The recent midterm elections served as a reminder—comforting to many—that the Trump presidency will end. The next president will be challenged to heal a fractured society, return integrity to public service and restore essential government institutions. We will not have a full accounting of how U.S. intelligence fared during the Trump years until a credible investigation is undertaken or survivors emerge to document their experiences. The next president will confront three realities:
- The U.S. needs a well functioning Intelligence Community (IC) to warn of threats, inform a rational policymaking process and influence events abroad in its favor;
- U.S. intelligence has been weakened by the deliberate actions of a U.S. president, and still greater harm is foreseeable as the incumbent’s power ebbs and his sense of personal vulnerability increases;
- The next chief executive must act quickly to restore strategic focus, core capabilities and democratic legitimacy to the IC.
A Unique Circumstance
There is no historic precedent for President Trump’s assault on civilian institutions within the branch of government he leads, institutions which exist to warn of unseen dangers and inform his most difficult decisions. Pre-inauguration criticism of the IC’s consensus judgment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and a clumsily politicized visit to CIA Headquarters soon after taking office were attributed to poor staffing, naiveté or simple ignorance. The president’s conduct in the succeeding months can only be understood as a deliberate effort to diminish the IC’s institutional credibility. Presumably, he fears that U.S. intelligence—in the same manner as our law enforcement community and a free press—may ultimately bring forward information that threatens him personally. Self-serving claims that this president is, in the privacy of Oval Office briefings, actually a voracious, engaged and curious consumer of intelligence are now incredible.
It is not too early to begin planning a turnaround for U.S. intelligence under a new chief executive who appreciates the IC’s unique capabilities, its fragile assets and essential contributions to America’s national security.
What Matters Most, or Setting Strategic Priorities in a Shifting Global Landscape
For several decades, the U.S. IC has followed detailed written guidance issued in the president’s name that assigns topical priorities for worldwide collection operations and the attention of a skilled, but finite, cadre of expert analysts. The underlying principle is that our elected and appointed policy officials, not the intelligence agencies themselves, should determine the IC’s priorities. Despite its obvious logic this arrangement is, in fact, quite unusual among foreign security services.
During the Cold War, the exercise of setting priorities was largely perfunctory as intelligence leaders and policymakers shared an appreciation for the dangers posed by the Soviet Union. In the environment of declining resources after the USSR’s demise, sharper debate erupted over where to focus reduced U.S. intelligence capabilities.
That debate was settled, at least temporarily, by the 9/11 attacks and the IC’s immediate realignment to detect and disrupt future acts of terrorism. It would be imprudent, even 17 years after those catastrophic attacks, to discount entirely the danger still posed by terrorism, but strategists in and outside government are busily scanning the horizon for more worrisome threats. Cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, great power competition and climate change cluster near the top of such lists.
We do not know what collection, analysis, or covert influence priorities the current administration has assigned to the IC. In his annual threat testimony to Congress, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats offered a familiar, but explicitly unprioritized, list of U.S. security challenges. In remarks to a trade association, the DNI described a growing demand, presumably from administration consumers, for “economic intelligence.” At a meeting of the “Five Eyes” intelligence partners, the leaders apparently agreed to intensify global scrutiny of China. More recently, CIA Director Gina Haspel signaled a shift in focus from terrorism to “nation-state adversaries” and also described intensified interest in counternarcotics, although that message may have been tailored for an audience in opioid-ravaged Appalachia.
Without clear strategic priorities that align with a commander-in-chief’s informed worldview, IC agencies will incline toward reactive, short-term, parochial resource decisions. After the next president articulates a national security strategy, it will be important to translate that vision into meaningful direction for our capable but currently unguided IC.
Moreover, the topic or topics assigned the highest intelligence priority by the next administration should be disclosed and publicly debated. This process would promote accountability by the president who assigns these priorities as well as for IC leaders who implement that guidance. Notwithstanding foreseeable arguments for continued secrecy, the real operational security costs of debating intelligence priorities in public are negligible. It would hardly surprise secretive leaders in, for example, China, Russia, North Korea or Iran to learn that U.S. intelligence had been charged with unearthing their plans and capabilities.
Restoring Global Capacity by Reassuring Liaison Partners
America’s intelligence agencies are extraordinarily capable, and they work much better together as a result of structural changes implemented after the 9/11 attacks. The IC’s technological prowess and talented workforce were built over 15 years in a climate of perceptible threats, sustained high budgets and (generally) bipartisan political support. Notwithstanding its size, ample resources and enviable unilateral capabilities, U.S. intelligence would be unable to meet its global responsibilities without the daily assistance of foreign security services or “liaison” partners.
The U.S. IC’s major collection and analytic agencies maintain active relationships with hundreds of foreign counterpart services. Each liaison relationship is different. Cooperation ranges from the exchange of holiday greetings to analytic exchanges, to information sharing, to risky joint collection and covert action operations. The level of cooperation with foreign security partners often, but not always, mirrors the quality of the bilateral diplomatic relationship between the respective governments. The terms of cooperation in specific joint operations are negotiated in advance by the participating services, but such arrangements are invariably rooted in trust and confidence nurtured over many years of sharing risk. In view of the well-understood hazards of intelligence cooperation, both sides are constantly recalculating the risk-gain equation for sharing information from sensitive sources, transferring specialized technology, exposing officers to physical danger or absorbing political damage when joint activities are exposed.
The level of anxiety for U.S. security liaison partners rose in lock step with Donald Trump’s electoral prospects in 2016. The candidate’s lack of discipline, boastfulness and verbal attacks on the FBI and CIA, combined with an opaque relationship with Russia, invariably caused foreign partners to reassess the risks of cooperating with U.S. intelligence. This unease certainly peaked after the May 2017 Oval Office meeting when the president reportedly shared sensitive third-country intelligence information with Russian officials without prior approval—or even awareness of his gaffe.
Foreign security services cooperate with their U.S. counterparts for multiple, varied and frequently parochial political reasons. The U.S. side often contributes unique information, technology or money that the partner service lacks. To be clear, our key security liaison relationships are mature and resilient. They are doubtless still active and productive. But, the U.S. IC’s foreign counterparts are extremely adept at gauging and mitigating risks. We would in most cases never know when a unique report, insight or access was withheld by a liaison partner because of security concerns linked to the president or the acrimonious relationships he has fostered with allied governments and leaders. American intelligence is less capable today because of our partners’ legitimate anxieties about the president and his administration.
Among the most pressing challenges awaiting the next administration’s intelligence team will be reassuring these anxious liaison partners that the U.S. IC and its political masters once again deserve their trust.
Reinforcing Democratic Legitimacy Through Presidential Leadership, Congressional Oversight and Voluntary Transparency
Building and maintaining democratic legitimacy is a constant challenge for powerful security agencies whose mission success often turns on the ability to keep secrets from our adversaries, and, unavoidably, from the American people as well. The modern IC exists principally to serve the information needs of the president and his or her senior advisors. When the legality, efficacy or wisdom of intelligence activities is questioned, the president is expected to explain the circumstances and take remedial actions but ultimately defend the institutions that serve him.
President George W. Bush stood unflinchingly behind his intelligence team and accepted full responsibility for controversial counterterrorism programs that he had approved. Following the (unlawful) disclosure of (lawful) electronic surveillance activities by the National Security Agency, President Obama offered a carefully measured defense of programs that he had perpetuated and from which he benefitted.
No intelligence leader today could reasonably expect that President Trump would pay a political price to defend the IC, whose work he publicly discounted at a foreign summit meeting in favor of Vladimir Putin’s personal assurance that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election. The next president should play a direct personal role in shaping intelligence policies, set high standards for IC agencies and demonstrate the willingness to accept political responsibility when they fall short.
Since the mid-1970s, Congress has also contributed to the democratic legitimacy of U.S. intelligence through more formal oversight, principally by specialized committees in the House of Representatives and Senate. The intelligence agencies are obliged to keep the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) informed of their activities and members of these select committees serve as proxies for the American public in evaluating the legality, effectiveness and prudence of ongoing and planned intelligence activities.
The record of congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence over the last four decades is decidedly mixed. The Trump presidency created an urgent demand for diligent, visible, non-partisan legislative oversight. Through a series of malign, even bizarre, acts of partisanship, the current HPSCI disqualified itself as a credible check on the IC and the administration’s stewardship of our intelligence resources. In contrast, the SSCI has been ably led and effective. Because the White House was incapable of—or at least unwilling to—probe seriously foreign interference in the 2016 election, the SSCI assumed the historic role of investigating Russia’s actions and validating the IC’s work to counter that continuing threat.
Leadership in the House, and in turn of the HPSCI, will switch to the Democrats in the next Congress while the Republicans will retain control of the Senate and the SSCI Chairmanship. With the prospect of at least two more years of presidential indifference, and occasional hostility, toward U.S. intelligence agencies, the HPSCI and SSCI can be important sources of support and legitimacy.
The leaders of both committees should guard against efforts by members to use their special access to IC agencies and sensitive information for partisan attacks on the president and his administration. For example, recent demands by SSCI members to declassify and release intelligence assessments ostensibly to “fact-check” the president’s public statements and undermine his credibility would, if realized, do harm to these institutions that outlasts this administration.
In 2015, the Office of the DNI issued Principles of Intelligence Transparency that encouraged IC agencies to institutionalize steps already underway to make intelligence work and products more accessible to the public. Several years earlier, in response to media and public interest in the legal basis for controversial electronic surveillance programs, a volume of previously classified legal memos and judicial opinions was released. The DNI’s transparency initiative was a modest attempt to demystify the intelligence profession, establish a direct relationship with the American public and ultimately enhance the IC’s democratic legitimacy.
The current DNI has expressed support for transparency efforts, but the IC has fallen short of its own goal of proactively declassifying and releasing judgments on topics of high public interest. Clearly, many sensitive reports and intelligence assessments cannot be made public. Nonetheless, decisions on whether and when to declassify high-interest intelligence assessments continue to be made for political reasons, either to support administration policies or in response to congressional demands. Breaking the IC’s overclassification habit and persuading the public that secrets are maintained to protect the country, rather than to frustrate government accountability, will regrettably be a task left for a future president and intelligence leaders.
A Watching Brief on “Politicization”
There is no more serious abuse of the intelligence function than conscious attempts by political leaders to conform analytic assessments to their political needs. A proven charge of politicization inflicts long-term damage on the credibility of any intelligence organization. It simultaneously erodes the profession’s core ethical standards of objectivity, policy neutrality and fidelity to facts.
The available public record—one built primarily from media leaks of classified intelligence products—does not include evidence that President Trump has attempted to shape IC judgments to support his policies. Indeed, this record reflects that, on important topics ranging from Russia’s ongoing influence operations to North Korea’s negotiating strategy to Iran’s compliance with negotiated limits on its nuclear program, the IC appears to have regularly delivered inconvenient views to its “first customer.”
In the most recent case, CIA analysts reportedly linked Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince to the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, thereby complicating the president’s plans to continue dealing directly with the Saudi leader and supporting the Kingdom’s military offensive in Yemen. President Trump’s approach is apparently to ignore unwelcome intelligence assessments rather than attempt to shape them. Under today’s abnormal conditions, it is arguably preferable that the president ignores or dismisses intelligence assessments rather than actively seeks to corrupt the agencies that produce them.
There are, however, worrying signs that the president may eventually seek to harness the intelligence agencies for his political purposes. Frustrated by public criticism from former IC officials, President Trump directed that their security clearances be cancelled, thereby politicizing a routine administrative process. The president has also threatened to order the selective declassification of national defense information to punish his political opponents. IC leaders and congressional overseers will share responsibility for monitoring and defending the integrity of intelligence analysis from a chief executive who is insensitive to both the utility and fragility of national security intelligence.
U.S. intelligence has been diminished by the Trump presidency. Instead of providing the IC with strategic leadership and support, the president has chosen to attack agencies that exist principally to help him better protect the nation. Anxious liaison partners make the U.S. IC less able to gather information, interpret complex foreign events and shape conditions abroad in America’s favor. A public that is routinely misinformed by the president and his allies may increasingly be inclined to question the effectiveness and loyalty of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Diligence is required now to limit foreseeable harm to U.S. intelligence during the remainder of the Trump presidency, while the critical task of restoring U.S. intelligence awaits the next president.
*Steve Slick is a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of CIA’s clandestine service, and served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform. This essay was reviewed by CIA’s Publications Review Board.