Trump Takes His War on Intelligence to a New Level

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently reprised his advice from the 2008 financial crisis, when he said “never let a good crisis go to waste.”  Sadly, Donald Trump is the cynical embodiment of that code.  Behind the national preoccupation with the pandemic, Trump has escalated his war on U.S. governance and our democracy with his politicization of the intelligence community; his campaign against the federal government’s Inspector Generals; and the reversal of President Barack Obama’s legacy in the field of environmental sanity.  The Congress has been virtually and pathetically silent about these actions.

T.S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month” has come to life for the intelligence community.  We’ve witnessed the removal of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI); the inspector general (IG) for the entire intelligence community; and the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).  The office of the DNI currently has no official with confirmation from the U.S. Senate, a blatant circumscription of the congressional power of “advice and consent.”  The DNI was removed, moreover, for allowing his deputy to brief the congressional intelligence committees on Russian interference in U.S. elections; the IG was removed for forwarding a whistleblower complaint from an analyst from the Central lntelligence Agency as the law required; and the director of NCTC, an intelligence professional with several decades of experience, was replaced by a Trump loyalist.

Ironically, several weeks after the firing of the DNI, the Senate intelligence committee chaired by Senator Richard Burr (R/NC) released a bipartisan report that confirmed Trump’s “Russia hoax” was anything but.  Indeed, it appears that Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin share the goal of subverting Americans’ belief in our democracy.  The Senate committee’s report corroborated the assessment of the intelligence community, which the report termed “coherent and well-constructed.”

Nevertheless, Attorney General William Barr continues to malign the origins of the Russia investigation and the intelligence community’s assessment, appointing the leading federal prosecutor in Connecticut to conduct a criminal investigation (emphasis added) of the CIA, which is without precedent.  Barr and the special prosecutor traveled to Europe to encourage the testimony of European intelligence professionals against their CIA counterparts, which could lead to less sharing of sensitive intelligence with the United States.

On the basis of my 24 years as a CIA intelligence analyst, I can testify to the important of intelligence sharing from foreign liaison.  In certain categories of intelligence, particularly those areas that concern terrorism and proliferation of weaponry, it is extremely difficult to operate without foreign liaison and intelligence sharing.  Barr mindlessly has put that secret exchange at risk for no good reason other than serving the president’s paranoia.

There is typically tension between the president and the CIA, but there has never been such a wholesale presidential attack on intelligence.  President John F. Kennedy demanded the resignation of CIA director Allen Dulles for the failure and embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs; President Richard Nixon fired CIA director Richard Helms for failing to cooperate in the Watergate coverup and then installed James Schlesinger to politicize the intelligence on the Vietnam War; President Ronald Reagan appointed William Casey to politicize the intelligence on the Soviet Union in order to have an intelligence justification for unneeded increases in the defense budget; and President George W. Bush made Rep. Porter Goss the CIA director to politicize intelligence and used Vice President Dick Cheney to orchestrate the CIA’s cherry picking of intelligence to make the spurious case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  But Donald Trump has outdone all of them in pursuing personal loyalty from the entire intelligence community and in compromising the legitimate role of oversight of the intelligence community.

Trump has vilified intelligence officials and analysts who disagree with him as “extremely passive and naive.”  Attorney General Barr has encouraged Trump to view the intelligence community of using its powers to “surveil and abuse the Trump campaign.”  Before he was inaugurated, Trump compared intelligence professionals to German Nazis.  And not long after he was inaugurated, Trump accepted President Putin’s word that Moscow played no role in meddling in the 2016 presidential election.  He has denounced current reporting on continued Russian interference as “disinformation.”

Trump’s attack on intelligence and the intelligence community included the censorship of the DNI’s annual global threat assessment to the congress, which should have taken place in January.  For the past ten years, the DNI’s global threat assessment has highlighted the vulnerability of the United States to the “next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability.”  Admiral Dennis Blair made this part of his assessment in 2009, General James Clapper did the same throughout the Obama administrations, and as recently as 2019 Senator Dan Coats made the same strategic warning.  But, as Steven Aftergood pointed out in his newsletter for the Federation of American Scientists, the annual threat testimony to Congress was canceled, possibly to “avoid conflict between intelligence testimony and White House messaging.”

Trump’s abrupt firing of one of the government’s leading experts on vaccines, Rick Bright, the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, similarly points to the difficulty of telling truth to power.  Bright was opposed to one of Trump’s pet rocks, investing in malaria drugs as a treatment for Covid-19.  At a press conference last week, Trump said that he had never heard of Bright, which is just as alarming as the firing.

As for Trump’s own intelligence, he paraded his IQ in front of a national television audience last week when he incoherently suggested exposing Covid-19 patients to disinfectants or strong light: “Suppose that we hit the body with tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light?  Then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in one minute.  Is there a way we can do something like that by infection inside, or almost a cleaning?  It would be interesting to check that.”  The manufacturer for Lysol, a disinfectant spray and cleaning product, immediately issued a warning against Trump’s medical bulletin.

In the final analysis, the only protection against politicization is not in the system or process of intelligence, but in the courage and integrity of intelligence analysts themselves.  But analysts require independent leadership at the top, and Trump’s appointment of weak CIA directors (Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel) points to no moral compass at the top of the intelligence ladder.  Pompeo has moved on to become the worst secretary of state in U.S. history, while Haspel’s pathetic defense of her leading role in the CIA’s torture and abuse program at her confirmation hearings makes her a poor candidate for “telling truth to power.”  By maligning the entire intelligence community, Trump has not made Americans safer, and has compromised the possibility for a legitimate debate on intelligence actions abroad.  The rebuilding process at the CIA and the other 16 intelligence agencies and departments will be difficult and prolonged.


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