How incoming president Donald Trump will interact with the U.S. Intelligence Community is an increasingly urgent question given the threats that the nation and its interests face from terrorists and unfriendly state actors. Unfortunately, the mass of conflicting signals coming from both the president-elect and his team are only making the answer harder to discern.
Late Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources close to the Trump transition team, reported that the incoming administration was expected to engineer a major shake-up of the IC infrastructure by greatly diminishing the role of the Director of National Intelligence and slimming down the Central Intelligence Agency.
The story seemed to fit comfortably into the available facts about Trump’s feelings toward the IC in general. Since the summer, when the various agencies got together and released a statement asserting their agreement that the Russian government was responsible for cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic operatives, Trump has been dismissive and antagonistic about the nation’s spy agencies.
He also tapped retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a man with a notoriously difficult relationship with top intelligence officials, to be his National Security Advisor. Flynn was forced out of his job running the Defense Intelligence Agency by current DNI James Clapper, and has since become a full-throated critic of the IC as it exists today. Flynn also accepted payment for an appearance in Russia from the state propaganda network, RT, and was seated next to President Vladimir Putin at a celebratory dinner.
When the IC went a step further and clarified that the agencies believe the Russian hacking was aimed at helping Trump during the election, the president-elect denied that the report was accurate, and slammed the CIA in particular for its mistaken claim in the early years of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump tweeted his displeasure with the IC again, writing, “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” He went on to favorably tweet about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s claim that the materials taken during the cyberattacks on Democrats did not come from Russia.
Administration officials told news organizations that they were puzzled by the claim that the intelligence agencies had delayed the briefing, saying that it had always been scheduled for Friday. And intelligence officials were reported to be privately furious at the president-elect’s apparent decision to trust Assange over his own country’s intelligence services.
But Trump was back on Twitter Thursday morning, and his tone had changed somewhat. “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange - wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media lies to make it look like I am against "Intelligence" when in fact I am a big fan!”
A few hours later, Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee staffer tapped to be press secretary in the Trump White House, issued a blanket denial about the Journal report. “There is no truth to this idea of restructuring the intelligence community infrastructure,” he told reporters. “It is 100 percent false.”
Notwithstanding Spicer’s comments, ABC News reported late Thursday morning that a “senior Trump transition official” said the overhaul actually is still on the table.
While all this was going on, top intelligence officials Clapper, Marcel Lettre, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command, were appearing on Capitol Hill.
The hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee was supposed to focus on cyberthreats in general, but much of the discussion focused on the IC’s relationship with the incoming president and the allegations of Russian hacking affecting the election. The intelligence chiefs said that the IC stands behind its determination that Russia was involved in the hacks and that the operation was directed at the highest levels of the Kremlin.
Clapper, who will retire in just over two weeks, suggested that Trump’s attacks on the IC had gone beyond the realm of healthy skepticism into “disparagement” and said that he has been contacted by counterparts in other countries expressing concern about the president-elect’s apparent disdain for the work done by intelligence professionals.
Rogers said that he was concerned about losing talented staff who may decide not to work for a Trump administration if they believe that their work is not respected and their conclusions dismissed without any consideration.
All this comes as Trump is reportedly refusing his daily intelligence briefings, meeting instead with briefers once a week or so, and has yet to name a replacement for Clapper.
That job could be tough to fill. Spicer’s insistence that there is no shake-up of the DNI position in the works sounded definitive, but Trump’s willingness to change directions at a moment’s notice, and the emergence of multiple power centers within the nascent administration make it difficult to know what his real plans are.
On top of that uncertainty, the new DNI would be responsible for riding herd on the 16 different agencies that make up the Intelligence Community, many of which are reportedly suffering serious morale problems in the wake of the incoming president’s attacks on them.
His top pick is reported to be retired Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who until the end of the previous Congress served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but no formal announcement has yet been made.
The job may be less attractive today than it looked when Coats visited Trump Tower in Manhattan last November. Current DNI Clapper has taken to publicly mentioning how soon he will retire in his appearances before Congress and on Thursday, he didn’t disappoint. “Happily, I just have 15 days left,” he said.