Trump’s clash with Intelligence is not smart politics

by Claude Salhani

“ISIS is defeated,” claimed US President Donald Trump. “No, it is not,” replied the chiefs of several US intelligence agencies.

US Vice-President Mike Pence went a step further than Trump on the day an attack claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) killed US servicemen in Syria. Said Pence: “The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated.”

Again, the intelligence community in Washington replied: “No, it is not finished. ISIS remains a threat to the security of the United States.”

The current occupant of the White House recognises that there are real threats to the security of the United States and then there are those that are imagined for political reasons to be bigger than they actually are. This president has his priorities backward.

Trump ranted and raved and shut the government down for more than 30 days over “security” concerns because he saw imminent threats from thousands of Latino immigrants, without anything to substantiate his claims that hidden among the refugees were several thousand Middle East terrorists. Experts had told Trump that the caravan, which has since disappeared along with its presumed Middle Eastern terrorists, was not a threat.

The United States has some of the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering systems in the world, combining efforts of human and electronic intelligence gathering and a slew of other means for the collection of information. The combined 16 intelligence-gathering agencies, plus one administrative agency — collectively referred to as the intelligence community — cover the domestic and international arenas.

The director of intelligence, not to be confused with the CIA director, compiles a one-page outline, which is presented every morning along with a briefing to the president. Traditionally, these meetings took place in the Oval Office at the start of the president’s workday but the Trump White House, a Washington Post report, citing an unidentified source, stated that on some days Trump doesn’t get a start to his working day until 11am.

Trump has gone against the advice of intelligence chiefs, saying he trusts his instincts more than the findings of the nation’s intelligence community. He took Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of his intel professionals.

Trump, on January 30, called top US intelligence chiefs “extremely passive and naive” on Iran and dismissed their assessments of the threat posed by North Korea a day after they contradicted his views during congressional testimony.

Leaders of the US intelligence community told a US Senate committee that the nuclear threat from North Korea remained and that Iran was not taking steps towards making a nuclear weapon, drawing conclusions that contrasted starkly with Trump’s assessments of those countries.

“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Trump said in a Twitter post.

The Republican president cited Iranian rocket launches and said Tehran was “coming very close to the edge.”

“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he said.

Trump last year pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Iran put in place under his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. He said Tehran was “not living up to the spirit” of the agreement and reimposed economic sanctions. US intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons in violation of the agreement, even though Tehran threatened to reverse some commitments after Trump pulled out of the deal.

Their assessments broke with other assertions by Trump, including on the threat posed by Russia to US elections, the threat that ISIS poses in Syria and North Korea’s commitment to denuclearise.

Trump clashed with leaders of the US intelligence community even before he took office, most strikingly in disputing their finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election with a campaign of hacking and propaganda to help him win the presidency.

Former CIA Director John Brennan last year called Trump’s performance at a news conference with Putin “nothing short of treasonous” after Trump seemed to give credence to Putin’s denial of Russia meddling in the 2016 election. Trump then revoked Brennan’s security clearance.

Brennan wrote on Twitter on January 30 that Trump’s refusal to accept the US intelligence community’s assessments on Iran, North Korea, ISIS, Russia and other matters shows the extent of what he called the president’s “intellectual bankruptcy.”

The mixed signals from Washington regarding global threats faced by the United States are not smart politics. They confuse the world, encourage US enemies and blur the picture for its allies. The American government’s intelligence should not be a contradiction in terms.

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