President Donald Trump has a serious problem with the American intelligence community and vice versa. Unless he improves his adversarial relationship with the leaders of that community, his political problems are going to get worse — much worse.
How did it come to this?
The personnel of America’s 17 intelligence agencies are a diverse lot, but have two attributes in common that unite them and give them their corporate identity. First, they are patriots. You have to be to work at a job where government pay is a fraction of what you could make on the outside, where your successes are often hidden and your failures publicized. Why work where you can’t tell anyone, even your spouse, what you do? Where, if you are in the Operations Branch, you have a real chance of getting killed? Intelligence pros are motivated by love of country, that’s why they do what they do.
Second, these folks are also, in their professional lives, apolitical. This is key to the way they do their jobs. Personal political leanings are not allowed to skew the information, the data or the projections they provide to our politicians. Grinding a political ax is a sure way to get a pink slip, as evidenced by the firing of Gen. Michael Flynn from his previous position at the head of a major intelligence organization.
These two qualities, patriotism and political neutrality, are part of a two-way bargain struck with our civilian leadership long ago. We in the intelligence community — and I was a part of that team for over 15 years — are committed to providing the president, his staff and Congress with the most accurate, unbiased output we can, obtained at times by means better left unsaid and sometimes gathered at considerable personal risk.
In return, the intelligence community requires the recipients of that input to not impugn the motives, patriotism and objectivity of the providers. This quid pro quo almost always holds up.
However, early in the Trump era, the deal was broken. Trump compared the actions of the intelligence community with events in Nazi Germany, accused the community of tawdry political motivations and questioned its honesty. Relations were so bad the president had to try to make amends with a speech at CIA headquarters, a speech that degenerated into a typical Trump tirade, off the subject and all over the place. Amends were not made.
The U.S. military has sage advice for its commanders: “Take care of your people or else they’ll take care of you.”
We see this dynamic playing out now in Washington. Information that would normally only be shared with responsible parties behind closed doors is being leaked to the media. Why? Because Trump responds to any bad news with denial, diversion, invective and insults. The media, itself smarting from Trump’s attacks, is only too happy to play up compromising information.
To date, the leaks have concerned questionable phone contacts by members of the Trump team, including the aforementioned Gen. Flynn, with Russians known well by the intelligence community as government agents and spies. Normally well-kept secrets are now featured on the front pages of The New York Times. In the past, we never revealed we tapped and recorded the cellphone conversations of Russian officials.
In my career, I’ve never seen so many leaks from intelligence professionals. It’s payback time for the Trump administration’s disrespect of the previously inviolable agreement between both Republican and Democratic administrations and the intelligence community.
Expect more of the same, the full story of Russian meddling in the election and involvement with Team Trump has yet to be uncovered, but it will be and it won’t be pretty. The intelligence community, the CIA in particular, possesses a specific set of skills useful for starting a regime change. They’ve done this several times over the years in various countries. It is not out of the question that such a scenario could play out here, with leaked information making it impossible for Trump to govern, provoking a political rebellion in Congress and impeachment. The president is about to learn he should have taken care with the intelligence community as now it’s taking care of him.
Ed Cobleigh is a fighter pilot and air intelligence officer now retired in Paso Robles. He is the author of “War for the Hell of It: A Fighter Pilot’s View of Vietnam” and “The Pilot: Fighter Planes and Paris.” Learn more at www.edcobleigh.com.