There’s an old adage in intelligence: live by SIGINT, die by SIGINT.
Signals intelligence, intercepting others’ communications, is a powerful source of information; it provides more than 50 percent of American intelligence on a daily basis. But conversations can be designed to mislead and sometimes the communicants simply don't know what they're talking about. Intercepts can be wrong.
It looks like the same might be true for tweeting. Candidate Donald Trump energized his campaign with direct, spontaneous, unfiltered communications with millions of followers.
President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE tweeted in much the same way that his conversations with former FBI Director Jim Comey may have been taped and thus set in motion a series of events that ended with the appointment of a special counsel looking into his campaign’s potential collusion with Russia and his potential obstruction of justice.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Live by tweeting, die by tweeting.
And then there was the veritable circus over whether the White House really had tapes. For nearly six weeks, we were treated to all the drama of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault, with much the same result: there was nothing there.
President Trump put us out of our misery by, of course, tweeting.“I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”
...whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
Good. Case closed. And I'll leave it to others to comment on how embarrassed the president, the White House and the public ought to be about the whole affair.
I just want to touch on the intelligence implications.
First there was the preamble to the President’s denial: “With all the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea…whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey…”
So that's the commander-in-chief saying that he doesn't know what his government is doing in his own office.
Or maybe it was the commander-in-chief, about to make a huge climb-down, trying to cloud the issue by feeding the appetites of conspiracy mongers with allusions to an unchecked surveillance state.
That would have made it Round 2 of his earlier tweet that his predecessor had wiretapped him, a charge denied by every relevant intelligence official serving in the Obama or Trump administrations.
In any event, the president clearly used the American intelligence community as a handy political prop, and an ugly one at that, suggesting it was an unconstrained, politically motivated gang of law-breakers.
That part was largely not discussed in the public debate — tapes-or-no-tapes was the story there — but it could not escape notice inside a variety of intelligence community fence lines. One cannot help but think of Kipling’s mistreated British soldier, Tommy Atkins and the poet’s final line: “You bet that Tommy sees.”
Then there was the effect this episode might have on foreign intelligence agencies.
All intelligence services create leadership profiles — biographic sketches enhanced by comments on personality, preferences, habits, quirks and the like. Usually public records form the base of these profiles and then tidbits from collection and personal encounters are added. They're quite useful to gauge how a leader will react or to develop a game plan to guide encounters with him or her.
The president’s Twitter tsunami must be a goldmine for foreign services (including friendly ones) in developing his profile. Press-able buttons, loyalties, exposed nerves, responses to pressure, even sleep habits are on pretty full display.
This last series of tweets on Comey and taping offered something more, certainly enough to tempt some services to conclude that the President bluffs and bends the truth to meet the needs of the moment. You can almost anticipate the language in the report: “Mr. Prime Minister, you need to know that President Trump appears to be what the Americans call a bullshitter.” Good stuff for our adversaries to know in upcoming sessions with POTUS and hardly designed to maximize the president’s leverage.
It also injects a certain amount of uncertainty and danger into the proceedings. If a foreign leader has reason to believe that the president doesn't mean what he says, that leader may choose to ignore it and—if he is right—he wins the hand, so to speak. If he is wrong, though, he could trigger American responses that both he and we would have preferred to avoid. Neither are good outcomes.
The president has said that being unpredictable is a virtue. I'm not so sure that that is true in all cases.
I am convinced, though, that being perceived as unreliable or untrustworthy rarely is.
Little wonder that his best advisors want him to keep his thumbs off the phone.
Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.