Donald Trump’s throwaway line, during the September 7 national-security forum, about his intelligence briefers allegedly criticizing President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has intelligence professionals taking umbrage. According to a write-up in the Washington Post:
Did U.S. intelligence analysts betray disdain for President Obama and Hillary Clinton during recent classified briefings with Donald Trump, as the GOP candidate claimed Wednesday? Doing so would represent an almost inconceivable violation of training and tradition, former U.S. intelligence officials said. They added, however, that those accused briefers may be quietly muttering and shaking their heads about at least one of the presidential candidates now. “Those selected for this task would have been the most professional of an elite corps of intelligence officers,” said Paul Pillar, a former high-ranking CIA analyst. “One of the last things they would do is express either verbally or through body-language preferences” about candidates or policy. Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director who has endorsed Clinton, put it more bluntly, saying that Trump’s comments “show that he’s got zero understanding of how intelligence works.”
While Trump’s claim should be taken with a grain of salt given his past bluster, empty claims, and penchant for exaggeration, Pillar and Morell are wrong as well. They are describing an idealized world where intelligence professionals respect and obey the line between their jobs and partisans politics, but that line has blurred significantly over the past decades. Almost 15 years ago, Abe Shulsky and Gary Schmitt published Silent Warfare, an excellent overview of many of the structural issues and analytical problems with which the intelligence community grapples. How, for example, can personal bias be completely purged from analysis when personal judgment still determines what is and is not included or relevant for any analytical product? Likewise, how do intelligence analysts handle frustration when policymakers decide on a policy that analysts feel will worsen a situation? After all, it is the job of the intelligence community to analyze and understand, and many career analysts spend their whole lives focused on a relatively small subset of a problem. Central Intelligence Agency analysts, for example, might focus on the Qods Force or Iran’s nuclear program or Iranian politics or Iran’s economy, but few if any follow all of those categories together. Therefore, many analysts are like the proverbial blind man describing the elephant by feeling only the trunk, feet, or tail.
Nor is intelligence politicization new. Earlier this year, I wrote a lengthy piece for the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, the major intelligence trade journal, analyzing the motives behind a half-century of political manipulation of intelligence.
Now, in my past government service, I sat in on some intelligence briefings, albeit at a lower level and the briefers were uniformly professional. But, at the same time, there has been very public and very blatant politically motivated malfeasance on the part of some intelligence professionals. Remember the leaks criticizing the questions Vice President Dick Cheney asked during intelligence briefings? Someone at the CIA was behind those leaks. Then there was a November 10, 2005 article in the American Progress which quoted former Defense Intelligence Agency official W. Patrick Lang, a vocal opponent of President George W. Bush’s Middle East policies, talking about how CIA officials with whom he was friendly openly admitted to leaking intelligence in order to sway the 2004 election:
“Of course they were leaking,” says Pat Lang. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”
Many intelligence analysts are hardworking and professional, but the fact that intelligence analysts have leaked with impunity to play political games is bad enough. That the CIA apparently did nothing to investigate the admission and punish the perpetrators gives ample reason not to trust the professionalism of all analysts or the leadership that gave and perhaps continues to give such leaks a pass. Trump may not be truthful but, let’s face it, Morell’s idyllic fantasy of CIA professionalism equally strains belief.