Are Our Top Spies Hiding Intelligence Info From Trump?

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Donald Trump at the CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017, in Langley, Virginia. Michael Rubin writes that Trump might be unlike any president before him in terms of personality, experience and style. And there may be merit to the intelligence community’s concern about his discretion. Olivier Doulier/Getty

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Reports that the Central Intelligence Agency is hiding intelligence from President Trump because they fear he might leak it has made headlines in recent days. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, for his part, denies that intelligence agents are self-censoring.

Pompeo should not be so certain. That the CIA might feel tempted to hide intelligence from the commander-in-chief is part of a cultural problem that has been developing for years. If agents and analysts tell colleagues and journalists that they censor themselves or what they present because they fear Trump’s judgment, the problem may have less to do with Trump than with the agency itself.

The politicization of intelligence has a history far longer than the Trump administration. After President Ronald Reagan’s election, for example, CIA analysts buried reports and evidence of Soviet biological weapons work in order to prevent the White House from deviating from Carter-era arms control efforts.

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Often, the CIA seeks not to protect sources—if that were the case, we would not see so many political leaks —but rather to prioritize its own bureaucratic interests above all else. Consider the press obsession with Vice President Dick Cheney during the George W. Bush administration.

Unlike Presidents Obama or Trump, Cheney valued in-person intelligence briefings, would read briefing papers studiously and would often have questions based upon his decades as a policymaker and intelligence consumer. These led him frequently to question CIA analysts and seek the source of their conclusions.

This should have been applauded by the CIA. After all, across the analytical community—be it part of the intelligence, diplomatic, or military bureaucracies—one of the most demoralizing aspects of work is the sense that no one reads one’s products.  

But, rather than applaud Cheney’s interest and relish the chance to defend or debate conclusions, intelligence analysts leaked to the press Cheney’s interest and spun it as unwarranted and political. In reality, the CIA opposed the Bush administration’s policies and sought to prevent anything crossing Bush or Cheney’s desk that might support it.

Trump might be unlike any president before him in terms of personality, experience and style. And there may be merit to the intelligence community’s concern about his discretion.

If that is the case, then, the proper channel is through Pompeo or the House Select Committee on Intelligence (on which Pompeo previously served) or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Trump may be anathema to many career bureaucrats and, in these polarized times, frankly to half the American population. But that is not an excuse to withhold intelligence. Nor given the CIA’s history should the CIA’s new leadership so readily dismiss the charge.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.