Sep 24th 2019

When America’s President Can’t be Trusted

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 – The White House is trying to prevent the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from viewing a whistleblower complaintdetailing President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic contender to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020. Given Trump’s refusal to cooperate with nearly a dozen other congressional investigations, this episode will most likely end in another stalemate. And polls suggest that the public is tuning out the Trump administration’s daily reality-TV dramas.

But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line.

There is no question that the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community (IGIC), Michael K. Atkinson, made the right call when he recommended that the whistleblower complaint be disclosed to Congress. Such referrals are his prerogative by law, and a decade of legal precedent further supports the decision. Nonetheless, the acting director of national intelligence (DNI), Joseph Maguire, is blocking the IGIC’s referral, claiming that it does not involve “urgent” intelligence, and instead concerns privileged – meaning, presidential – communications.

With the administration and Congress at loggerheads and investigations into Trump’s behavior expanding, more White House denials, duplicity, and foot-dragging are certain, as are attacks on the intelligence community. In firing up his base for the 2020 campaign, Trump will use the whistleblower complaint to support his claims that a mythical “deep state” is out to get him. Indeed, he has already dismissed the whistleblower as a “partisan,” questioning the official’s patriotism. The name-calling echoes his broader campaign of character assassination against former intelligence and law-enforcement officials. Active-duty intelligence professionals have good reason to expect that they will soon be back in his sights, too.

Trump’s antipathy toward intelligence agencies has far-reaching implications for US national security. The DNI, the country’s top intelligence job, remains unfilled; if history is any guide, more senior officials will depart before the 2020 election, leaving further vacancies. Moreover, Trump has increasingly sought to fill key national-security positions with politically loyal stooges such as John Ratcliffe, a junior congressman whose nomination to serve as DNI was withdrawn following revelations that he had falsified his resume.

The 2020 campaign will make matters even worse for the intelligence community. Desperate to demonstrate his own power and accomplishments, Trump will be even less careful with classified information. In 2017, he compromised a sensitive Israeli intelligence operation in Syria by bragging about what he knew to visiting Russian diplomats. And just last month, he taunted Iran by tweeting a highly classified image from a US spy satellite, complete with detailed annotations of a missile failure at an Iranian test site. As private-sector analysts immediately pointed out, the image will be of immense value to US adversaries.

US spies do not – indeed, cannot – trust Trump. Earlier this month, we learned from multiple sources the CIA was forced to exfiltrate an exceptionally valuable Russian asset from Moscow in 2017, among other things, owing to concerns that Trump might jeopardize that individual’s safety. The Ukraine scandal reinforces those concerns, because it suggests that Trump will not hesitate to ignore the interests of US allies and intelligence partners when it suits his political interests.

The White House’s mysterious decision to withhold nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine at the same time that it was pressuring Zelensky is just the latest example of this. Trump has also dismissed North Korea’s ongoing short-range missile tests as irrelevant, even though US, South Korean, and Japanese intelligence analysts see them as evidence of the North’s growing capacity to launch strikes against Japan and South Korea (and against American forces stationed in both countries).

The Ukraine affair also offers an early indication of how Trump will deal with intelligence that threatens his prospects for re-election. Attorney General William Barr’s official probe into the origins of the 2016 inquiry into Russian election interference exemplifies the White House effort to intimidate intelligence officials, presumably with the hope they will downplay their investigations of Russia’s continuing meddling. US intelligence and law-enforcement agencies – including the FBI in a major report last month – have warned that Russian attacks on the 2020 election are already in the works. Such findings put these agencies directly at odds with Trump, who still refuses to acknowledge that the Kremlin aided his 2016 campaign.

In the final analysis, the intelligence community’s ability to fulfill its proper function under such conditions will depend on its leaders. It has been almost a half-century since former CIA Director William Colby opened that agency’s files to congressional investigators, following allegations that it had been engaged in prohibited spying. Although his decision was controversial at the time, we now know that it preserved the intelligence community by creating an effective system of oversight.

Colby used to carry a miniature copy of the US Constitution with him wherever he went. In his view, the CIA was an integral part of American democracy, which relies on checks and balances. That is one message that the intelligence community can still make loud and clear – and without fearing that anyone’s cover will be blown.


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, 2019.

 


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

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
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.” "