The Cost of Trump’s War on the Intelligence Community

His bungled choice for Director of National Intelligence was another attempt to suppress the truth.

As of this writing, President Donald Trump has told the public nearly 11,000 lies and misleading statements since taking office—around twelve per day—according to the Washington Post. Clearly, the occupant of the Oval Office has no respect for the truth.

Rejection of the truth, as we all know, has ramifications, especially on matters of national security. These risks were on full display last week over the tragicomedy that was the John Ratcliffe nomination to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence. A three-term congressman from eastern Texas and a former federal prosecutor, Ratcliffe was caught having padded his résumé with false achievements of fighting terrorism and rounding up hundreds of undocumented immigrants. He had won the president over with his questioning of Robert Mueller during July’s House hearings. But his lies caught up with him and sank his nomination within a matter of days. It was only a matter of time until he needed to withdraw from consideration. Trump and Ratcliffe. Birds of a feather. Partners in mendacity.

According to former acting CIA director Michael Morell, Ratcliffe possessed “the least national security experience and the most partisan political experience of any previous director of national intelligence.” Ratcliffe propagated the ludicrous conspiracy theory that “there may have been a secret society of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI” who were working to prevent Trump from becoming president. In the Mueller hearing, he asserted with no evidence that Democrats were the actual colluders with Russia and that unspecified “crimes” were committed by the Obama administration. And he has questioned the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation from the beginning.

Imagine if Trump, in typical fashion, had doubled down and managed to ram Ratcliffe through the obsequious GOP-controlled Senate. The entire U.S. intelligence community would have been run by someone who places partisan politics above facts, who wallows in the fever swamp of wild conspiracy theories. We are not out of the woods yet. If Trump names another hyper-partisan, fact-defying candidate, we will have grounds for deep anxiety. In fact, he has already made clear that he’s passing over incumbent deputy DNI Susan Gordon, a 29-year career CIA officer, to be the acting chief until a replacement is confirmed.

All of this fits Trump’s modus operandi. Placing a servile lackey in charge of the U.S. intelligence community is the ideal weapon to undermine inconvenient truths that contradict his delusional worldview. Attorney General William Barr is a case in point.

Coats, in a Senate hearing, countered Trump’s positions that Iran is not complying with the nuclear agreement; that North Korea is not expanding their nuclear weapons; that ISIS is no longer a threat; and that climate change is not real. The DNI’s refusal to join Trump’s fantasy world put him on the fast track to early departure.

Trump has been waging war on the intelligence community since he took office. The last person he wants as its chief is someone with expertise and integrity who speaks truth to power. His goal is to distort or suppress intelligence—i.e., the truth—and weaken the agencies tasked with producing it. Disregarding the facts in favor of political bias, however, invites disaster. George Tenet’s “slam dunk” assurance to President George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction helped get us into the sixteen-year-long Iraq quagmire.

If Trump takes us down this road again, the consequences could be calamitous. He has already rejected the intelligence community’s assessment that Iran had been honoring the nuclear deal. The U.N. arrived at the same judgment. With assistance from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, however, he was able to dismiss the intel without providing a clear policy framework and outcome scenario. Now, we are approaching a Guns of August-type cascade into open conflict with a nation of more than 80 million people, and a security establishment that has proven capable at asymmetrical warfare. An Iran quagmire would dwarf the Iraq mess in scope and duration.

The president has also rebuffed intelligence that does not comport with what he’d like to be true. For instance, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan report on July 25 concluding that Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections was much worse than initially thought—and that there are grounds to believe the Kremlin will be even more aggressive in 2020. This follows the same conclusions from Mueller and seventeen intelligence agencies. Beyond denying the reality of our recent history, Trump is opening the potential for more chaos in next year’s election.

Equally disconcerting, he has ignored assessments from Coats and others that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has no intention of eliminating his nuclear weapons program. At the same time, he is making no concessions to President Trump, despite the chummy summits between the two. Kim, in fact, has boosted his aggressive stance by firing short range missiles. The risk, of course, is that Trump’s placating Kim as he becomes more belligerent will destabilize the region and increase the potential for conflict in the long term. If that were to happen, it could result in hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Etched into the wall of the CIA’s main lobby is a biblical verse that describes the mission of intelligence in a democracy: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The whole purpose of intelligence agencies is to ferret out the truth—or at least a close approximation of reality—so that political leaders can have a more solid basis on which to formulate policy. Trump’s war on that apparatus certainly endangers our ability to defend ourselves against foreign enemies. Even more dangerous, however, is whether he will succeed with impunity in further corrupting our institutions for his own ends.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.