Foreign Policy Essay

Intelligence, Politicization, and the Russia Probe

By Joshua Rovner
Sunday, September 17, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The incoming administration's scorn for intelligence professionals is a matter of grave concern to many of us at Lawfare. I, for one, worry that the administration will conduct its foreign policy without understanding the dynamics of foreign governments, their attempts to mislead us, and emerging threats like cyber subversion. Joshua Rovner, a scholar of intelligence at American University, makes me even more concerned. He takes the long view, going beyond the potential for short-term policy catastrophe to explain the long tradition of policymaker suspicion of intelligence and the many potential negative consequences for the intelligence community.


In August, the Washington Post reported that intelligence officials are concerned about their new boss, given CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s political background and staunch support of Trump during the campaign. As a Republican representative from Kansas, Pompeo stood out in Congress for his relentless pressure to find a scandal in the Benghazi tragedy and to connect it with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Not satisfied with the House Benghazi Committee’s final report, he attached an addendum declaring that Clinton “misled the public” about the affair and “failed to lead.” Meanwhile he threw his support behind Trump, “a commander in chief who fearlessly puts America out in front.”

Pompeo is not the first politician to lead the CIA, but his relentless brand of politics and close ties to Trump have led to fears that he cannot remain impartial about the Russia probe. In particular, critics worry that he will inhibit the work of the Agency’s Mission Center for Counterintelligence, which may possess damaging information about Russia’s role in last year’s election. The Center is the Agency’s hub for tracking foreign intelligence efforts in the United States, and according to the Post, a conduit to the FBI. Pompeo reportedly ordered the Center to report to him directly, which makes sense given his commitment to track down leakers and the sensitivity of the issue. But some within the Agency worry that he could use his position to discourage it from pursuing the investigation at all.

[Pompeo's] relentless brand of politics and close ties to Trump have led to fears that he cannot remain impartial about the Russia probe.

Concerns about Pompeo are not new. In February, the Post reported that he was asked to call reporters in an effort to dispute stories about connections between Trump associates and Russian intelligence operatives. While Pompeo never acknowledged doing so, his public comments about broader Russian influence operations are mild compared to releases from U.S. agencies. Before the election, a joint statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security concluded that Russia had hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee in an effort to sway the outcome, and that “only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” This January, a second assessment explained why the election was a serious escalation in Russia’s long-term effort to influence U.S. politics.

Pompeo agreed with these findings in his confirmation hearings, but more recently he has argued that Russia’s so-called “active measures” are nothing new. He turned heads at the Aspen Security Forum when asked whether Russia had interfered in the election. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “And the one before that, and the one before that, they have been at this a hell of a long time.” Some fear that this formulation is too dismissive. While Soviet active measures in the Cold War were mostly dismal failures, this episode appears to have been much more successful, and Russia’s technical sophistication in cyber-espionage means that old analogies are not really relevant to understanding the present threat.

To be fair, Pompeo’s comments have gone far beyond what Trump has been willing to acknowledge about Russian activities. At various times, the president has pinned the blame for the DNC hacks on Russia, China, and the DNC itself. His only consistent theme is that the problem of attribution is too hard to make a firm judgment. Pompeo has been much more critical of Russia, but his caveats, especially the repeated suggestion that last year’s events were nothing new, have some worried that he will lean in Trump’s direction as the investigation intensifies. In other areas he has willingly assumed the role of a policy advocate, rather than an impartial intelligence official. This is in keeping with his embrace of Trump during the election season.

All presidents have incentives to politicize intelligence. Intelligence agencies are particularly effective public-relations vehicles because they control secret information, and individuals tend to believe in secrets. In this case, Trump has obvious reason to use intelligence leaders to muddy the waters about what happened during the campaign, and to create distance between the actions of the Russian government and his own staff. One reason why the Russia investigation is so explosive is that the intelligence community takes it so seriously. The president would surely love to see it downplay the results.

There are many ways to get intelligence to toe the policy line. Direct politicization occurs when they lean on intelligence leaders directly, cajoling them to shape intelligence conclusions in ways that are politically convenient. Indirect politicization, by contrast, occurs when policymakers send subtle signals about what they expect to see and hear. In this case, concerned intelligence officers seem to accuse Trump of what I call “manipulation by appointment.” Rather than twisting the elbows of intelligence chiefs, the idea is to put reliable friends in high places. Critics accused President Reagan of this tactic, for instance, when he appointed his campaign manager William Casey to lead the intelligence community. While pressuring senior officials can lead to political scandal, manipulation by appointment helps avoid that risk.

We can expect to see a few things if Pompeo turns out to be susceptible to White House pressure.

It is unclear that Trump chose Pompeo because he wanted a pliant leader at the CIA. We will not have the whole story for a long time, and episodes of politicization are extremely difficult to categorize. We can expect to see a few things if Pompeo turns out to be susceptible to White House pressure. Most importantly, he will temper his previous assertions about Russian responsibility for the election hack, even if the underlying intelligence remains the same. We will also see efforts to skirt organizational best practices in the CIA. Finally, we will probably see more CIA officials providing specific corroboration about how Pompeo interfered with their work. On the other hand, if Pompeo maintains his integrity, then the investigation will go by the book, and criticisms of the director will be rare and vague.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to be very concerned. Politicization is most likely when the political stakes are very high, and when leaders make public statements on controversial issues that are out of step with intelligence judgments. We are seeing this play out now. Trump’s cavalier attitude about Russian meddling stands in sharp contrast with the intelligence community, and his political future would be in serious doubt if the Russia investigation concludes that there was meaningful collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. In this hothouse environment, he has every reason to hope that special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions point in the other direction.

Mueller’s work depends on support from intelligence and law enforcement. Intercepted communications provided by the National Security Agency and investigative leads from the FBI will surely be central to the case, one way or the other. This is why Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey was so troubling to observers, some of whom accused the president of obstructing the investigation by removing an official who was insufficiently loyal. Trump may believe that the new director, Christopher Wray, may be easier to manage. Similarly, he may be confident that his long-time political ally Pompeo will help him ride out the Russia probe.

If this is true, the implications are profound and disturbing. Politicization has many negative effects on the quality of intelligence: It can skew findings, inhibit later reassessments, and poison intelligence-policy relations over the long-term.

In this case there is another possible danger. It is obvious that Trump has critics inside the CIA, judging by what anonymous sources have told the press. But there are surely others within the Agency who view him favorably, not least because of his aggressive approach to counterterrorism. Trump seems to favor more aggressive collection, regardless of questions of ethics and effectiveness. He came out in favor of waterboarding, for example, arguing that it is necessary to “fight fire with fire.” Pompeo shares his inclinations. Last year he offered a strong defense of intelligence personnel against accusations that they had gone too far. “These men and women are not torturers,” he said, “they are patriots.” Pompeo’s comments suggest he will err on the side of being more aggressive, a mindset that probably resonates with some officers in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. The CIA is not a monolith.

The result might be a fracture between the Agency’s collectors and analysts. If many of the former are excited about working under Pompeo, and many of the latter believe he is a mouthpiece for the administration, then the prospects for effective collaboration are slim. The relationship between collection and analysis has always been complicated, and the Agency has invested a great deal of effort in bringing the two disciplines closer together. Most recently, it has reorganized around regional and topical mission centers in part to enhance collaboration. While this initiative is not without critics, there are good reasons to make such interactions routine. Among other things, collectors may overestimate the usefulness of their sources if they lack ready access to analysts who make sense of new information. Conversely, analysts’ work may be incomplete or outdated if they don’t have access to ongoing collection efforts. The same is true regarding covert operations: Plans that sound good in theory but are not backstopped by solid analysis may prove disastrous. Effective intelligence collection relies on a healthy working relationship with analysts. If a split develops as a result of Pompeo and the Russia probe, that working relationship may suffer.

For this reason, among others, we should be very concerned about politicization. Pompeo has a politician’s instincts and close ties to the president. This does not mean he will be politicized, of course, but it has raised suspicions within the CIA. “People have to watch him,” said one official to the Post. “It’s almost as if he can’t resist the impulse to be political.” To overcome these suspicions, and to protect the institutional integrity of the Agency, he should try.