Michael Hayden: Intelligence community isn't intimidated by Trump
© Getty Images

The relationship between the incoming Trump administration and the American intelligence community is playing out like one of those 1950s Saturday matinee serials — “Lost Planet,” “Commando Cody” and the like — where we are left perilously on the edge of our seat at the end of every episode.

To play it back, this week's episode began with this 140-character beauty:

Note the near sneering quotation marks around intelligence and the smothering of culpability for the hacks by prefacing Russian involvement with "so-called." 

Then there was the (untrue) ploy that the meeting had been moved because intelligence officials weren't ready.

The president-elect followed this up a day later by suggesting that he had sought a second opinion:  

Now, to be accurate, Assange's actual response to the question posed to him by Trump acolyte Sean Hannity — "Our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party” — was narrowly crafted, and hardly the categorical denial advertised in the tweet. Besides, Assange is a known liar, and how would he know the ultimate provenance of the emails, anyway?

So why create an apparent equivalency between his views and those of the American intelligence community? "Here you go, America. Two choices. Pick one."

And all of that is on top of the transition team's original response to the intelligence community's Russia hacking charge: "These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,"they said, citing a signal failure of the community 14 years ago.

In a way, this reminds me of trash talk, the way it is used by an athlete to intimidate an opponent. Think of an NFL cornerback who knows he's going to be thrown at a lot come Sunday trying to get into the head of his opponent. We've seen the president-elect use this as a candidate, with his ad hominem put-downs of Little Marco, Lyin' Ted, Crooked Hillary and "the dishonest media."

But it's quite another thing to adopt a (successful) campaign tool and use it as a mode of governance, especially with your own intelligence community. It does help explain, though, the president-elect’s keeping intelligence off balance with zingers like this on New Year's Eve, "And I also know things that other people don't know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation."

I know of no other historical example of this, at least on this scale. It may be that the president-elect can't help himself, that this is the only technique he knows when faced with unpleasant information, and that we shouldn't read much more into it than that.

In any event, the intelligence folks didn't seem to be intimidated. They briefed the president-elect and his team last Friday, saying they had high confidence that the Russians had hacked American political entities, planted the stolen data in selected websites, worked to punish and cripple Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' 10 things we learned from Peter Strzok's congressional testimony Get ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks MORE and then came to favor the election of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE.

A public report was issued with identical conclusions, but with a thin evidentiary stack under each of them. Even though a disappointing level of proof was made public, it seems that the data in the actual classified briefing was strong enough. Team Trump, despite the earlier taunting, didn't challenge the data.

Instead, it pivoted. The team transformed the issue to a generalized "cyber thing", emphasizing that "Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our government institutions, businesses and organizations."

All of which is true and important, of course, but the point of the briefing was less "we got a cyber problem" than "we really got a Russia problem."

And that aspect went noticeably unremarked on by anyone in Trump Tower. In fact, Trump’s aides falsely claimed on the weekend talk shows that the intelligence briefers had confirmed that the Russians had failed to influence the outcome of the election, a conclusion that the intelligence chiefs explicitly avoided as being beyond the purpose and means of their craft.

So, as this episode of the ongoing serial ends, we are (per the genre) once again in peril, wondering if, when and how the incoming team will process the kind of unwelcome information that intelligence will routinely present it.

As the credits start to roll and the suspense builds, we are learning that the president-elect appears unmoved on the subject. With no reference to what he may or may not have heard the day before, he tweeted on Saturday that, "Only stupid people, or fools, would think that it [a good relationship with Russia] is bad." 

A tweet, a taunt and an unmoved policy, all in one.

Then Wednesday, angered by the publication of some vile (and unproven) opposition research that has been rattling around Washington for weeks, the president-elect blamed his intelligence community and seemed to say that it was Nazi-like.

As a kid I couldn't wait for the next episode. 

Maybe not this time, though. This may be one serial that doesn't have a happy ending.


Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.