When I wrote in August 2016, in this newspaper, that Donald J. Trump’s character traits posed a national security threat, I didn’t imagine that the first manifestation of that dynamic could play out with the very organization where I spent the first 33 years of my career, the Central Intelligence Agency.
President-elect Trump’s public rejection of the C.I.A., and by extension the rest of the country’s intelligence community, over the assessment that Russia interfered in our presidential election is not only an unprecedented political challenge for our national security establishment — it is a danger to the nation.
While Mr. Trump’s statement on Friday that he had a constructive meeting with senior intelligence officials on the Russian hacking issue was a step in the right direction, his disparagement of American intelligence officers over the last few months is likely to cause significant damage to the C.I.A.
Mr. Trump has questioned the agency’s competence — repeatedly asking, often via Twitter, how we can trust the organization that incorrectly judged that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (criticism that, in my mind, is unfair for an agency that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years). But he has also accused the agency of being biased and political, implying, in comments to The Times, that the C.I.A. manufactured its Russia analysis to undercut him. Mr. Trump, in essence, said that the agency’s officers were dishonorable. To the men and women of the C.I.A., sworn to protect the nation, this was a gut punch.
Mr. Trump’s behavior will weaken the agency, an organization that has never been more relevant to our nation’s security. The key national security issues of the day — terrorism; proliferation; cyberespionage, crime and war; and the challenges to the global order posed by Russia, Iran and China — all require first-rate intelligence for a commander in chief to understand them, settle on a policy and carry it out.
How will President Trump know whether the Iranians are living up to their commitment not to produce a nuclear weapon without good intelligence? How will he know how close North Korea is to mating a nuclear weapon to a long-range missile and detonating it over American soil? How will he know whether the Islamic State or Al Qaeda is plotting another 9/11-style attack?
The president-elect’s rhetoric will undermine the effectiveness of the C.I.A. in two key ways. First, expect a wave of resignations. Attrition at the C.I.A., which has been remarkably low since Sept. 11, 2001, will skyrocket. The primary motivator for some of our smartest minds to go to work at the C.I.A. is to make a difference to national security, to play a role in keeping the country safe. All of the sacrifices — from the long hours, polygraph tests, unfair media criticism, not to mention the real dangers to life and limb — are worth it, if you are making a difference.
If the president rejects out of hand the C.I.A.’s work, or introduces uncertainty by praising it one day only to lambaste it on Twitter that afternoon, many officers will vote with their feet. These officers cannot be easily replaced. It takes years of training and, more important, on-the-job experience to create a highly capable case officer, analyst, scientist, engineer or support officer. It would take at least a decade to recover from a surge in resignations.
There is precedent for this. When President Jimmy Carter’s C.I.A. director, Stansfield Turner, made it clear that, in his view, technology was making human intelligence obsolete, hundreds of officers departed. He then fired hundreds of others who questioned his approach; it took years for the agency to return to its pre-Turner strength. The Trump resignations could make the Turner departures pale by comparison.
The president-elect’s rejection of the agency will weaken it in a second way. American intelligence agencies do not work alone; we rely on strong ties to parallel organizations in countless countries. Why would a foreign intelligence service take the C.I.A. seriously (and share important information with it) when the American president doesn’t? A strong relationship between the C.I.A. and the president is a key incentive for other intelligence services to work with Langley. Take that away, and our foreign relationships — which are absolutely critical in the global fight against terror, proliferation, you name it — will suffer.
And why would a foreign agent take extraordinary risks to spy for the United States if his or her information is not valued? Knowing their information is making its way to the president is an important motivator for spies. Would the modern-day Adolf Tolkachev, the C.I.A.’s most important agent within the Soviet Union — who was executed as a spy in 1986 — sign on to work for Donald Trump? I doubt it. The potential loss of critical information could be extraordinary.
Mr. Trump’s attacks on the agency surprised me, but they shouldn’t have. It is not a coincidence that Mr. Trump, who has never let facts get in the way of his opinion, would fight with the organization whose very reason for existence is to put facts on the table. He will have similar fights with other government agencies, and our country will suffer for it. (New York Times)