Intel agencies' threat assessment matters more than tiff with Trump

Tension between American presidents and the U.S. Intelligence Community — “IC,” for short — is not a new phenomenon.

President Clinton had such a distant relationship with CIA Director Jim Woolsey that, when a small aircraft crashed near the White House, Washington insiders joked that it was Woolsey seeking a meeting with the president. President Bush and his leadership refused to admit there was a Sunni insurgency in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, in spite of CIA “ground truth” intelligence. President Obama’s relationship with the IC likewise was testy over Iraq, Iran and Russia.

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And now, President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE has rejected some of the analytical conclusions of his intelligence agencies’ 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report. He clearly was piqued about parts of the assessment of Iran, ISIS, North Korea and Russia that conflict with his policies and public statements.  

Unfortunately, the contretemps between the president and the IC eclipsed the substance of the assessment and accompanying testimony from intel leaders, which lifted the veil on the myriad threats facing the United States, many of which impact citizens directly.

America arguably faces more complex, serious threats to our national security today than at any time in history. Intelligence is critical to understanding these threats and to presenting policymakers with options for dealing with challenges: Iran, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, Russia, China, North Korea, transnational terrorism.

The IC has a culture of telling its leadership — the president and cabinet officials — what they need to know, even when it is not what they want to hear. I know firsthand from briefing former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanWebb: Questions for Robert Mueller A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Trump critic Brennan praises his Iran decision: I 'applaud' him MORE on the Middle East and South Asia that delivering analytical judgments that conflict with the president’s policies can be uncomfortable.  

Of greatest importance is that our current IC leaders have a record of never skewing intelligence to suit a president’s policies. I witnessed with great appreciation how CIA Director Gina Haspel always demonstrated the highest level of intellectual honesty, even in the most trying of circumstances. She understands as well as anyone that the art of intelligence involves immersing oneself in all source analysis, challenging existing assumptions, and swiveling judgments to reflect new information. Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE, FBI Director Christopher Wray and the rest of the IC leaders likewise speak only truth to leadership.

President Trump has a right to question his intelligence community’s analytical judgments. When I served at the CIA, we understood politics often took precedence in our relationship with presidents. We always preferred private disagreements, but even the most public of spats could never diminish the CIA’s commitment to the global intelligence mission to preempt threats and further U.S. national security objectives.

Trump should consider three opportunities to use the IC’s threat briefing to our country’s advantage and, in the process, demonstrate there is no lasting ill will between him and the IC:

  • Seeking to apply pressure on North Korea at the Feb. 27-28 summit,Trump could highlight that his intel community is skeptical about Kim Jong Un’s willingness to denuclearize. The IC arrived at this judgment because Kim has provided neither an inventory of his nuclear arms and missiles nor an itinerary for their destruction. We also are concerned about Kim’s chemical and biological weapons. If Kim wants the United States to continue postponing joint military exercises with South Korea, and to consider providing sanctions relief at some point, he must begin negotiating in better faith.
  • Haspel testified that Iran technically is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but the threat assessment highlights Iran’s military aggression through proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, along with its nefarious cyber capability and chemical weapons program. The Trump administration should continue to press European allies to recognize that their financial engagement with Iran only enables Iran’s aggressive military and espionage operations, which threaten peace in the Middle East and beyond.
  • The IC concluded that Russia and China are more aligned than at any time since the mid-1950s, representing the greatest cyber and espionage threats to our nation. The IC’s input is key to enhancing the partnership between our government and the private sector so that we better defend our infrastructure, cyber space and citizens. Neither Russia nor China draws any distinction between their U.S. enemy combatants and non-combatant citizens.

Rather than devoting so much of our attention to an alleged tiff between the president and his intel leaders, let’s start focusing more intently on delineating the threats to our nation and evaluating the administration’s policies to eliminate threats before they reach our shores.

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.