The Administration

Donald Trump vs. the intelligence community

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They thought he didn’t care about the president’s daily briefing. They thought he liked FBI Director James Comey, if only because he helped to smear Hillary Clinton, sending a letter about her emails to Congress in the closing days of the campaign. They assumed Trump would buddy-up with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even after they assessed with high confidence that Russia hacked the 2016 election.

{mosads}For his part, Trump appeared to relish a good fight with the intelligence community. He thought he knew better about Putin. He saw the report on Russian hacking as a threat to the legitimacy of his election. He was still in campaign mode, tweeting ferociously in the early hours of the morning, suggesting he had superior sources, all the while trying to bully the media, the Democrats, and the intelligence agencies.


If this sounds stranger than fiction, let’s not forget: this is the man who pledged to wall off Mexico and make them pay, upend the global trading system, lock up Clinton, expel millions of immigrants, register Muslims, bring back torture, expand access to semiautomatic weapons, destroy “Islamic terrorists,” and much, much more. And for a moment, he seemed to be training his sights on the Intelligence Community. But not to worry: we are witnessing the education of Donald Trump.

Lesson #1: don’t mess with the intelligence community.

Not only did the FBI, CIA, and NSA close ranks and suspend their turf battles to form a united front, they also joined in a seamless and unprecedented public assessment. Russia, they said, hacked the election, and Putin, who ordered it, sought to help send Trump to the White House. Hacking the DNC and other political organizations was just one part of a larger Russian campaign to degrade the liberal democratic international order, their report said, which sounds a bit anachronistic these days, but was probably still news to the president-elect.

Not only that, but the intelligence chiefs complained to their friends on Capitol Hill. Trump, they told the Senate Armed Services Committee, is damaging the moral of the intelligence community. He doesn’t understand the intricate dance of espionage, counterespionage, and ongoing relationships, that is, the need to protect “sensitive and fragile sources and methods” as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it. They made common cause with Arizona Sen. John McCain and others on the committee, who extolled their sacred mission to “keep America safe.”

The plain fact is Trump faced off with the intelligence community and took a beating. Simply put, Trump underestimated the size and power of the collective intelligence administrations. The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and more than a dozen other security acronyms comprise a secret state within the state—the security industrial complex. This complex consists of 17 agencies forming an “intelligence community,” integrated military components, information technology companies, ubiquitous surveillance, and official as well as proprietary secrecy. As such, it often operates above or at the margins of law.

In the wake of the disastrous W. Bush presidency, with its legacy of torture, war, and economic crisis, many thought that President Obama would roll back secret surveillance programs and slow the pace of counterterrorism funding. He failed to do that, seemingly under the thrall of his security advisors, and like his predecessors, he sought to expand executive power. For example, enabling and extending armed drone assassinations as a staple in America’s arsenal and foreign policy in a half dozen countries.

The security industrial complex, with its invasive surveillance apparatus, amassed significant power over the past 15 years. Combined homeland security and intelligence community budgets now exceed $120 billion a year. That’s an increase of about 300 percent since 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of agents and contractors have been hired and trained at all levels of government. State and local police are armed with military grade weapons; and deploy increasingly sophisticated surveillance equipment and software. It’s no surprise that minorities are encountering heightened police violence across the nation. Just ask Black Lives Matter!

Moreover, more than 1.5 million federal employees hold top secret security clearances, a testimony to the government’s obsession with secrecy. When Trump figures out where the point of the executive spear resides, he will enlist the powers of the security industrial complex to execute his foreign policies and keep an eye on potential subversives at home.

For now he’s just blustering, launching tweet-attacks against famous actresses and the media, taking credit for keeping jobs at home, and putting his son-in-law Jared Kushner up for a senior White House position. But, his national security picks should give everyone pause, and cause worry over how President Trump will handle intricate matters of security and surveillance.

Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s nominee for National Security Advisor, is a conspiracy theorist, who used social media to spread fake news reports denigrating Clinton during the campaign. He was, moreover, forced out of the top job at the Defense Intelligence Agency for his extreme views and disorderly management style.

Attorney General-designate Senator Jeff Sessions was denied a federal judgeship for racist views. He has visited the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, and is on the record for his views about waterboarding. “The first thing we know,” he said, “is it worked.” Regarding the prisoners, he continued, “We treat them very well…only one prisoner has died.” Putting this man in charge of the Department of Justice, with the FBI reporting to him, would send a signal that it’s open season for mass surveillance and dirty tricks.

Trump will come to terms with the spymasters, because in the end, they all serve at the pleasure of the president, and they will do his bidding. The question is whether he and they will uphold the oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as they will be pledged to do. Or, they may fashion a W. Bush-type surveillance security regime in which massive, secret, and unaccountable intelligence budgets and executive license produced illegal torture of our enemies and broad surveillance of the American people.

For now, it’s an open question.

William W. Keller worked as a security analyst for the U.S. Congress for ten years, as executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT, and as professor and director of security centers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Georgia. He is the author and editor of seven books and has written extensively about the FBI, defense technology, the intelligence community, and the arms trade. His latest book is Democracy Betrayed: The Rise of the Surveillance Security State, from Counterpoint Press.

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

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton Intelligence Jeff Sessions John McCain Russia William Keller

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