pressure to fabricate intelligence is not new: We saw the ramifications of politicized intelligence under the George W. Bush administration, which falsely asserted that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction as a basis for invading that country post 9/11. But at least in that case, revelation of the inaccurate claims led to increased congressional oversight and the institution of internal executive branch checks to prevent something similar from happening again.
Some of those same checks may have provided important bulwarks against Trump’s attempts to fabricate intelligence leading up to January 6, a lesson that will surely be learned by Trump and his close circle in a second term. Indeed, Trump’s extreme advocates, like Sidney Powell and Mike Flynn, had drafted an executive order allowing the military to seize state voting machines on the pretext that they had been infiltrated by foreign governments – something his intelligence agencies would have had to corroborate. That this order was never fully issued is likely attributable to the pushback from Trump’s agency chiefs, including administration stalwarts like acting secretary of homeland security, Ken Cucinelli. In a second term, Trump would make sure to head his intelligence community with loyalists like Kash Patel – whom he had at one point unsuccessfully tried to install as CIA deputy director – who would go along with falsehoods to effect dubious legal schemes concocted by his fanatical allies.
While the implications of fabricated intelligence to allow interference in electoral results is bad enough, Trump could use it to target perceived enemies militarily, as well. For instance, as publicly stated during the Obama administration the U.S. drone program relies on targeting packages put together by the CIA and the Defense Department, in accordance with U.S. and international laws. However, there are no meaningful checks on these procedures beyond executive branch officials complying with internal executive branch policy and then notifying congressional oversight committees. Under Trump there is not only no guarantee that officials – even agency lawyers – would comply with their own policies; such policies may themselves be gutted or rescinded. And, given Trump’s tendency to warmonger against other state actors like Iran, he would have great ability to gin up “intelligence” and suppress genuine assessments to justify the use of force abroad . It may be recalled that Trump reportedly asked his national security team in 2020 about the feasibility of launching unilateral missile strikes in Mexico to pursue the drug cartels, as yet another example. This idea has gone more mainstream now in GOP circles, which, if pursued as policy under a second Trump term, would put us on a dangerous collision course with the Mexican government. Trump’s willingness to put American men and women on such a path without congressional authorization highlights the nature of the threat.
Will Trump’s “Formers” Speak Out?
As we contemplate a second Trump presidency, one wonders if former senior officials from his administration will finally speak out in a more aggressive and public fashion. Will we see former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley do so? What about Mattis and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, two decorated retired generals who observed first hand the worst of Trump? They have alluded to the dangers of Trump in interviews and isolated comments, but not in any in-depth and proactive fashion. In our view, they all need to step up and help educate the public in a concerted manner on the extreme dangers of Trump in a second term. They must speak loudly, explicitly, and often. The notion of former senior military officials refraining from entering the public arena is tradition. But, this is a singularly unique time period. It is a moral imperative to send up a flare. If they don’t step up now and signal the alarm, then when?
Trump’s plans to drain the national security apparatus of expertise and replace them with loyalists is a standard authoritarian move, and all too reminiscent of the famed 1979 purge of the Ba’ath party by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This event is legendary in middle eastern circles, as it is so chilling, cold, and well-calculated. Saddam called officials by name, who were then led out of the chamber. It is easy (and comforting) to dismiss the prospect of such actions transpiring in the United States as improbable or impossible – but doing so would be another failure of imagination.