Killing the messenger: Trump administration v. the intelligence community

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On Thursday, June 13, Secretary of State Pompeo took to the podium at the State Department to denounce Iran as the perpetrator of the attack on two oil tankers that morning in the Gulf of Oman. The Secretary cited no evidence from intelligence sources or otherwise during the brief statement, but the Pentagon that evening offered a video showing what it described as an Iranian boat with personnel removing an unexploded mine from one of the ships struck.

Iran immediately dubbed the accusation unfounded. Pompeo added the attack (as yet unclaimed and not independently verified) to a list of other attacks allegedly undertaken by Iran, none of which have been definitively attributed to Iran by either the intelligence agencies of the U.S. or indeed of European or even Gulf allies.

This cavalier attitude towards facts and the disrespect this administration has demonstrated towards the U.S. intelligence establishment diminishes the credibility of the U.S government as a whole and demoralizes the intelligence analysts whose job it is to determine the perpetrators of such acts of terrorism.

The current administration’s attempts to discredit the intelligence community (IC) started during the 2016 presidential campaign when the IC released a report assessing that Russia intervened in and sought to influence the course of the U.S. election. By “investigating the investigators,” the administration now risks undermining the entire process of gathering, analyzing and interpreting intelligence. Indeed, authorizing the Department of Justice to investigate the intelligence agencies undermines the traditional role of  CIA and FBI agents who normally track foreign agents on U.S. soil. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), most recently authorized in 2017 and signed by President Trump in January 2018, reasserts congressional oversight of the process and does not require DOJ review.

Of all the attempts at politicizing the institutions of the U.S. government, the politicization of the intelligence community is probably the most dangerous yet undertaken by the Trump administration. Trying to acquire the intelligence you want rather than the intelligence offered is not entirely new. Previous administrations have tried to cherry-pick from the data and analysis provided by the intelligence community to justify their foreign policy goals. In the Trump case however, the goals of the abuse are domestic, which violates the basic rules surrounding the intelligence process. Further, the use of the DOJ to investigate the analysts is likely to have a long lasting and destructive impact on one of the pillars of the national security apparatus.

In 2003 the struggle for “the right” kind of intelligence raged within and outside the Bush administration, with members of Congress lining up on opposing sides of the issue. Evidence mounted — a year into the invasion of Iraq with no evidence of WMD or proof of Saddam Hussein’s alleged connections to al Qaeda — that the administration had already made up its mind to invade Iraq and demanded that the CIA produce the intelligence it needed to justify the war.

The State Department’s bureau for intelligence and research (INR) dissented from the report’s conclusion, as did the Department of Energy, though the CIA’s summary of the report did not mention any dissent. Congress later concluded that the Bush administration had misrepresented the intelligence reports in making its case for war. INR in particular had concluded through its own studies of the intelligence in question that there was no compelling case for stating that Iraq had an active nuclear program. Its dissent on the actual National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was footnoted on the front page, but the summary of the report made public by the White House prior to to the war omitted that dissent. INR’s reservation on the NIE was conveyed to the White House via separate channels, but that dissent was neither publicized nor taken seriously by the administration.

During the Obama years, and before the nuclear treaty negotiations got underway, evidence of possible Iranian involvement in the suppression of the popular uprising of 2011 known as the “Arab Spring” was sought. Evidence that I saw in fact suggested Iran had played a tempering role in the early days of the uprising — and that the assistance given by Iran to the Syrian government, described by some officials in the U.S. and Europe as suppression of dissent, was in fact Iran’s recommending to Assad that he use non-lethal means for quelling the uprising. Iran’s role changed to lending lethal assistance once Assad persisted in shooting demonstrators and the uprising itself became militarized in 2012.

Trump has personally gone on the attack against the FBI and the IC from the start to discredit their investigations into Russian meddling and to weaken their credibility with the public. The use of DOJ in particular has two pernicious implications: By authorizing the Attorney General to declassify all intelligence he deems necessary to make his case against the Russia investigation, the president politicizes and undermines a function that has been exclusively held by the intelligence community; secondly, the DOJ role means that the analysts who pursued the case of Russian intervention are under criminal investigation for possible production of “fake intelligence.”

It is popular in the Middle East, and certainly in some circles within the U.S., to attribute all sorts of nefarious activities to the CIA, from overthrowing regimes to torturing prisoners of war for information in the global war on terrorism. Such misdeeds have certainly been true in several cases in Latin America in the Sixties and Seventies, in Iran in 1954, and in Iraq and Guantanamo since 2003. The intelligence community is also often faulted at home and abroad for “missing the facts” in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. What the accusers fail to do in the first place is to distinguish between the Directorate of Operations (DO) and that of analysis, and in either case ignore the responsibility of elected officials for having abused both.

Within the IC, each agency has its own system for checking on the professionalism of its analysts, but the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) also issues unified guidelines to make sure that there are standard professional standards for all 16 members of the IC to abide by. Normally, the raw intelligence comes from overseas with a reliability designation ranging from “direct, i.e. sure” to high, medium and low — the latter being reported to be certain not to miss anything should a pattern develop that might increase the reliability of the information. Multiple layers of analysts, editors and approvers then try to make sense of the raw intelligence being reported (by various methods) — and to make sure rigorous standards are being applied in interpreting the data according to background information, other corroborating intelligence and open source information. The system is not infallible, but the analysts are not likely to inflate or spice up the intel and operate within the guardrails above to minimize mistakes.

In this context, the investigations into the Russia probe, done under the guise of checking on the appropriateness of the conclusions reached unanimously by the various agencies is not only unjustified but clearly inappropriate and constitutes political intervention in the process and an attempt to intimidate the analysts from presenting unwelcome news.

Beyond the Russia probe and the Mueller findings, the case against Iran also presents a case of politics over facts and professional analysis. The administration’s predisposition towards a hostile policy towards Iran and the nuclear treaty (JCPOA) risks causing it to ignore, deny and discredit any information contrary to its policies.

Pompeo’s blaming Iran for the latest attack on shipping a few hours after the attack seemed hasty and, in line with  John Bolton’s earlier accusation of Iran for the attack on the four ships off of Fujairah, contrasted with U.S. allies’ calls for a more thorough analysis and for cooler heads to prevail. John Abizaid, former Centcom commander and current U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was one of the few U.S. officials who likewise called for a more “thoughtful analysis of what happened” and a tempered response to the incident.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. He retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister Counselor, after 25 years in the Foreign Service. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Prior to his retirement, he served as the director of the office of Near East and South Asia office at the bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Follow him on Twitter @khoury_nabeel.

Tags Attack on oil tankers Donald Trump investigating the investigators Iran John Bolton Mike Pompeo US intelligence community

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