Before his classified national-security briefing yesterday, Donald Trump said he didn’t trust U.S. intelligence. His comments attracted the expected condemnations and ridicule from the media pundits and foreign-policy experts. However, based on my 25 years working in U.S. intelligence, I believe Trump’s concerns are well-founded.
On Wednesday, Trump received the intelligence briefing traditionally provided by the U.S. Intelligence Community to newly nominated presidential candidates. This briefing was preceded by calls from the Clinton campaign, other Democrats, and, privately, by some intelligence officials that Trump be denied these briefings because, they claim, he can’t be trusted to protect classified information.
The Washington Post’s intelligence reporter Greg Miller reported on July 28 that a senior intelligence official told Miller privately that he would refuse to brief Trump because of concerns about Trump’s alleged admiration of Russian president Putin and because “he’s been so uninterested in the truth and so reckless with it when he sees it.” Reuters ran a similar story on June 2, reporting that eight senior security officials said they had concerns about briefing Trump; Reuters did not indicate how many of the officials cited were intelligence officials or Obama appointees.
These calls to deny intelligence briefings to a presidential candidate are unprecedented, but they also reflect a serious problem within the U.S. intelligence community that awaits a possible Trump administration: the politicization of American intelligence by the Left.
The liberal tilt within the CIA, especially in the Directorate of Intelligence (the analysis office), grew worse during the Clinton years as personnel were hired and promoted to support Clinton-Gore policy objectives. These included wasteful initiatives such as the DCI Environmental Center, launched at the same time the CIA was dangerously downplaying counterterrorism analysis.
Unfortunately, the intensified liberal tilt at the CIA during the Clinton years was not reversed by the George W. Bush administration. Bush kept on Clinton’s CIA director, George Tenet, who had no interest in cleaning house or taking steps to ensure that CIA analysis would be balanced and not politicized. When his successor, Porter Goss, tried to clean up the agency, CIA careerists fought back aggressively by leaking to Congress and the media, eventually forcing Goss out.
As a result, intelligence careerists often paid no price for engaging in blatantly political activities to undermine the Bush administration. One officer in the CIA inspector general’s office was fired after she admitted she’d leaked classified information on Bush counterterrorism programs to a Washington Post reporter. In 2005, several intelligence officers attempted to sabotage John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador — an act of political skullduggery for which they were never punished.
The most notorious example of partisan political activity by U.S. intelligence officers occurred just before the 2004 presidential election when Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia, while giving a speech at a dinner on September 21, criticized President Bush and CIA director Tenet for ignoring critical intelligence that he claimed might have prevented the Iraq War. Incredibly, CIA management had cleared Pillar’s comments, saying that the substance of his remarks, but not the speaker or the audience, could be disclosed. The late columnist Robert Novak, who attended the dinner, sparked an uproar when he reported Pillar’s identity and the dinner anyway. Clearly, Pillar’s presentation was intended to affect the outcome of the 2004 presidential election.
The Wall Street Journal condemned such political activities by CIA officers in a scathing September 29, 2004, editorial titled “The CIA’s Insurgency”:
It’s become obvious over the past couple of years that large swaths of the CIA oppose U.S. anti-terror policy, especially toward Iraq. But rather than keep this dispute in-house, the dissenters have taken their objections to the public, albeit usually through calculated leaks that are always spun to make the agency look good and the Bush administration look bad. . . . Yet what the CIA insurgents are essentially doing here, with their leaks and insubordination, is engaging in a policy debate. Given the timing of the latest leaks so close to an election, they are now clearly trying to defeat President Bush and elect John Kerry.
Politicization of America’s intelligence agencies by the Left has grown worse during the Obama years. Recall that the CIA drafted the politicized (and later discredited) 2012 talking points on the Benghazi terrorist attacks. Additionally, the agency now uses racial, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and other quotas for CIA hiring and promotions.
Significant examples of politicization in other intelligence agencies since 2009 include the congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. During a briefing to the House Intelligence Committee in February 201, Clapper tried to downplay the Muslim Brotherhood as a radical Islamist group, saying: “The term Muslim Brotherhood is an umbrella term for a variety of movements. In the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.”
And in 2015, as widely reported, more than 50 U.S. Central Command intelligence analysts lodged a formal complaint with the Pentagon’s inspector general. In the complaint, they alleged that their intelligence assessments were being intentionally manipulated by senior officials to downplay the threat from ISIS and the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda branch in Syria) in order to support the Obama administration’s claim that the U.S. was making progress in defeating these Islamist terrorist groups. A recent congressional task force concluded this month that these complaints were valid and expressed alarm that nothing has been done to improve CENTCOM intelligence analysis in response to them.
Democrats, intelligence officers, and the liberal media did not raise similar concerns about briefing Clinton, although Comey determined she was ‘extremely careless’ in handling classified info.
In light of this history, it is no surprise that Democrats, intelligence officers, and the liberal media urged that Trump be denied an intelligence briefing as the GOP presidential candidate. Naturally, they did not raise similar concerns about briefing Hillary Clinton, although the FBI director determined she was “extremely careless” in handling classified information as secretary of state, even sharing classified intelligence with people who had no security clearance. Comey also stated that due to this carelessness, it’s possible hostile actors have gained access to the highly classified information that traveled through the multiple private servers Clinton used.
It’s true that intelligence briefings to presidential candidates are offered at the discretion of a sitting president. But calls to deny these briefings to Trump or to give him fake briefings are an affront to the American tradition of peaceful transfer of power and could undermine his presidential transition if he wins the election.
It is not up to Senator Reid or U.S. intelligence officers to prevent a duly elected major-party presidential candidate from receiving intelligence briefings because they don’t like him or because he is from the wrong political party. Of more concern is whether some intelligence personnel, out of political bias, would refuse to provide a President Trump with the intelligence support he would need to protect American national security.
Trump may have been too hard on U.S. intelligence agencies when he said that they got it wrong before the Iraq War; and perhaps he was unfair to lambaste Obama’s dismissal of ISIS as the “jayvee” team. Intelligence agencies must be held accountable for their work, but their analysis will never be 100 percent accurate. In addition, intelligence agencies only advise policymakers. They cannot force a president to use their analysis.
I was pleased to hear that Trump realizes he will have a lot of work ahead of him to fix the U.S. intelligence community if he becomes president. To get the objective, accurate, and hard-hitting intelligence support he will need if elected, Trump must name strong, decisive leaders — including good managers from the business community — to top intelligence posts. He must hire people who understand that America’s intelligence agencies do not work for themselves, for either party in Congress, or the foreign-policy establishment; they work for the president. Any U.S. intelligence officer who is not prepared to loyally provide whomever wins the presidency with his best efforts should find another job.
— Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee.