Sep 30th 2020

Rescuing US Intelligence

by Kent Harrington

 

Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. 

ATLANTA – With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions.

It is no secret that the United States faces a wide range of challenges abroad. Over the last four years, Trump has undermined the standing, standards, and strengths of the agencies that are charged with ensuring the country’s security. A new director of national intelligence will have to repair the damage and root out the festering corruption that Trump’s appointees have sown across the agencies. This will be no small task.

While the sheer scale of the harm done under Trump is anyone’s guess, his unrelenting attacks on US spies and analysts have cowed the agencies and undermined their missions. Since taking office, Trump has consistently disparaged the intelligence community and its work, especially the finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. And while the Kremlin’s election meddling has continued, those conducting Trump’s daily intelligence briefs no longer bother to raise the subject, lest they provoke his ire. And recent reports that CIA director Gina Haspel is choking off intelligence on Russia’s interference in the 2020 election to avoid antagonizing Trump suggest that intelligence leaders’ political subservience is degrading US national security as well as the integrity of its government agencies. It is safe to assume that those briefing the president are also eliding other active threats, such as those emanating from North Korea, where Trump’s failed summitry has left in place a ticking nuclear time bomb.

A president who trashes rather than heeds crucial information is bad enough. But the effects of Trump’s war on intelligence do not stop at the White House gate. He is also blocking other key decision-makers’ access to needed information and expert analysis. For example, national intelligence officials have indefinitely postponed the annual worldwide threat briefing for Congress. For legislators who oversee these issues, this presentation offers a valuable perspective not only on the intelligence community’s $70 billion annual budget, but also on the leading dangers confronting the US.

Of course, the Trump administration’s motives are obvious. Denying Congress and others access to intelligence spares Trump the embarrassment of having his numerous policy failures and personal misdeeds aired publicly. Trump made his wishes clear after the 2019 annual threat briefing, when he fulminated publicly against the intelligence community for its assessments of Iran, the Islamic State, and North Korea. Faced with findings that contradicted his self-proclaimed achievements, he tweeted that the intelligence agencies needed to “go back to school.”

And now, Trump can count on John Ratcliffe, his newly confirmed national intelligence director, to do his bidding without question. Ratcliffe, a former congressman with no qualifications for the job he now holds, recently issued a decree that Congress will receive only written intelligence reports on election security, instead of in-person briefings, just when Russia is ramping up its 2020 pro-Trump electoral interference. That diktat, which would have prevented intelligence experts from having to answer lawmakers’ questions, drew criticism even from Republicans.

But legislators aren’t the only people whom Trump and Ratcliffe want to keep in the dark. According to a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower, the White House has prohibited the department’s analysts from sharing intelligence on Russian meddling with other agencies.

It is obvious why the administration wants to suppress such information. Trump and his cronies are peddling bogus intelligence to support his presidential campaign. One line of disinformation seeks to tar Biden as sympathetic to China. Thus, in an August 26 tweet, Trump claimed that “Chinese State Media and Leaders of CHINA want Biden to win ‘the U.S. Election.’” This followed the similarly disingenuous assertion made by Trump’s son, Donald Jr., at the Republican Party Convention that “the intelligence community recently assessed that the Chinese Communist Party favors Biden.” 

When asked about the matter on August 30, Ratcliffe demurred, claiming that he couldn’t reveal any details, even though his counterintelligence chief, William Evanina, had done precisely that just a few weeks earlier. As Evanina made clear, China’s overt propaganda is par for the course, and should be distinguished from the Kremlin’s covert political warfare on Trump’s behalf.

Ratcliffe’s shameless fabrications suggest that he sees the politicization of intelligence in Trump’s interests as a major part of his job. Last month, he claimed that China poses a greater threat than any other country, adding: “That includes threats of election influence and interference.” Curiously, he seems to have forgotten his own counterintelligence chief’s recent statements suggesting otherwise. He also neglected to mention the findings of his own senior intelligence official overseeing election security, Shelby Pierson, whose earlier testimonybefore Congress singled out Russia, not China.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, Trump’s war on the intelligence community has taken its toll. As one former intelligence official tells the journalist Chris Whipple in The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, “There’s been an evolution among all intelligence community leaders … from holding the line on objectivity and integrity to, eventually, Trump breaking down that wall – and the loss of objectivity and integrity.”  

Nonetheless, the intelligence community’s ultimate responsibility, as former CIA Director Leon Panetta puts it, is to speak truth to power. To that end, if Biden wins in November, purging the political patsies now ensconced in the national intelligence director’s office will be a necessary, though not sufficient, first step. When it comes to restoring the intelligence community’s integrity, a President-elect Biden will need more than one new broom to sweep everything clean. The Spy Masters shows why. Whipple’s excellent history should be on Biden’s desk.


Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."