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article imageOp-Ed: The Shallow State — Trump vs US intelligence, a horror story

By Paul Wallis     Aug 8, 2020 in World
Washington - If anything has truly characterised Trump’s presidency, it’s relationships. Trump’s incendiary relationship with the US intelligence sector is a case. New analyses are showing deep fractures, dysfunction, and digressions which are truly dangerous.
The New York Times has a piece which is essentially an update of the ongoing saga of Trump's war with US intelligence services. This lengthy but highly informative article needs to be read in context with the overall picture of United States relationships with the world, policy, foreign wars, and how America functions in its on/off relationships with the real world. It’s a pretty scary tale, in too many ways.
Some caveats
Let’s start with a few guidelines:
• The “inscrutable” US intelligence sector of urban myth is a semi-truth. Inscrutability depends on how much competent scrutiny is involved.
• US intelligence agencies aren’t infallible. They’ve had some big gaffes, notably Pearl Harbor, 911, Iraq weapons of mass destruction, and Vietnam, to name a handful.
• The agencies have had some truly grim patches and people, notably J. Edgar Hoover, the McCarthy era, and certain CIA involvements.
• These failings aren’t the norm, however. The core business of the intelligence agencies is gathering and processing information, which is a massive task across a vast range of subjects.
• On the basis of this information and analyses, US policy and actions are guided. The information and analyses add perspective and depth to international policy and military actions. These functions of the intelligence community are truly essential.
• The scope of “intelligence” is truly gigantic. It really is a “sector”, not just agencies in specific areas of interest. It may involve a spectrum of issues from politics to weapons systems, counterespionage, foreign government actions and influences in key strategic areas, and the new Cold War.
• The role of political government in intelligence is often tricky and sometimes counterproductive. Elected government must also oversight the intelligence sector and its conduct, as well as use intelligence assets.
The unwinding of US intelligence under Trump
Trump uses basically the same style of management in politics as he did in business. In the intelligence sector, it’s like a rerun of The Apprentice. Hirings and firings are common, and often disruptive.
The first clash between Trump and US intelligence came as a result of the investigations of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. “You’re fired” became the mantra for providers of unwelcome or potentially damaging information.
This importance of this clash has been badly underestimated. Intelligence works with real-time moving targets and changing situations. While it may be understandable that Trump didn’t want negative information or implications about the election, there’s a lot more at stake in this area.
Intelligence is above all a reporting process, from basic information to analyses at the highest level. If reports can’t function and be managed by the executive level properly, intelligence on multiple levels can’t function at all.
The Shallow State
Superficiality, the “Shallow State”, which focuses on things like “Does this make me look bad?” is the antithesis of effective intelligence and the use of intelligence assets.
This lack of appreciation of serious threats and risks is about as superficial as you can get. A noisy, clumsy PR exercise, now in its fourth year, has done absolutely nothing to manage the penetration of the US electoral process. All that racket achieved nothing, and the threat is still very active, anticipated widely to impact the 2020 election this November.
The progress, in fact, has been straight backward. Trump’s administration has progressively inserted non-intelligence people into the machinery. These are people who don't speak the language and apparently don't understand most of the information they receive. This hasn’t helped much; it’s created new, useless, superficial issues on a large scale.
The Shallow State at work
To illustrate the level of dysfunction - Trump’s assertion that Germany doesn’t contribute enough to NATO is totally wrong and would have been wrong even 30 years ago, let alone now. Germany is the big manufacturer of a huge range of weapons systems, many of which cascade to other NATO members. This huge range of German contributions to NATO includes tanks, AFVs, military system upgrades, etc.
Germany also produces parts and spares, training, services, and more. That complex process doesn’t come with a simplistic budget notation on a spreadsheet somewhere. It’s how they do things, and it’s a high-value process for NATO’s actual military inventories.
So the assertion, backed by a Trump intelligence appointee, is effectively the exact opposite of any vaguely competent intelligence assessment. A lettuce would know better, but the Shallow State apparently doesn’t. This is superficiality in overdrive, an even more counterproductive assertion against a key US ally in the face of overwhelming, verifiable, facts to the contrary. The result has been to antagonize the German public, and create more issues for the US military to manage which wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Iran is a more dramatic example of dysfunction. Despite the consistent support for the Iran atomic facilities treaty by quite literally all of America’s allies, intelligence doesn’t seem to have had any impact at all. Where are the threat assessments and other intelligence basics to back up such a total change of policy? Nowhere to be found. The result so far is a massive increase in tensions for entirely negative results. A confrontation was avoided by the deal. The confrontation has now come back with a vengeance, to nobody’s benefit and at the cost of considerable strain on the US military.
Trump and China
Then there’s China. This situation is an almost classic example of behaviourism, rather than intelligence on any level. Quite the opposite; US intelligence regarding China seems to be lost in the endless public relations exercises. Either intelligence is not being allowed to deliver solutions or is being bypassed in the name of politics.
The US has many all-too-valid reasons for complaint with China which could be usefully supported by intelligence to achieve solutions. Cyberespionage is the outstanding issue, but the South China Sea, trade, and other factors are also at work. The largely ineffectual US response to China’s increasingly bizarre geopolitical moves seems to lack any solid degree of intelligence input. The Trump response has simply hit the immovable, stunningly insensitive, mass of Chinese power projection and done nothing.
China is also outside Trump’s usual behavioural target range. He typically tends to pick on much smaller players in his relationships. He creates situations to enhance his own standing and for no other apparent reason. Hiring and firing people who can’t retaliate is more his style. China is far too big for him to confront directly. The risks are too high. He can lose on a truly horrendous level, so he simply doesn’t take that risk.
He can do trivial things like banning Chinese apps and 5G which look good on TV but don’t materially affect the real state of play. He can send warships to the South China Sea, largely to provide pictures, but has achieved no actual movement or change in the situation. China is under no real pressure from Trump on any level, thanks largely to the Shallow State approach to government.
Shutting up isn’t Trump’s style, either. The best and most effective geopolitics are conducted in total silence. Presidents Xi and Putin are famous for saying almost nothing. Trump is the noisy two year old in a deadly global library, and that’s not helping. His tantrums and Tweets have no impact here, and his four years of total disregard of gut-level core intelligence is one of the main reasons for that. What intelligence doesn’t go straight over his head goes straight through it, with minimal obstruction. That’s not where the US needs to be in coming years.
How not to manage national intelligence
The Shallow State has reduced critical intelligence functions to that of being mere mentions in press releases at best. The agencies are still doing their jobs, with absolutely no encouragement, but what can they do? From the FBI to the military, intelligence is filtered down to the most banal levels of any possible functional values.
You can’t develop effective strategies in this environment. The virtual encyclopedia of intelligence issues and information needs facing the US at the moment aren’t being developed, either. If the sole issue for an administration is what intelligence makes a good press release, they never will be.
You’ll notice domestic intelligence services have been omitted in this verbose harangue so far. The politicization of domestic intelligence issues doesn’t need mentioning. It needs ending. Nothing could possibly have been more of a bad call than sending Federal forces to Portland, of all places, to quell a non-existent problem.
This was a total misuse of resources, and a damning indictment of an administration which has no idea how to manage information at all. To manage intelligence, use your own intelligence. Learn from the experts, don’t dictate to them.
… Or pay for your ignorance. It’s likely to be a pretty steep bill.
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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