Most of the words that issue from Donald J. Trump’s lips are disjointed nonsense, and his recent “national security” speech was no exception. Occasionally, however, Trump utters a notion that carries a modicum of truth. As a former Army intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, I can say that this time he was right about one important but seldom-discussed assertion—that the United States should “place a renewed emphasis on human intelligence.”
Many terrorists are savvy enough to evade other intelligence collection measures, and the “Going Dark” phenomenon provides an opportunity for terrorists to hide behind increasingly sophisticated encryption. Consequently, the United States law enforcement and intelligence communities should embrace and invest in human intelligence (HUMINT).
Yet, as much as Trump was right to emphasize HUMINT, his own Islamophobic rhetoric and outrageous policy proposals are counterproductive to the goal. When Trump targets Muslims and promotes a culture of fear, he creates an environment—both domestic and foreign—that presents significant challenges for intelligence collectors who need to retain and develop sources.
First, consider the domestic ramifications. Trump has publicly ridiculed the parents of a Muslim-American Army officer who died serving our country. Furthermore, Trump announced that he would create a McCarthy-esque Commission on Radical Islam that will allegedly help “expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.” In Trump’s world, Muslims are merely targets of—not true partners in—a solution to radicalization.
His divisive statements, wrongheaded policy proposals, and apparent ignorance of the vital role that Muslims in the U.S. have already played in combating terrorism by willingly reporting information to law enforcement undermine the relationships built over many years between law enforcement and Muslim communities—relationships defined by trust, not fear. With Trump as the president, how could we expect any Muslim to trust the government enough to provide information?
Next, consider the signals that Trump sends to Muslims abroad. He proposed employing torture, and in a disturbing display of vindictive cruelty, he indicated that he does not care whether waterboarding works because “they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.” He also proposed deliberately killing the families of terrorists, a blatant war crime.
In his recent speech, he articulated a plan to temporarily ban immigration from regions that export terrorism while his administration develops an “ideological screening test” to determine who enters and who does not. The temporary ban would be a de facto proscription of immigration from Muslim regions, and the prospect of a Trump administration trying to decide which beliefs and values are acceptable for immigration should frighten everyone.
Trump’s message to Muslims all over the world is that they can be tortured, that their families can be killed, and that if they are forthcoming immigrants seeking hope or refugees looking for safety, they will be rejected for now and subjected to an ideological test later. Again, these are hardly the types of gestures that would encourage anybody to share information with an American intelligence collector.
Trump’s immigration policy also has implications in terms of domestic HUMINT. Some have argued that refugees are especially likely to cooperate with law enforcement because they appreciate the opportunity to live in safety and freedom, and the same argument applies to immigrants as well. Trump’s knee-jerk temporary ban and draconian immigration restrictions would therefore not only reject those who want to join the diverse social fabric of America as contributing members of society, but also alienate a pool of HUMINT sources that has immense potential.
Donald Trump, of all people, should understand the dynamic created by his statements and proposed programs. Whenever somebody criticizes or challenges Trump, he responds with a childish temper tantrum. On the other hand, according to former acting CIA director Michael J. Morell, Vladimir Putin “recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation” with just a bit of ego stroking.
Perhaps the extraordinary HUMINT collectors serving our country would be able to rely on the skillfully developed relationships they have with their already-existing sources, so HUMINT may not necessarily be a fully lost cause under Trump’s leadership. But if Trump thinks that his rhetoric and policies would foster healthy conditions for HUMINT collection, he is sadly mistaken.