July 10, 2020

IntelBrief: Politicizing Intelligence is Harmful to the United States

President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • The White House has labeled multiple reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops as ‘fake news,’ the Trump administration’s standard response for any reporting that reveals the President’s obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin.
  • The Trump administration has repeatedly politicized national intelligence assessments and analysis from the broader intelligence community.
  • There are enormous negative consequences to politicizing intelligence and creating ‘alternative facts’ that contradict apolitical, non-partisan objective analysis.
  • From intelligence to science, there are few agencies within the federal government’s civil service that have not been smeared as partisan, treasonous, or part of the ‘Deep State’ by President Trump or his political loyalists.

During the lead up to the United States’ catastrophic 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration tried, with some success, to ‘cherry pick’ intelligence that supported its casus belli for the war. Then- Vice President Dick Cheney intervened and interfered with analysis from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), applying political pressure to civil service intelligence professionals. The ramifications of that conflict are still being felt today. All administrations have their priorities and issue national intelligence directives that task the nation’s intelligence agencies with collecting, analyzing, assessing, and disseminating intelligence on these priorities and objectives. When administrations seek intelligence to back a pre-existing preference or belief, the consequences are always bad. This is a bipartisan tendency that is held in check by the civil servants who serve in all administrations and across multiple echelons of government.

What is happening with the Trump administration in terms of politicizing intelligence is, with a few notable exceptions,without precedent. There is no aspect of the federal government that has not been deliberately and persistently painted as ‘rogue’ or as part of the so-called ‘Deep State,’ and characterized by having an agenda to embarrass the administration. This applies to even basic, well-established, and presumably non-controversial foundations of science such as the germ theory of disease and basic epidemiology practices. And in matters of intelligence, the administration has relied on a strategy to place ‘acting’ directors in the role of the Director of National Intelligence. Every president is entitled to choose his advisors and department heads, but those choices still have to meet a bare minimum of qualifications. The law that established the DNI literally says the nominee must have substantial intelligence experience. The current acting DNI lacks these qualifications, as did his predecessor in that role. The administration has consistently mocked any official whose assessments differ from its own version of reality, which is often at odds with empirical evidence and a rigorous approach to analyzing data. Some administration officials have suggested that there is no such thing as apolitical intelligence collection and assessments, while dismissing the notion of objectivity by career professionals. The lunacy of accusations of ‘treason’ and ‘Deep State’ is only matched by the damage it does to the nation.

The latest example of the politicization of intelligence matters erupted with numerous press reports that the United States had intelligence that Russia’s Main Intelligence Unit—still known as GRU—offered monetary bounties to the Taliban for attacks on U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. When it was reported that the U.S. intelligence community informed the administration of its assessment—as included in the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB)—it created an uproar because at the same time the administration was openly pushing to include Russia in the G7. Even finished intelligence products are not certainties—the fabled ‘slam dunk’ doesn’t exist in these matters—but there are varying degrees of certainty. The CIA reportedly had ‘medium certainty’ while the National Security Agency (NSA) held a lower degree of certainty—normal conclusions, given different collection sources and methods. Ultimately, it is up to the administration to act or not act on any of these assessments. The intelligence community never tells the White House what to do, it merely provides assessments and discusses the pros and cons of a range of possible options. 

Instead of declaring the matter still under review or sensitive enough not to respond to in much detail outside of select Senate and House briefings, the White House immediately denounced the reports as ‘fake news’ and both the media and the intelligence agencies as enemies of the people. The White House then had the Office of the DNI produce a memo that, while not refuting anything in the report (those details actually have been confirmed), it did highlight the gaps in the reporting. The President then tweeted that it was all a hoax (negating his own administration’s positions) and attacked the notion of an independent intelligence community that speaks truth to power. This pattern erodes trust in the foundations of the government, and provides fodder for dangerous conspiracies like QAnon, which has led some of its followers to engage in real-world violence. What is happening now is not a well-intended skepticism but rather a deliberate dismantling of the administrative state. According to this worldview, everything is political and partisan, from public health science to national security assessments. The United States is now stuck in an endless feedback loop of conspiracy theories and distrust between society and government. It is not normal or acceptable for the President of the United States to call civil servants ‘traitors,’ and tar the media as ‘the enemy of the people,’ yet somehow this has become commonplace. 


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