White House-Intelligence Community Relations Are Evolving

From Diogenes

One of the pillars of Intelligence Community analytic tradecraft is employing a range of techniques, including alternative analysis and analysis of competing hypotheses (ACH).  Let’s try those techniques in looking at the President’s view of intelligence and the Intelligence Community.

The conventional wisdom, almost reaching revealed truth in some quarters, among the news media, many pundits, and numerous individuals within the Intelligence Community is that the President has denigrated the officers who work in the IC, and that he willfully ignores the IC’s product, believing in a personal omniscience about world affairs that is not warranted by his experience, training, or contacts.

Another view would hold that we are seeing a transition from a historical phase of White House-IC relations to another.  Some presidents came into office having run an intelligence agency (Washington, the elder Bush; or saw their father run one, in case of the younger Bush), and had a well-developed sense of what a non-politicized intelligence service can do for an administration.  Other presidents had to learn on the job, and their views changed from skepticism to applause for intelligence professionals.  This complete maturation, however, is not guaranteed for any presidency.  Nixon remained wary of CIA throughout his tenure.  Carter came around reluctantly.  Tense relations with CIA were the watchword with the Kennedy administration immediately following the failed Bay of Pigs operation.

We may be seeing an incremental development of such a view of intelligence with the current administration.

From the initial arm’s-length denigration of intelligence professionals, we have recently been treated to P45’s visit to CIA’s Original Headquarters Building’s main lobby.  No matter what the substance of his tone-deaf ineloquence before the Memorial Wall, P45 became the first president to visit the Agency on his first day on the job, perhaps illustrating the importance he attaches to the work of the Agency.  Moreover, as the Washington Post reports in its look at the President’s time-management preferences, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/02/21/how-donald-trump-spent-his-first-month-in-office-by-the-numbers/?utm_term=.b34989acc415  he devoted six hours during his first month to intelligence briefings.  While this works out to only a few minutes per day, it is better than the initial fears of him shutting out intelligence completely.  Not stated in the Post coverage is the identity of the individual/organization providing the intelligence briefings.  Was it the erstwhile National Security Advisor, a designated President’s Daily Brief briefer, CIA Director Pompeo, an acting Director of National Intelligence or representative, a combination of these worthies, or someone else?  We also do not know the substantive issues discussed in the briefings, or how the message was received.  That said, we might posit that P45 has moved to the “these guys might have an important role to serve” phase in his thinking.

More troubling is the possible quick transition to “and that role is to back policy” vice “set the table for policy discussion”.  The FBI refused an administration request to publicly badmouth campaign team-Russia connection stories, while the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security bristled at taskings for “shows that” analysis of terrorist links of people from the seven countries subject to the new travel ban. Policy-neutral analysis has been the watchword of American intelligence since the founding of CIA, and resistance to such politicized tasking is to be expected.  Similar calls during the Reagan administration for material bolstering a USSR-terrorist nexus and during the Bush administration for a Saddam-al-Qaeda link did not go over well with the IC’s analytic cadre.

We’ll be watching for signs that the White House’s view of intelligence is evolving to the more classical truth-to-power relationship.

For further reading on the alternative analytic techniques, see Richards J. Heuer and Randolph H. Pherson Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis CQ Press, 2014, 384 pp.

For more extensive commentary on Presidential-IC relations, see

Christopher Andrew For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush Harper Perennial, 1996, 688 pp.

John L. Helgerson CIA Briefing of Presidential Candidates 2008, 214 pp.

David Priess  The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama  Public Affairs, 2016, 400 pp.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *