The CIA’s Trump Challenge

The CIA’s Trump Challenge
AP Photo/Jon Elswick

John McLaughlin was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000-2004 and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.   

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The beginning of a new presidency is always a challenging time for the CIA, but it is likely to be even more so in the Trump era. One obvious alarm bell, of course, is the president-elect’s struggle to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s "high confidence” judgment that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election. Then there is the long list of global crises that the incoming administration will inherit and the frequent disputes between the Trump team and its critics over the very nature of “facts.” These are all indications that the next four years could prove especially challenging for America’s intelligence professionals.

First, what does the CIA actually do in the transition and the early days of an administration? Since 2004 -- when Congress created the position of director of national intelligence, or DNI -- the CIA has seen improved coordination with the broader U.S. intelligence community, playing a key role in the review of the international initiatives that every new administration launches. It conducts briefings on major issues and contributes its officers to the cadre of daily intelligence briefers the DNI assembles to serve a fair number of senior figures.  

Along the way, the CIA and the DNI spend a good deal of time explaining the intelligence field to newcomers in the group and laying out what they can expect intelligence to do and not do. An enduring aspect of this entails making sure that fledgling officials understand that intelligence is there to inform policy, and not to make it. Not all countries operate that way, but the U.S. system assumes that staying out of policymaking is one way to ensure that intelligence remains as objective as possible.

So this role inevitably casts intelligence, and most often the CIA, in the role of what might be called the “fact witness” in foreign policy deliberations. It is supposed to look at the issues dispassionately, almost clinically, and enumerate what is actually known, what is not, and offer assessments -- combinations of evidence and inference -- on where things might be headed. I once heard Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor for President George H.W. Bush, sum it up as follows: “The role of intelligence is to narrow the range of uncertainty when difficult decisions must be made.”

This may be simultaneously the most important and the most challenging role for the CIA in the Trump administration. The CIA contributes heavily to daily intelligence publications such as the President’s Daily Brief. Of equal importance, the agency director or his designee, along with or in place of the DNI, traditionally begins foreign policy deliberations in the White House Situation Room with a briefing on “The Situation” -- that is, the basic facts from which the discussion then proceeds among policymakers such as the national security advisor, the secretaries of state, defense, homeland security, and treasury, and the chairman of the joint chiefs.

Most of the issues are contentious, and the information is rarely complete. The intelligence briefer has to nail down as best he or she can what is certain and what is less certain, then field questions from the policymakers.  

Sometimes the facts run against the grain of policy preferences or the convictions of presidents and their national security teams, and this is where faith in intelligence experts and institutions becomes crucial. If the intelligence is sound, then everyone is entitled to articulate their own interpretation of the data. They are not, however, entitled to their own facts -- even as they reserve the right to question the sources from which said facts are derived. In short, it is a complicated business that requires open-mindedness, skillful leadership by the national security advisor, and a degree of collegiality.

It is too soon to know how this will work in the Trump administration, but there are clear reasons for concern. The president-elect has waffled and wavered on a number of his campaign pledges -- such as his calls for the prosecution of his Democratic campaign rival Hillary Clinton, his rejection of climate change, or his commitment to build a southern border wall -- but many of Trump’s stated campaign comments and positions were clearly just wrong. Thousands of New Jersey Muslims did not in fact celebrate the 9/11 attacks, Ted Cruz’s father was clearly not part of the JFK assassination plot, and the Russians clearly are in Crimea and Ukraine.

Trump’s designated national security advisor, Michael Flynn -- who is best known for his counterterrorism work in Afghanistan alongside retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- has also compiled a record in recent years of questionable judgment, suggesting, for example, that sharia law is spreading across the United States, and that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex ring. This sort of loose thinking will not fly at the helm of the National Security Council, orchestrating the activities of national security cabinet secretaries and integrating intelligence into the process.  

Moreover, as the CIA and the DNI detail facts and findings for the new administration, they will also have to confront the new team with the complexity of many issues that campaign spin portrayed as easily managed. Without taking policy positions, intelligence analysts are obliged to list the consequences for stated foreign policy aims such as overturning the Iran nuclear agreement or canceling the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement -- and the picture will not be uniformly pretty. Policymakers do not have to agree, but they do need flexibility of mind and the temperament to carefully weigh pros and cons.

Meanwhile, while policy objectives such as quickly crushing ISIS, ending the civil war in Syria, and halting North Korea’s march toward a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile are indeed admirable, these efforts will undoubtedly appear more difficult on the inside than they did while mocking the efforts of the outgoing administration. I’ve seen this over and over in the transitions I have lived through.

All of this will obviously be colored by the recent controversy regarding Russia’s involvement in the general election. The intelligence community rarely -- in fact hardly ever -- presents judgments with "high confidence,” as it did in the report it released on Jan. 6. So the director of national intelligence’s use of the term in assigning culpability to the Kremlin for the cyberattack has to be taken seriously. The Trump team initially pushed back by citing intelligence errors in the case of the 2003 Iraq invasion, but it may not realize how thoroughly intelligence professionals have atoned for that fateful error. It conducted beginning in late 2003 an agonizing appraisal of what went wrong. One of the lessons was to never label judgments “confident” unless they are exceptionally well sourced and logically tight. This leads me to conclude that the community has little uncertainty about Russia’s meddling. In its report, the intelligence agencies also agreed that the Russians wanted to help President-elect Trump's election chances, although the National Security Agency expressed less certainty about this related point than the "high confidence" conveyed by CIA and the FBI.

Whatever future investigations show -- whether chartered presidentially, congressionally, or independently -- the objective has to be to ensure that foreign powers in the future are blocked from interfering in our elections and that there is a solid working relationship between the new president and his intelligence community. This is essential to the nation’s security.

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