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article imageOp-Ed: Politics vs intelligence — Coats goes, replaced by a politician?

By Paul Wallis     Jul 28, 2019 in Politics
Washington - The ongoing saga of the Trump administration’s war against United States intelligence services may appear purely political. The problem is that the dysfunctional relationship is a real risk to America’s best interests.
The resignation of National Intelligence head Dan Coats comes at the end of a very long series of nasty and highly abrasive incidents.
Trump has been endlessly critical of the intelligence services in general. No administration in US history has been so totally at odds with its intelligence services, or so totally negative about their roles.
When intelligence is blocked by politics
On the other hand, no US intelligence service has ever been faced with the active hostility of a White House as a vocal opponent and a virtually endless stream of abuse. That hasn’t exactly helped the agencies to do their jobs across an increasingly broad range of issues.
The current issues facing US intelligence include:
• The ongoing war on terror
• The fallout from the end of the Iran treaty
• Foreign relations interactions, notably with Europe, China and Russia
• General intelligence gathering
• North Korea’s on/off interactions with the US, missile firings, etc.
In fairness to both sides, very few governments have any real understanding of intelligence operations or the environments in which those operations are conducted. It’s a big learning curve for people whose main role is sticking their faces in front of cameras for their own benefit.
Trump’s style of management, however, is an added shot in the foot for the American intelligence services. His habit of acting like a sitcom boss treading on his employees at every opportunity is hardly likely to add anything good to the intelligence agencies. Trump can’t, and doesn’t, tolerate any level of criticism. Any information which reflects badly on his own initiatives, in particular, will be Tweeted at, and raise a storm of ignorance. The Bunker Mentality is ever ready to fire at anything and everything.
Intelligence agencies work in an almost bafflingly complex environment. That environment is sensitive, dangerous, and always under pressure to have current information available for the government at many levels. Add a menagerie of different, changing policies, and the scene is set.
Rather unfortunately for the US, Trump’s very negative impact on the intelligence services is common global knowledge. It’s pretty clear that America’s many enemies don’t take him too seriously as a threat. Quite the opposite – They pander to his need for constant praise, and go through the motions in public.
China is a case in point. The many legitimate and serious issues between the US and China have been largely buried in the fact-blurring, mythical trade war. This costly absurdity is having absolutely no impact on the virtual cyberwar being waged, or anything else.
Espionage, the core business of the intelligence agencies, is real enough: it’s a major issue, it’s well known, and it’s barely mentioned. President Xi’s Buddha-like impassivity on this and many other subjects could be considered a How To manual for politicians worldwide when dealing with serious issues. Say nothing, give away nothing, and allow Trump to continue missing his targets seems to be the working machinery. It works, and it works well.
Meanwhile, Trump has spent a certain amount of productive time alienating the other part of US intelligence operations, the relationship with allies. Intelligence operations in other countries require the active cooperation of those countries. Fortunately, with true public sector stoicism, the allies know the problem and don’t hold it against the US intelligence services, despite significant provocation.
That’s not to say that the endless irritations don’t have an impact. While allies are naturally unlikely to actively impair intelligence operations, the constant negatives from the White House are no asset to these operations.
The destruction of the credibility of the effectiveness and reach of US intelligence services in this hostile environment has been extensive. If US agencies are highly respected in the field, the fact is that they’ve been basically neutered by being largely disregarded at the top level. US intelligence might produce any amount of high value information, only to have it disregarded. Allies can’t help being aware of these issues, and it’s not a good look.
Can a sitting politician run National Intelligence? Yes and No
Trump supporter John Ratcliffe (Republican congressman from Texas) is the nominee to replace Coats. Ratcliffe is best known for his heated cross-examination of Robert Mueller in the recent Congressional hearings on the Mueller Report.
Regarding his track record in intelligence, Ratcliffe was appointed Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas in the Department of Justice in 2004. He currently serves on the House Intelligence Committee, House Ethics Committee, House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Homeland Security.
That, rather sadly, doesn’t equate to the depth and breadth of experience required for the head of National Intelligence. Very little field experience and banging tables at committees does not mean you’re any sort of intelligence expert. Being a career yes-man is also not a qualification in this critical role.
There’s another major issue which may stymie this appointment. Ratcliffe may have to vacate those committees if he becomes head of National Intelligence, due to obvious conflicts of interest. He can’t be head of National Intelligence and also be part of the Congressional oversight of Intelligence. He can’t oversight himself.
Politicians have had intelligence backgrounds. George Bush Senior was at one time head of the CIA, prior to his political rise to President. He wasn't a sitting member at the time of his appointment. Ratcliffe is entering the intelligence sector from the exact opposite direction. He is a sitting Congressman. Is he to give up his role in Congress to do this job, or is National Intelligence to be a part-time job? There’s a clear disconnect in the two roles.
I don’t know if a sitting member of Congress has ever held the role of head of National Intelligence, but it’s a tricky situation at best. The Democrat-controlled House may not approve the appointment.
That leaves US National Intelligence in another unhealthy situation, where it may require an acting head for a long time, at least until next election, while the mess sorts itself out.
One thing for sure – The relationship between the Trump administration and US intelligence is a serious problem. Intelligence can’t always produce the information you want to hear. Intelligence can’t simply ignore the risks, unlike politicians, whose shelf life is typically just a few years. Whatever happens with the current situation, undoing the damage will need to be high on the list of priorities for the next administration.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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