There have been presidential administrations (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush) that have worked to politicize intelligence, and there have been CIA leaders (William Casey and Robert Gates as well as George Tenet and John McLaughlin) who have cooperated with these efforts. In doing so, these intelligence officials created integrity and credibility problems for the CIA, which are once again at hand. Indeed, President Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizing and egomaniacal performance at CIA Headquarters on January 21 marked a new low in presidential efforts to politicize the most controversial agency in the intelligence community.
Standing before a carefully selected crowd that was bolstered by apparatchiks from the administration, Trump faced two distinct sections of agency personnel. The main section consisted of agency staff who provided cheers and applause for the President’s embarrassing political statements, particularly his efforts to intimidate the press. A separate section in front consisted of senior agency officials, including clandestine operatives, who stood throughout but remained stoic and offered no obvious support. The heaviest applause followed Trump’s accusation that journalists were “among the most dishonest people on earth.”
Trump’s random remarks, which resembled a campaign appearance, were designed to ingratiate himself in the wake of his attacks on former director John Brennan and the agency itself during the transition period. On his Twitter account, he had called the agency’s assessments “ridiculous” and politically motivated, and found CIA actions comparable to what had taken place in Nazi Germany. Never before has there been a feud between a president-elect and the intelligence community, and never before has a president conducted such a blatant attempt to manipulate agency personnel.
The President was accompanied by his choice to succeed Brennan, Rep. Mike Pompeo, who was still awaiting confirmation. Trump made a special point of linking Pompeo to two retired general officers (Jim Mattis at Department of Defense and John Kelly at Department of Homeland Security) who had been confirmed. He noted that the military provided great support in the election and that he was confident that the intelligence community had done the same. Trump is obviously comfortable with authoritarian types, and he expressed confidence that the military and intelligence communities overall were on his “wave length.”
In anticipating total support from the military and intelligence communities for his policies, President Trump betrayed no understanding of the natural tension between policymakers and intelligence officials. This tension has been evident to some degree in virtually all U.S. administrations, and on two prominent occasions it led to the tailoring of intelligence. In the 1980s, Casey and Gates committed themselves to providing intelligence to the White House to justify hostile relations with the Soviet Union and to engage in unprecedented spending of defense in peacetime. In the run-up to the Iraq War, Tenet and McLaughlin said it would be a “slam dunk” to provide intelligence to justify the use of force against Iraq. The handful of intelligence analysts who tried to block politicization were moved aside or simply ignored.
The confirmation of Pompeo is troubling because previous directors from the congress have been too willing to provide their masters with the intelligence they were seeking. In addition to Tenet, who actively participated in preparing the phony speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered to the United Nations and falsely testified to a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks, there was the short and troubled stewardship of former representative Porter Goss. Goss surrounded himself with members of his congressional staff who conducted a witch hunt of CIA officials unwilling to conduct the dirty business of politicization. Goss’s last official act in this regard was orchestrating a leak investigation within the CIA to find the source for the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-prize winning articles on CIA’s secret prisons in Eastern Europe and the unconscionable rendition of an innocent German citizen.
Pompeo is already on record with positions that suggest there will be efforts to politicize intelligence at CIA. He is a vociferous critic of the Iran nuclear deal for which the CIA provided essential intelligence support and verification. He was a strong opponent of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s devastating report on CIA torture and abuse, and favored the return of waterboarding. When confronted with pictures of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, he facetiously remarked that it “looked like they had put on weight.” Pompeo also favors a return to unrestricted massive surveillance, and favors a death sentence for Edward Snowden.
The stewardships of Tenet and Goss led to periods of moral bankruptcy at the CIA. It has been noted that President Trump gave a campaign speech in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall, but he also stood near the biblical inscription at the entrance to the Langley headquarters: “the truth will set you free.” The Trump administration has thus far demonstrated little interest in truth and one of his top advisors, Kellyanne Conway, has introduced the need for “alternative facts.” It will take courage at CIA and oversight in Congress to ensure that the world of intelligence doesn’t join the Orwellian world of alternate facts (i.e., “pants-on-fire” lies).