A story out in The Wall Street Journal this evening reports that President-Elect Trump and his advisors plan to “restructure and pare back the nation’s top spy agency”, the CIA because they believe it and the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence [have] become bloated and politicized.” Trump plans “to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world.” It’s not clear to me whether that latter aim means favoring and expanding the number of operatives versus analysts or pushing analysts out into offices around the world. They may not know themselves.
As Sopan Deb of CBS notes, given Trump’s past behavior, it is possible that is all a planned leak and that it’s all BS – just an effort to get in the CIA’s grill because Trump now sees them as a key adversary over the Russian hacking story. Everything with Trump is about the current fight and dominance. But if we assume that this is the plan and something like this is going to happen, there are several reasons why this is very ominous.
First, let’s start by saying that the President is not obligated to believe the advice he’s given by members of the Intelligence Community. The IC’s job is to give the President full and professional advice and then carry out his policy and orders. A healthy skepticism always serves a President well. We also shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking the current bureaucratic structures that organize the country’s many intelligence agencies are sacrosanct or just as things should be. The office of the Director of National Intelligence is itself a post-9/11 reform, meant to facilitate and coordinate information sharing and goals across agencies, among other things.
What sounds to be in the offing here thought is not some considered reform but institutional vengeance and the rankest kind of politicization.
There is simply no way President-Elect Trump’s motivations are not heavily driven by his mounting fight with the CIA over Russian hacking and subversion of the 2016 election. He’s mad. We can see that every day. He feels like their reports delegitimize his election and presidency and he wants to hit back.
One part of the WSJ article notes that “Mr. Trump’s advisers say he has long been skeptical of the CIA’s accuracy.”
Please. Mr Trump hasn’t ‘long thought about’ the CIA in any way whatsoever … let alone given any thought to its accuracy or politicization or anything. None of this comes from Trump other than the impulses and antagonisms and aggressions that drive him. They are being given a theoretical and strategic gloss by those around him.
There appear to be three separate forces in play here – which is in the ascendent is not clear.
First, Trump wants payback against an agency that he believes is his enemy. Period. He is undoubtedly encouraged in this by his closest advisors. Which brings us to number two …
Second, Trump’s chief foreign policy advisor Michael Flynn wants payback against the people who ended his career. Flynn was a career intelligence officer and one with a very strong reputation – working within specific and defined parameters. People who had worked with him earlier in his career said they couldn’t recognize the person he became when he was placed in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was a disastrous manager, was taken in by numerous conspiracy theories and eventually had to be fired. Other generals got crosswise with the civilian appointees in the Obama administration. But they left with their reputations intact. Flynn was different. Flynn’s personal beef is clearly the source of his animus against the DNI and the CIA.
Flynn is simply nuts and he wants to get even. This suggests Trump is going let him do just that.
Third, Trump and Flynn are not the first to push the ‘CIA is missing the real story’ line about the CIA. In fact, this is a debate which goes back some forty years. Trump has surrounded himself with a number of people who are either the intellectual descendants of the people who made this argument in the past or the people themselves.
Trump repeatedly presses the CIA’s failure on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. It’s very important to remember what actually happened in 2002 and 2003. Because it is night and day from the story that now shapes today’s news.
Imagine a row with numbers 1 through 10 from left to right. On the Iraqi WMD question, the CIA was at maybe a 2. The Bush political appointees at the Pentagon and the White House were at maybe an 8 or 9. Through cajoling and bullying the latter got the former edged up to maybe a 3 or a 4. As we know, the real number ended up being a zero.
Did the CIA cover itself in glory? No. Not really. But they weren’t the problem. And this wasn’t the first time something pretty much just like this happened.
Many of the rogues who cooked up the biggest lies and paranoia in the 2002-2003 era had first gotten into this act in the mid-1970s. At the time, in the newly-emerging world of what was then first dubbed ‘neo-conservatism’ there was a deep-seated belief that the CIA was consistently underestimating Soviet power and intentions. This led to the creation of “Team B”, a group of outside experts authorized in early 1976 by President Ford, who would look at the CIA’s intelligence and produce an alternative analysis, a sort of intelligence and strategic second opinion. Team B decided that the Soviet Union was vastly more mighty in economic and military terms than the CIA had understood. That conclusion profoundly shaped policy thinking through the late 70s and 80s.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, a different picture emerged. It became clear that the Team B analysis had almost comically exaggerated the economic and military might of the Soviet Union. The CIA had too. Just not nearly as bad as the Team B folks. They were, in short, totally wrong. They got everything wrong, much as a similar case of characters would a generation later. Again, same crew as came into action in the build up to the Iraq War. In key cases, the same actual people.
My point here isn’t that the CIA is always right. Like all institutions and intelligence agencies there are numerous errors, embarrassments and outrages. But we’ve seen this movie before. Each time we’ve had this kind of argument, the CIA turned out to be more right than wrong.
What does this mean? It means we should be highly skeptical of these kinds of wholesale claims about the CIA underestimating threats. We shouldn’t disregard them. But we should be highly skeptical. In this case, the key players involved in this proposed reform are all hotheads with axes to grind. In the case of Flynn, he seems to have an almost pathological inability to separate the factual from the fanciful. Whether this move is more driven by Trump’s anger over the Russian hacking story, or whether Flynn is using that rage to get sign off to destroy his former rivals and tormentors isn’t clear to me. Whatever it is, it looks like what’s coming will be a Bush Era ‘stove-piping and conspiracy theory as intelligence analysis’ on steroids unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
This can worry you because of what crazy ideas or wars might be cooked up on the basis of bogus intelligence. Or you might be worried that gutted intelligence agencies, disrupted and low on morale don’t tend to be good at catching real threats – as opposed to imaginary ones. Whichever reason you pick, you should be worried.