I was a CIA analyst working in the Counterterrorism Center in the run-up to the Iraq war. We didn’t think Saddam had any substantial ties to al-Qaeda, but we were asked to start digging for evidence of such ties. This process is backwards; the information is supposed to lead the policymaker, not the other way around. Intelligence crafted at the hands of professionals is intended to inform policymakers’ decisions. However, if policies—drafted or executed—are used as a yardstick for analysts to then find matching intelligence, that is politicization.
Some degree of politicization is normal and to be expected; that an unelected individual, specifically President Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, is exerting such influence and control over the government and the president, particularly in light of his “burn it all to the ground mentality,” is dangerous. We saw this to a degree with Karl Rove during the George W. Bush years, but Bannon’s mindset and influence on the president make this situation unprecedented. To see this administration attempt to politicize the process of analysis is really disturbing, but it is not new. I experienced it firsthand. Politicization of analysis is dangerous; at a minimum, it will lead our national security strategy down the wrong path. At its worst, such politicization can lead to war, destruction of the economy, create or increase fear in the populace, and alienate our allies all the while leaving us alone to untangle an ugly web.
A draft Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document obtained by the press last Friday, February 24, concludes that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats to the United States and that “relatively few citizens of the seven countries listed in the ban maintain access to the United States.” The report also listed a discrepancy in the threat posed with the countries included the ban. The document also stated that few of the impacted countries have terrorist groups that threaten the West.
This week, it has been reported that the Trump administration has now asked the intelligence community to supply evidence to support their original claim about the threat emanating from the seven nations (Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan) listed in the original travel ban executive order. Even if this request is marginally true, then the Trump administration is played an extremely dangerous game.
The crux of a thriving national security strategy is an informed administration, provided in part by the intelligence communities’ objective analysis. Intelligence collection and analysis is more of an imperfect art than a science. By design, it is dispassionate, candid, and evidence-based; otherwise, it’s called an opinion.
Information objectivity doesn’t mean intelligence analysis is without a point of view. Typically, myriad sources are poured over to ultimately reach a bottom-line assessment to inform policy decisions. They rely on the administration and Congress to communicate the facts through policy, actions, and press conferences.
Trump now disputes these findings, claiming that the report failed to include available evidence that supports the January 27 order.
This type of information should have been part of Trump’s consideration prior to drafting the Executive Order. The intention behind asking for this information now is a “cart before the horse” scenario. The administration even has DHS criticizing its own report: Acting DHS Press Secretary Gillian Christensen also challenged the agency’s report, calling it an “incomplete product.” But she said the administration’s reason for taking issue with it was not political.
Exerting this type of pressure on the non-partisan bureaucracy hurts us all: while the president seems comfortable with the idea of bullying those around him as though they were contestants on a reality TV show, his antagonistic behavior will either continue to encourage leaks (because professional analysts are, at the end of the day, people and professionals: they feel injustice as acutely as anyone else) or undermine our long-term national interests by driving good people with deep, if not unique, expertise out of government (which is, in and of itself, a costly proposition).
Structural politicization is another risk. Unlike in any other administration, a chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, has been elevated to sit on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. The NSC Principal Committee is charged with weighing decisions on how best to respond to a national security crisis, outside the perils of politics. Placing Bannon on the committee, who has no national security expertise, and whose focus is that of devising President Trump’s political agenda, is in itself politicizing the structure.
It was also rumored New York billionaire Steve Feinberg would be appointed to review the structure of the intelligence community and offer recommendations. The President of the United States has that right and responsibility. An outside perspective of a successful businessman would appear constructive in a normal atmosphere. Dig a little deeper into Feinberg’s ties to the government and he may have an inherent bias. (His company, Dyncorp, for instance, is embroiled in a lawsuit with the State Department.) Regardless of Feinberg’s bias, relations between POTUS and the IC are fraught with implications of leaks, and the administration portrays the appearance of utter distrust of the IC. In this case, what normally would be seen as executive oversight can reasonably be interpreted as the president’s retribution.
Politicized intelligence is illusory at best: if President Trump’s administration is successful at cowing organizations like DHS and the Department of Justice to conform under pressure, then the resultant policy will fail, and, when it does, people will wonder why the administration chose a course of action that it knew to be at odds with the available information and informed expert opinion of those professionals paid to understand the issue.