Intelligence for the days after President Trump leaves office

After President TrumpDonald TrumpMedia giants side with Bannon on request to release Jan. 6 documents Cheney warns of consequences for Trump in dealings with Jan. 6 committee Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official MORE disparaged the testimony of his top intelligence chiefs last month, they can be forgiven for counting down the days to when there is a new “consumer in chief” in the White House. It is clear that President Trump has neither much interest in listening to what they have to tell him about the world nor much respect for their assessments when he does. This situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, leaving the intelligence community with little choice but to work with those around President Trump who value what it has to offer and hope that America does not crash and burn while its chief pilot flies with his eyes wide shut.

It is not too early, however, for intelligence officials to look ahead to the days after President Trump leaves office and consider what support they will need to provide his successor. Intelligence officials can plan for the future by looking at the past. They should reflect on the inconvenient truth that having a responsible consumer of intelligence in the White House has not prevented the United States from being blindsided by overseas developments, sometimes with very costly consequences.


The 9/11 attacks stand out as the biggest strategic surprise in recent memory, but there are others. The Russian intervention in Georgia in 2004, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, its entry into the Syria conflict in 2015, and its meddling in our own American election in 2016 were not expected. Neither were the dramatic emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the new impressive nuclear advances in North Korea, nor the construction of Chinese military bases in disputed maritime territory.

All these events happened under George Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThose on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution The Memo: Trump's justices look set to restrict abortion Minorities and women are leading the red wave MORE, both widely recognized for being diligent about intelligence. Whether they were not adequately warned or simply dismissed what they were told is debatable, but across all cases there is probably enough blame to go around. What can be done to lessen the likelihood of strategic surprise in the future? The temptation is always to throw money at the problem to buy shiny gadgets and hire more analysts or to tweak the organizational chart to improve the flow of information. None of these is likely to make a significant impact. However, there are three other initiatives that could.

First, intelligence agencies need to look further into the future. Almost all of the $70 billion that they spend annually is to satisfy short term needs of thwarting terrorist plots, supporting American forces overseas, or briefing policymakers on current global affairs. The next president should demand a regular assessment of national security threats that could plausibly arise over the next year or so, a time horizon that is near enough to concentrate minds but still far enough away for strategic planning in case they arise.

Second, intelligence agencies need to prioritize based on what matters most to national security. Officials receive poor guidance on how to rank threats, as the annual worldwide assessment attests. No one reading it could ever determine which of the concerns to worry about the most. Classifying threats according to their impact on our interests is necessary to focus limited resources and alert policymakers to impending dangers. As with weather warnings, people respond very differently to a category five super hurricane warning than a category one tropical storm watch.

Third, intelligence agencies need to assist policymakers in responding to ambiguous or unpalatable warnings that experience suggests they are likely to set aside in the hopes that the worst never happens. Providing wr recommendations is beyond the scope of the intelligence community, but its analysts are the best equipped within the government to employ the latest data crunching techniques to rapidly assess the pros and cons of different options, just as business leaders do, while still leaving the final decision to the president. These initiatives will not guarantee that the next president will avoid global surprises, but they will make them less likely. 

Paul B. Stares is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep Peace.”