By Kent Harrington
US President Donald Trump's efforts to bury a whistleblower complaint that has been referred to Congress by the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community offers an early indication of what to expect in the 2020 presidential campaign. If US intelligence agencies do not toe Trump's line, they will become Public Enemy #1 for his base.
ATLANTA – The White House is trying to prevent the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from viewing a whistleblower complaint detailing 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.