How Trump should handle national security
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump NASA offers to show Stephen Curry evidence from moon landings Freedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill MORE, a man with no prior military or intelligence experience, has begun the process of forming his new administration. He now faces the daunting challenge of coming up to speed on the activities of the intelligence community, ongoing counter-terror and military operations around the world. 

Trump has recently selected Michael Pompeo (R-Kan.) from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director and retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn as his National Security Adviser.

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After the sudden resignation of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Trump still has plenty of key national security positions to fill.

Hopefully, these additions to his national security team will improve Trump’s understanding of military and intelligence activities, altering his belief that he knows more about defeating the Islamic State than the career officers within the Department of Defense. 

Trump, like most presidents, is not qualified to teach senior military officers how to fight and win a war against the Islamic State, or any other adversary. The dangers of that kind of White House involvement in a battlefield are well known from the Vietnam era, and must not be repeated. It is the president’s role to set foreign policy, not fight the war.

Another lesson from the 1970s Trump needs to bear in mind stems from President Nixon’s illegal use of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA), against the American people. The outcome of the Watergate-era Church committee hearings gave us the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the law that protects U.S. persons from potential excesses and overreach by our intelligence agencies.

More recently, FISA was amended by the USA Freedom Act after the Snowden leaks raised a public outcry about the government having broad access to the call records of American citizens.

Potentially more worrisome, the 16 agencies that comprise the United States Intelligence Community, which last year were given $66.8 billion dollars in funding, operate largely under a single executive order. An order that can be altered by the sitting president without any other oversight, or comment, outside the Executive branch.

Trump should not loosen the executive order’s restrictions on physical or electronic surveillance and searches against U.S. citizens, end the prohibition against assassination, or alter the stated goals of the overall National Intelligence Effort. This will “provide the President and the National Security Council with the necessary information on which to base decisions concerning the conduct and development of foreign, defense and economic policy, and the protection of United States national interests from foreign security threats,” according to the order.

Also, Trump should not remove the language in the order that mandates executive level intelligence agency cooperation with Congress as it conducts its oversight responsibilities.

Trump should also affirm publicly that the National Foreign Intelligence Priorities Framework of his administration will be focused on certain goals. It will not be driven by any desire to suppress freedom of speech; political dissent; disadvantage people based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. It will also afford a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, including his own.

Moreover, Trump should pay special attention during his orientation to the whistleblower protection laws and policies in place to protect intelligence community professionals, including a presidential policy directive signed by President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBooker's potential 2020 bid is generating buzz among Democratic activists, says political reporter Obama: 'No ferns. No memes' in final plea urging people to sign up for ObamaCare O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold MORE in 2012, the amended National Security Act of 1947, and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012.

He should also continually bear in mind during his term of office that any intelligence professional recognizing a violation of our Constitutional principles or U.S. law has an affirmative duty to report such violations via secure channels to the appropriate Inspectors General within each agency or military component, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence 

Such reporting protects the perishability of sources and methods used for gathering intelligence and the human lives so often at stake in such endeavors. But it does not protect Trump from congressional knowledge of any substantiated violation, or from the media and the American people, should the violation warrant a public hearing.

The work of our nation’s intelligence agencies is vital, important to the security of our nation, and conducted in the main by dedicated professionals. The intelligence community is a president’s greatest source of information for developing a viable foreign policy, working and cooperating with our foreign partners, and defeating our nation’s adversaries when military force is the only option that remains.

These agencies are not tools to be used against the American people, gain or maintain political advantage within the U.S. government, nor do they exist to achieve the business or personal goals of the president.

Tom Wither is an intelligence professional with more than 28 years of experience. He also the author of two military and intelligence thrillers: The Inheritor and Autumn Fire.


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