Intel experts worry Trump will go rogue

Intel experts worry Trump will go rogue
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump nominates two former lawmakers to administration positions Pressure on Trump grows as Kushner is questioned Trump invokes real estate developer William Levitt in speech to Boy Scouts MORE’s skepticism of the Intelligence Community’s findings on Russian election interference has raised fears among experts that Trump will bypass intel analysts and demand that his personal team conduct its own analyses of raw data. 
 
Tossing aside career analysts can create false conclusions, critics warn — like the George W. Bush administration’s incorrect assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). 
 
“The risk is that you request raw data to support a conclusion and you avoid seeing anything that contradicts it,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffPressure on Trump grows as Kushner is questioned White House: Schiff has done 123 national TV interviews since Trump took office The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill. “We can already see we have a president-elect who has difficulty with facts that are at odds with the narrative that he wants to tell or diminish his achievements.”
 
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Presidents receive so-called “raw intelligence” all the time — recordings, satellite images and other data that hasn’t been evaluated and contextualized by career analysts. But there is also plenty of precedent for a president who wants to cherry-pick information to advance his own policies. 
 
Onlookers doubt that the firebrand president-elect is likely to sift through data himself, but they are worried he will send a team of loyalists to go through the information and brief him themselves. 
 
In a Trump White House, that could be anyone from retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, to Steve Bannon, the incoming White House chief strategist. 
 
The problem with sending political appointees in to do the job of career analysts, intelligence experts say, is that they won’t know what information is significant and what should be discarded. 
 
“Bannon is certainly the kind of person who would want to do that but that would be a disaster,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer who is now vice president of Third Way’s national security program.
 
“He has no idea how to weight the credibility of sources or understand them in the context of what’s likely or not likely in a geopolitical sense,” she said. “He would just be grasping at straws.”
 
Critics also see Flynn as a dangerous conduit. The former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head has famously pushed conspiracy theories on Twitter, and was known at the agency for making dubious assertions with little basis in documented fact.
 
Subordinates at the DIA reportedly compiled a list of what they called “Flynn facts” — nuggets of false information that Flynn would present as true.
 
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer denied that either official would conduct an independent review of the current IC’s assessment of Russian hacking during the election.
 
"Not true — and frankly wouldn’t make sense — he just named Tom Bossert who this would fall under,” Spicer said in an email to The Hill. 
 
Spicer did not reply when asked whether Bossert — who will be assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism — might do so. 
 
The dynamic described by Schiff and others would not be new. Critics accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to support the war in Iraq, which is now widely condemned.
 
Senior Bush officials famously embraced raw intelligence derived from a low-level Iraqi defector known as “Curveball” who became the key source underpinning their assessment that Iraq had WMDs — ultimately the basis on which the U.S. went to war. 
 
But intelligence officials reportedly had concerns from the beginning that Curveball was not reliable, and his intel was ultimately widely discredited.
 
“Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn't say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he's talking about,” the deputy chief of the CIA’s Iraqi Task Force wrote to a Defense Department agent who wanted to warn then-Secretary of State Colin Powell about relying on Curveball. 
 
Bush also created a Defense Department office called the Office of Strategic Influence — now disbanded — to influence policy-makers by feeding hand-picked information to foreign news agencies. 
 
A 2007 report from the Pentagon’s inspector general found that the office “developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaeda relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers.”
 
There are also parallels to the clandestine Iran-Contra affair under Ronald Reagan’s administration, although the comparison is not perfect. In that case, experts say, the White House attempted to take control of an intelligence operation, not information.
 
“The prospect of cherry-picking your facts is one that ought to concern people,” Schiff said. 
 
Eoyang went a step further. 
 
“Americans lose their lives fighting for something that’s a lie. And that is the danger of cherry-picking,” she said. 
 
Other former IC officials are more circumspect. 
 
Every president has a different way of absorbing intelligence and there is always an adjustment period after Jan. 20, many say. 
 
If Trump wants to receive raw intelligence directly, former CIA officer Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) said, “That is not a problem.” 
 
“That is a sign that the principal is willing to engage in the process and not just get glossed-over assessments,” he noted. “I recognize people have some concerns, but you gotta wait to see when it actually happens.”
 
And healthy skepticism of intelligence assessments is a critical component to a functioning White House-IC relationship, career professionals argue. 
 
But, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers on Thursday, “there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.” 
 
Trump has been outspoken in criticizing the IC’s findings in its probe into Russian interference in the election, tweeting that “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
 
He called the controversy surrounding the hacks a “witch hunt” carried out by defeated Democrats in an interview with The New York Times on Friday morning. 
 
After receiving a classified briefing on the matter by senior officials Friday afternoon, Trump issued a statement saying he has “tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of [the IC],” but declined to say he believed their assessment regarding Russia. 
 
Trump transition team vice chair Rudy Giuliani last week called President Obama’s intelligence on Russian hacking “politicized” and suggested that Trump, “when he becomes President Trump, have his own intelligence people do their own report.”
 
“It is totally okay for presidents to receive and to ask for raw intelligence reports,” former CIA director Michael Morrell told The Hill in an email, noting that he gave a lot of raw intelligence to Bush when he briefed him.
 
But, he says, “The issue is not whether POTUS receives raw intelligence. The issue is whether that becomes a substitute for the analysis. That is what would be bad.”
 
Right now, according to Spicer, the president is receiving both raw data and analysis from his national security team. 
 
“There are two types of briefings — the PBD [Presidential Daily Briefing] is raw data, which the president elect receives three times a week. He receives every day a security update [from his national security team] that is more an analysis of that data, and recommendations of policies or actions he may or may not want to take when he assumes office,” Spicer said this week on the transition call.
 
But Spicer’s description is unclear. The PBD is normally an analyzed summary of high-level intelligence, not just raw data. 
 
“It sounds like when Spicer says ‘raw data,’ he means ‘intelligence,’ and when he says ‘security update,’ he means the policy/current events/political implications briefing that should come from agencies that have responsibility for doing things (State, Defense, CIA, DHS),” Eoyang said in an email. 
 
“That Spicer mangles the difference is a problem,” she notes. 
 
If Trump does try to circumvent career intelligence professionals, Schiff says, “There’s not much that you can do.”
 
“The commander in chief gets to choose how he wants intelligence conveyed to him.”