Observers and alumni of America's intelligence community have already fretted over Donald Trump's impending control of the world's most powerful spy bureaux. They've worried that he could abuse their heady surveillance abilities, turn them on his personal foes, revamp the NSA's mass surveillance programs, and strip away domestic privacy protections once in charge. But before Trump has even taken office, he's already received a less expected style to abuse the US intelligence community: Dismis, contradict, and insult it.
Trump's relationship–or lack thereof–with US intelligence agencies isn't just a cause for political spectacle. According to national security experts and former intelligence agency staffers, it could have serious consequences that go well beyond the current disagreement over Russian hacking.
The Russia Rift
On Friday, the Washington Post and New York Times reported that the CIA have concluded that the Russian government repeatedly hacked and leaked Democratic Party documents throughout the presidential election season with the express intention of aiding Trump's campaign. That conclusion runs a significant step beyondearlier intelligence reports that had merelypinned the two attacks on the Kremlin without naming its motive.
In response, the Trump transition team offered a brusque rejection of that finding:” These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ,” read the Trump team's statement.
That abrupt dismissal of the intelligence community's findingsfollows months of Trump's affirms that no one can know the source of the last year's long series of political hacks–despite a publicly released reportfrom the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security statingthat Vladimir Putin's state-sponsored hackers werebehind those violates.” It could be some guy in his home in New Jersey ,” Trump maintained in a Time interview earlier last week.
The statements build on what may be the most troubling recent revelation of all, that Trump has declined the traditional daily intelligence briefing given to presidents and presidents-elect. Instead, he receives the briefing only about once a week.” I get it when I need it ,” he told Fox News Sunday.” You know, Im, like, a smart person .”
That dismissal and neglect of the intelligence agencies' fact-finding represents a disturbing potential preview of the next four years, say former members of the US intelligence community who spoke with WIRED. They worry that itthreatens to politicize the intelligence community's work, pushing it toward conclusions that will please the president rather than inform him. They say the growing rift demoralizes staffers, leading to a loss of valuable talent, and that it could leave the commander-in-chief himself dangerously ignorant of crucial world events.
Susan Hennessey, a former NSA lawyer who is now with the Brookings Institution, says that since Trump was elected, she's spoken with former colleagues who are still in the intelligence community who have been “stunned” to hear Trump's recurred rejections of their findings.” Its not outrage, although that might be under the surface ,” she says of her former colleagues' response.” Its real uncertainty and a sense of fear…shock, bewilderment, wondering whats going to happen next .”
Trump's kneejerkcomparison of the Russian hacking report to the faulty intel on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction takes that dismay to another level, says one former CIA officialwho helped to write the president'sdaily briefing under both Obama and Bush.” Weve never seen something like thisbefore. It's pretty ballsy ,” says the former agency official, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized by his current employerto speak about political issues.” From rejecting the briefingstodismissing the currentassessmenton the Russiastuff, it seems like hes still in campaign mode. He's politicizing the intel, and thats a problem .”
” Every administration has problems with some intelligence ,” saysPatrick Skinner, a former CIA official under Bush and Obama who now works for the security consulting firm the Soufan Group.” But it truly shouldnt be public. The open disdain Trump has shown for relevant agencies is unprecedented .”
Trump's transition teamdidn't respond to WIRED's request for comment.
To be fair, Trump isn't the only skeptic of the intelligence agencies' findings. Neither the leaked CIA assessment thatKremlin hackers were motivated to help Trumpnor theintelligence community's October report attributing the attacks to Russia have been backed up with publishedevidence. That's led Democratic each member of congress Elijah Cummings and Eric Swalwell to demanda commission to independently analyse the hacking incidents. President Obama has directed intelligence agencies to conducta renewed investigation into the attacks. And Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham joined with Democrat Chuck Schumer and Jack Reedto call for a congressionalinvestigationinto the hacker intrusions, splitting with Trump and other Republican leaders who have ignored or dismissedthe Russian hacking reports.
Our intelligence community has become a political football, and that's something that should never occur.Dave Aitel, former NSA staffer
In an interview on the CBS show Face the Nation Sunday, Senator McCain clarified that hedoesn't doubtRussia was the source of the breaches of targets like the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but still wants to better understand the motive of those attacks, and whether they targeted Republican, too. What he doesn't dispute is that Russia was the source.” Now whether they intended to interfere to the degree that they were trying to elect a certain candidate, I think that's the subject of investigation ,” McCain said.” But facts are stubborn things. They did hack into this campaign .”
Trump's doubt of the intelligence agencies' findings isn'tthe first sign that the divisiveness of the last year's presidential campaign has led to new, partisan mistrust of the intelligence community's work, argues Dave Aitel, a former NSA staffer who now runs the security firm Immunity. That doubt had already surfaced with FBI director James Comey'spublic statements about the bureau's investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server. TheClinton campaign and Democratic leaders have criticized Comey's behavior, accusing them of influencingthe electoral processby writing a letter to Congress about new emailsthat surfaced in that investigation just weeks ahead of election day.” Our intelligence community has become a political football, and thats something that should never pass ,” says Aitel.” You need to have trust, and we dont have trust .”
Aitel says that lack of confidence in intelligence agencies' findingsand politicization of the performance of their duties has left his former colleagues increasingly “jaded.” And he saysthat problem of low morale, already sunken after public response to the revelations of NSA leakerEdward Snowden, could lead to a dangerous brain drain from key bureaux.” They don't complain, they don't whine to the press, they just leave ,” argues Aitel.” Then you get talent shortfalls, and then you get mission failings, which are bombs blowing up in American cities .”
Compounding those issues are fears that Trump will continue to ignore his own intelligence apparatus, making uninformed decisions on the world stage, says ex-CIA officer Skinner. Some members of Trump's transition team havereportedly accepted daily intelligence briefings, including his picking for defense secretary, General James Mattis, and vice-president elect Mike Pence. But a chairperson who exerts ultimate executive power without that info could be dangerous, says Skinner.” If you close your eyes, the threat is still there: North Korea still exists, ISIS still exists ,” says Skinner.” These things are complex. You cant counter North Korea with gut feelings .”
The consequences could be as dire as you can possibly imagine.Susan Hennessey, former NSA lawyer
The rejection feeds back into the morale issue as well.” There's a firm faith in the intelligence community that the president having the information collected is a really important thing ,” says ex-NSA lawyer Hennessey.” When you have a boss basically saying they dont believe or value your work–an outright rejection based on absolutely no evidence–there's a profound sense of uncertainty .”
Beyond Trump'sspecific rejection of any inconvenient finding, Hennessey says it's that larger dismissal of the intelligence community that's most troubling.” If an intelligence agency renders a piece of evidence thats dismissed, people can be killed ,” she says.” The consequences could be as dire as you can possibly imagine .”
Additional reporting by Lily Hay Newman .