Security Expert Exposes Chaos With Trump And U.S. Intelligence Agencies
A New Chapter in Fraught Ties Between President, Spies. Security Expert Exposes Chaos With Trump And U.S. Intelligence Agencies
Intelligence officers find challenges in keeping a prickly Trump informed of world-wide conditions, current and former officials say.
President Trump’s combative relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies has made it difficult for officials to speak candidly to him or the public about national security threats throughout his tenure, particularly those involving Russia, according to current and former officials.
Blunt talk by officials about threats ranging from North Korea’s nuclear program to Russian election interference has resulted in Twitter-powered fusillades or private tongue-lashings from Mr. Trump—and contributed to his dismissals of senior intelligence officials seen as insufficiently loyal, the officials said.
The challenges of communicating intelligence that President Trump may not want to hear are on renewed display amid revelations about intelligence assessments that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to carry out attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The White House said Mr. Trump wasn’t briefed on the intelligence because it was unverified. However, Republican lawmakers have acknowledged it was contained in the daily intelligence brief prepared for the president, and several said they take the potential threat seriously. Mr. Trump has called reports of the intelligence a “hoax.”
Tensions between Mr. Trump and the intelligence community existed even before Mr. Trump took office. During the presidential transition, Mr. Trump blamed intelligence agencies for leaks of unsubstantiated claims about his relationship with Russia and accused them of acting like “Nazi Germany.”
But the Russia bounties episode has offered a rare look at the impact of Mr. Trump’s distrust of intelligence agencies, former officials said.
Mr. Trump is known among intelligence officials to be especially sensitive to issues involving Russia. Marc Polymeropoulos, who was a senior Central Intelligence Agency officer until last summer, said that when a briefer would raise issues related to Russia, “Trump would flip out.”
“There’s probably a lot of self-censorship” in terms of what the president’s intelligence briefers raise in oral presentations, he said.
From the perspective of the president and many White House officials, the mistrust goes both ways. Former senior intelligence officials from the Obama administration are vocal critics of Mr. Trump in the media, where they routinely call him a threat to national security and the rule of the law—something many current and former officials privately concede is unhelpful.
And Mr. Trump and other officials have claimed the investigation into Russian election interference was motivated by a desire to damage his presidency, pointing to the largely discredited Steele dossier that alleged Moscow had compromising information on the president—as well as the applications for surveillance of one-time campaign adviser Carter Page, which a Justice Department watchdog concluded were riddled with errors—as evidence of bad faith.
The Central Intelligence Agency prepares the President’s Daily Brief, a classified digest gleaned from human spies, electronic intercepts and other sources of information. An intelligence official typically meets with the president and other senior White House officials to highlight key takeaways from the prepared brief, according to former officials.
Beth Sanner, a CIA officer, works as Mr. Trump’s briefer, presenting main elements of the daily report, which is supplied on an iPad but rarely read by Mr. Trump, former officials have said.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a televised interview this week that Ms. Sanner, whom he didn’t name, was an “outstanding officer” who chose not to verbally raise the Russian bounty intelligence because it was uncorroborated.
However, Ms. Sanner doesn’t unilaterally decide what issues from the daily brief to raise directly with Mr. Trump, former officials said, adding such decisions typically are made in consultation with senior White House advisers.
Mr. Polymeropoulos, the former CIA officer, said the breakdown in presenting the bounty intelligence to Mr. Trump wasn’t the briefer’s fault and that Mr. O’Brien and others should have flagged it to the president, particularly as he was in the process of trying to get Russia back into the Group of Seven leading nations.
“Throwing Beth Sanner under the bus, that’s just grotesque,” he said.
The National Security Council and CIA didn’t respond to a request for comment. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany this week, when questioned about Mr. Trump’s use of intelligence, called him “the most informed person on planet Earth” and blamed “some rogue intelligence officer” for leaking information.
The issue of intelligence verifiability has become a central defense of the White House to explain why Mr. Trump wasn’t briefed.
The National Security Agency dissented from the CIA’s view on some of the intelligence, according to people familiar with the matter. While some said that the difference of opinion was substantive, others said it was more technical and didn’t concern the central assessment that operatives with Russia’s GRU intelligence agency paid the Taliban to kill Americans.
The CIA is confident the bounty program existed, two of the people familiar with the matter said. Former intelligence officials have said uncertainty is pervasive in their profession.
Both Republicans and Democrats demanded information about the intelligence. Democratic critics said Mr. Trump should have been made directly aware of the intelligence. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D., Mich.), a former CIA analyst, noted that the president had several calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin within recent months, a key reason he should have been kept informed even if the intelligence weren’t fully corroborated.
“The thing that gets me is the frequency with which the president was engaging personally with Vladimir Putin, moving the relationship forward into a much more friendly, peer-to-peer status and bringing them into the G-7,” she said in an interview.
Mr. Trump has dismissed intelligence officials on whom he soured. At least six senior intelligence officials have been pushed out of their posts since last summer. They include former intelligence chief Dan Coats and his deputy, Sue Gordon, as well as Joseph Maguire, who replaced Mr. Coats, and one of his deputies, Andrew Hallman.
Mr. Trump also fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, who played a key role in shepherding to Congress a whistleblower complaint that eventually would lead to his impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House.
Intelligence officials have come to prefer avoiding possible conflict with Mr. Trump, current and former officials said. The heads of leading U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t appeared this year before Congress for annual hearings on world-wide threats.
Their absence—despite bipartisan requests to appear—stemmed from concerns of contradicting the president, people familiar with the dynamics have said.
Last year, Mr. Coats, then the director of national intelligence, and other senior officials differed from Mr. Trump in their analysis of threats related to North Korea, Syria, Iran and elsewhere. Though the disagreements were carefully worded, the president later upbraided them on Twitter, saying they should “go back to school.”
Election security also is a sensitive issue. Some officials have been reluctant to directly bring up the issue of Russian election interference, past or present, officials have said. Mr. Trump repeatedly has questioned the conclusions of the intelligence community that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to his benefit.
Election security efforts across various federal agencies have become a balancing act that requires addressing Moscow’s intentions without upsetting the president, according to current and former officials.
In February, Mr. Trump grew irate during an Oval Office briefing on election security after learning that lawmakers received a classified hearing on the same topic a day earlier, people familiar with the meeting have said. In the meeting, Mr. Trump expressed frustration that lawmakers were told about Russia’s possible interest in interfering on his behalf, these people said.
The result is that the White House now is minimally involved in election security efforts, an arrangement that many officials have come to prefer because it creates less friction.
“There are efforts on the parts of many stakeholders to monitor what the president sees and hears,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence official who worked on issues related to Russia and Afghanistan. “Certainly the election meddling stuff and what Russia is doing in the run-up to the election is an area where this has been most apparent.”
Ms. Kendall-Taylor, who now works as the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said the lack of a full picture being raised to the president increases the likelihood of foreign policy miscalculations.
She compared the situation to authoritarian regimes where officials are “not passing up information that a leader doesn’t want to hear.”
“These are the hard choices that people are having to make that they shouldn’t have to make,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said.