Intelligence chiefs should be commended, despite Trump's attacks on them

For a president to disagree with an intelligence assessment is not that unusual. What is unusual is for a president to freak out about it in public and to demean and belittle the collective leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies as President Donald Trump did after their public testimony before the senate last week.

What is more shocking is the constant contempt that the president has shown toward the U.S. intelligence professionals who are dedicated to the security of the nation. Trump’s unwillingness or inability to understand the responsibilities of the professional structures of the U.S. government is astounding. He refers to “my generals,” or “my intelligence chiefs” as if they were his personal political agents. They aren’t.

The intelligence professionals are the employees of the American people, sworn to defend the nation and the constitution. They are not his political flunkies who exist to validate presidential political fantasies.

Trump called the intelligence chiefs “naïve” and “passive” after their presentation of the threats to the United States in the recent hearing. 

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Naïve? What kind of American leader believes the denials by Vladimir Putin over the assessment of the U.S. national intelligence community, and who proclaims that he and the little nuclear monster in North Korea fell in love after their brief summit? Trump’s attitude toward Putin and Kim Jung-un may set a world record for naivete — if that is all there is to it.

Presenting a threat assessment at odds with a notorious bully like Trump in a public hearing is hardly passive. As a former career intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, I was proud of the intelligence chiefs’ courage under pressure. These leaders demonstrated the integrity to present their judgments, knowing that the president would probably react as he did.

Trump apologists are now accusing the intelligence community of simultaneously being incompetent and a sinister conspirator against the president.

The Trump administration is the leakiest in history, with daily exposure from alarmed administration insiders dumping a flood of sometimes shocking revelations about the unfitness of Trump to be president. Yet, when leaks come from the intelligence agencies that the president is a lazy simpleton who refuses to consider information at odds with his crude opinions, those leaks are supposed to be a sinister conspiracy against him. Nonsense.

As to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court rulings, I will wait until the full report on Trump and the Russians is released to make a judgment.

The intelligence community is not infallible, and the president and the national security advisors are under no obligation to accept their assessments. They should, however, carefully consider the judgment of career professionals when they are supported by convincing evidence that differs with the president’s view. To dismiss the warning of the intelligence community without due consideration would be leadership negligence of the highest order.

U.S. intelligence professionals are responsible for determining the truth as they see it, given the entire spectrum of facts available to them — from unclassified information to the most sensitive secret sources. Intelligence officers are natural skeptics; they are not in the “good news” business. Their job is to identify threats to American national security and to warn about dangers ahead. As Americans, we want them to worry, to fret, to challenge the conventional wisdom — and certainly to contradict politically expedient policy positions when the facts merit. 

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Intelligence agencies that are sycophants to power and that kowtow to the political whims of a national leader are the staple of petty dictators, not of functioning democracies. If that changes and the U.S. intelligence community becomes the political lacky for the president, American security will be compromised and our democracy will begin to look more like Turkey or Russia.

The last time an American administration bullied and intimidated the intelligence community, we got the misguided 2003 war in Iraq. Remember then-CIA Director George Tenet’s infamous “It’s a slam dunk” statement to the president on the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

That was followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation of intelligence evidence of WMD that turned out to be untrue to the UN Security Council, before the launch of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Tenet and the CIA later became a convenient scapegoat for the policy by Vice President Cheney and other cheerleaders in the administration who promoted the disaster in Iraq. 

Thankfully, today’s intelligence leaders have learned from that mistake, and Americans should take great pride that the chiefs of the intelligence agencies presented the truth as they saw it in their recent testimony to Congress, even if that truth conflicted with the world view of the president. They were performing a public service to the nation, even though it may be personally painful to them as they deal with a hostile boss.

As uncomfortable as it is for Trump’s defenders, former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanKrystal Ball defends praise of Yang: I am not 'a Russian plant' We need answers to questions mainstream media won't ask about Democrats Former Reagan official rips Republicans for backing Trump: 'It's like the invasion of the body snatchers' MORE and former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperWe need answers to questions mainstream media won't ask about Democrats Whistleblowers and the hypocrisy of the ruling class Hillicon Valley: Clapper praises whistleblower complaint | Senators urge social media giants to take action against 'deepfakes' | Tim Cook asks Supreme Court to protect DACA | Harris pushes Twitter to suspend Trump MORE have every right — even responsibility now that they are out of government — to speak up about the dangers of Russian interference in American democracy and to question the relationship of Trump to Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community are one more action that damages American national security, joining his hostility toward democratic allies, the impulse to withdraw from NATO and his support for Russian interests over those of the United States. 

The American intelligence structure is the gold standard for national intelligence capability around the world. The president is simply a caretaker of this capability during his term of office. Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community undermine national confidence in these institutions and degrade the service of the people in them. They also damage important international legal and intelligence relationships abroad and cause potential sources to deny critical information in the future.

In this environment, it is right and proper for the intelligence community to give their considered professional assessment without regard to the hostility of a troubled president.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."