Trump vs. the CIA

The unanimous rejection of the Trump administration’s efforts to reinstate the ban on travel from seven Muslim countries will lead to the first test between this White House and the intelligence community, particularly the CIA.  The three-judge panel indicated that the travel ban did not bolster national security in the United States and that there was “no evidence” that anyone from the seven countries had committed terrorism in the United States.  Former intelligence tsar James Clapper has stated that there is no intelligence to justify such a ban. However, the appeals court acknowledged that the president was owed deference on immigration and national security issues, which will compel the White House to tailor intelligence to document a threat.

The ban itself stemmed from an outrageous campaign promise by Donald Trump to place a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”  Rudy Giuliani was told to “put a commission together.  Show me the right way to do it legally.”  In other words, Giuliani was tasked with making the ban politically palatable, and now the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will have to document a case that is acceptable to the full 9th Circuit Court in Seattle or perhaps the Supreme Court. Intelligence information will be front and center.

Donald Trump’s actions have already pointed to an effort to politicize the key institutions of the national security community, so it is likely that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency will be pressed to provide a rationale for a travel ban based on intelligence reporting.  When President Ronald Reagan wanted to increase defense spending in the 1980s, CIA director William Casey and deputy director for intelligence Robert Gates tailored the intelligence to create a Soviet threat at the very time that the Kremlin was in free fall.  When President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to make the case for war against Iraq, CIA director George Tenet and deputy director John McLaughlin made the phony case for weapons of mass destruction.

Tenet told the president in December 2002 that it would be a “slam dunk” to provide the intelligence to justify war, and McLaughlin in January 2003 delivered the “slam dunk” briefing.  Nevertheless, in his memoir, Tenet stated that the “intelligence process was not disingenuous nor was it influenced by politics.”  Paul Pillar, who orchestrated the specious White Paper for the Congress on the eve of the vote to authorize force against Iraq, falsely claimed several years later that the “intelligence community’s own substantive judgments do not appear to have been compromised.”  Meanwhile, no senior CIA official resigned or even protested in the wake of the misuse of intelligence.

The atmosphere for politicization has already been created.  Trump’s initial visits to CIA headquarters and to the Pentagon were outrageous examples of politicization, using the occasions to congratulate high-ranking intelligence and military officers for their support in the presidential election and to condemn the media. The appointment of former representative Mike Pompeo, a severe critic of the CIA, pointed to the possibility of spinning the intelligence message for the White House.  His only predecessors from Capitol Hill, Tenet and Porter Goss, certainly did so.  And the venture to the Pentagon to sign the Muslim ban was an obvious effort to humiliate Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who was opposed to such policies in his confirmation testimony.  It was totally gratuitous to sign the executive order on the Muslim ban at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, Trump has surrounded himself with neoconservatives and ideologues who are preoccupied with branding Islam as an ideology that breeds terrorism.  In order to get the benefit of the doubt from the judiciary, the Trump administration will need to make a case that links the Islamic world to international terrorism.  There are too many examples of the misuse of intelligence information to justify extreme political actions and even the use of force itself.  In addition to the Iraq War, the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; and the Vietnam War involved the spinning of intelligence to justify force.  The Defense Intelligence Agency had a long history of exaggerating the Soviet threat throughout the Cold War; tailoring intelligence on Iraq that even the CIA refused to sanction; and currently has been investigated for exaggerating the so-called successes of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the final analysis, the only protection against politicization is the integrity and honesty of the intelligence analysts themselves.  The appointment of reliable political actors as the director of national intelligence (former senator Dan Coats) and the director of the CIA (former representative Pompeo) as well as the appointment of general officers to assignments that should be in the hands of civilians (national security adviser, secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security) provides no assurance of genuine safeguards against politicization.  A neophyte at the Department of State (Rex Tillerson) only adds to the concern.

In view of the difficult issues that the Trump administration is facing in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya—involving the use of force—as well as the possible future use of force in Iran, it seems particularly outrageous for the White House to create a false security challenge over the role of immigration in U.S. security policy.  The fact that Iran is our de facto ally against the Islamic State in Iraq is entirely lost on the Islamophobes in Trump’s inner circle. The actions of the administration are particularly unconscionable in view of the deplorable conditions that refugees are facing throughout the Middle East.  Sadly, “never again” has become “once again.”

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for