President Donald Trump’s critique of his intelligence chiefs in the aftermath of this week’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment testimony is the third time the relationship between the president and the intelligence community has taken a significant public blow.
The first came during the presidential transition in 2016 and the early days of the administration in 2017, when the president openly questioned the community’s analysis on Russia’s interference in the election and likened the women and men of the intelligence community to “Nazis.”
The second was Trump’s summit in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin when Trump openly sided with the Russian president and against America’s own intelligence officers.
The most recent round — on Wednesday, the president labeled his top intelligence officers “extremely passive and naive” as well as just plain “wrong” in a tweet without providing any alternative evidence — is a reminder that the current relationship is atypical in both kind and degree. And because it is so different from the norm, it carries potentially significant consequences for our nation’s security.
Presidents have long disagreed with some of the information and analysis they get from the intelligence community. President George W. Bush would occasionally say to me during a morning briefing, “Michael, I don’t think this is quite right” or “I have a different view here.” There are also plenty of examples of intelligence analysts telling presidents that they cannot accomplish something only to have them do just that. During the mid-1990s war in the Balkans, the intelligence community was highly skeptical that a peace deal was possible, but President Bill Clinton delivered the Dayton Peace Accords nonetheless.
Nor is it uncommon for a president to publicly lay the blame for a policy failure on the intelligence community. President Barack Obama, for example, did this when he openly criticized intelligence agencies for missing the rise of the Islamic State. As I counseled young analysts upset by these kinds of critiques, “Nothing supersedes presidential politics in this town. If you’re going to work in Washington, get used to it.”
So what is different now? For one, the number of the disagreements between Trump and his intelligence agencies is much greater than in the past, and many are displayed for the public to see. And where most differences between presidents and their intelligence communities are over interpretation, causes and implications, they are typically not about facts. It is one thing to question whether Kim Jong Un will ever give up his strategic weapons; it is quite another to say that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat.
Moreover, Trump does not seem to be engaging with the intelligence community on a substantive basis, as other presidents have. I doubt he is explaining in private why he has different views on the status of the Islamic State, or why he thinks the intelligence on North Korea’s weapons program is not accurate, or why he thinks the Iranians are not living up to their commitments under the nuclear deal.
And, finally, no other president with whom I have worked has personally attacked the men of the women of the intelligence community the way Trump has.
So what are the implications of all this? One, when the president says he believes Putin more than his own intelligence officers, it not only emboldens Putin and our other adversaries, it also likely undermines the morale of the intelligence workforce. To the extent someone leaves an intelligence agency earlier than planned, it sets back the community, as it takes seven to 10 years to develop fully functioning officers.
Two, it undermines one of the reasons that foreigners turn against their own government and spy instead for the United States. There are many motivations for espionage, but one is to make the world a better place by making a difference to U.S. policy. And if the belief grows that the president is not listening and not accepting the information he receives from the intelligence community, the incentive for spying declines and, along with it, the critical information the community receives.
And three, perhaps the biggest danger: There is a risk that Trump’s rhetoric about the intelligence community will actually begin to affect the way its leaders - and the people who work for them - talk publicly and perhaps privately about issues. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats has been steadfast in his willingness to “call it straight,” and all of the intelligence chiefs at one point or another in this week’s hearing stood up to the president to properly inform the Congress and the American people. But at other times during the hearing, some of the chiefs parried a bit in what they said or how they said it, probably to stay out of Trump’s line of fire. This cannot become a trend.
As President Ronald Reagan once said, America’s intelligence officers “are the eyes and ears of the free world.” The intelligence community must be supported by our nation’s leaders in its critically important work. And a key part of that support is publicly and privately encouraging the intelligence officers to bring them bad news when necessary. The national security of the United States depends upon it.
Michael Morell, a Post contributing columnist, was deputy director and twice acting director of the CIA from 2010-2013.