The rift between President-elect Donald Trump and the Central Intelligence Agency threatens to have concrete fallout beyond Washington, putting global information-sharing arrangements on tenuous footing and leaving the White House vulnerable to ill-informed decisions, retired CIA employees said.
Trump’s vilification of the CIA this month has lowered morale and made for the worst starting relationship between an incoming president and the intelligence community in decades, they say.
“The rift is very serious. I think it makes life more dangerous for the United States,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production.
Trump, who takes office Friday, in recent weeks has disparaged the CIA, suggested that its outgoing director conspired against him and likened agency tactics to those of Adolf Hitler.
“It becomes very hard to do good work when the man you’re working for compares you to Nazis,” Lowenthal added.
Sentiment at the CIA is far from uniform, and at least two retired employees voiced positive opinions of Trump. They said the conflict may be short-lived once senior officials loyal to President Barack Obama are replaced.
The two also contended that the CIA had manufactured charges of Russian meddling in the election campaign to harm Trump without offering convincing proof. If anyone has skewed intelligence, they said, it has been the Obama administration.
But several other former senior employees and analysts said the fiery, sometimes disdainful, language that Trump had used this month when talking, or tweeting, about the CIA had already had consequences, setting a sour tone that hadn’t been matched in decades.
“One has to go back to Nixon, and even then there wasn’t the open disparagement and the insults as there are now,” said Paul R. Pillar, who retired in 2005 from a 28-year intelligence career, including as chief of analysis for portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia.
Another retired agent, who spent much of his career in operations, running assets on four continents, said the CIA took seriously its mandate to speak truth to power.
“It’s almost impossible for the agency to function if the chief executive expresses a preference for the National Enquirer and Russian intelligence than to any view from (his own) intelligence community,” said Glenn Carle, who spent 23 years in the CIA and is now an associate fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“It’s awful,” Carle added, saying that his contacts still in the agency “are angry and apoplectic about the error and stupidness and blindness to knowledge.”
Pillar, who now is affiliated with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, said the CIA might face new obstacles in retaining employees and hiring recruits.
“There are naturally going to be doubts about working for an organization that is subject to that kind of invective from the overall boss, whether it is the right thing to do,” Pillar said.
Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and has shocked traditional European allies by bashing the European Union and declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete,” marking a breakdown of trans-Atlantic relations.
Moreover, European intelligence agencies are taking seriously allegations in a once-secret dossier written by a former senior British intelligence agent that Russia possesses potentially embarrassing and compromising material regarding Trump. The allegations, which McClatchy reported Wednesday have led to an inter-agency probe by the FBI and five other federal agencies into alleged Russian influence in the U.S. presidential campaign, are likely to affect liaison relations between the CIA and its counterparts in France, Germany and other nations, several former officers said.
“It is possible that counterpart services will think twice about sharing information with us with the possibility in the backs of their minds . . . that it will be conveyed, intentionally or unintentionally, to the Russians,” Pillar said.
Foreign intelligence services “have capabilities and reach that we don’t have,” Lowenthal noted. “If you’re dealing with issues in West Africa, the French are going to have better sources than we do.”
Carle said “the amount of reports that are shared, the coloration of the reports, all that will change, absolutely.” He said some elements of European intelligence agencies saw Trump as not only an unwitting beneficiary of Russian assistance but perhaps an active participant.
“I am told that German intelligence and French intelligence and British intelligence, respectively, a year ago got indications of communication between Trump and Russian intelligence,” Carle said.
He cautioned that such claims may sound intemperate but that he is not coming from the fringe.
“I am not a fire-breathing looney,” said Carle, a former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats. “I come from a family of progressive Republicans. I worked for the f—king CIA for 23 years.”
Trump has denied any business interests or other connections with Russia. Last weekend, he tweeted derisive remarks about those making such allegations.
“Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans - FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be. My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!” two consecutive tweets said.
Unless Trump fosters trust anew with the CIA, under his nominated leader, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., he may seek out only episodic direct intelligence briefings. That, say retired officers, may lead him to ill-informed decisions as crises erupt.
“The intelligence product is also important in sensitizing the president to pending problems,” Pillar said, offering warnings of problems still only on the horizon.
He noted that twice in recent history presidents have ignored CIA analysis, helping lead to or deepen costly wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Pillar said CIA intelligence went contrary to neoconservative analysis from the Pentagon that wrongly suggested that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had connections to al Qaida, unfolding in the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam.
More recently, Trump has raised hackles in Beijing by questioning the policy that Taiwan is a non-negotiable part of mainland China. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy,” Trump told Fox News in December. Last week, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that “everything is under negotiation, including ‘one China.’ ”
A deep CIA appraisal would have been useful before making such remarks, Pillar said, to avoid statements that “are a recipe for confrontation that could escalate.”
Some retired intelligence officers say they expect the CIA under Pompeo to get into a rhythm again in the Trump White House, although the depth of that sentiment is hard to judge, with the secrecy that generally cloaks the agency.
“It’s not the CIA. It’s the thin veneer of people at the top,” said Philip Giraldi, a former counterterrorism specialist at the agency. “I don’t see a whole lot of anti-Trump sentiment per se.”
Giraldi has signed a smattering of statements issued by a group formed in 2003 that calls itself Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. A co-founder of the group, Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, said he believed that political skewing of intelligence had increased under Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversaw the CIA and 16 other agencies, and CIA Director John Brennan.
“I’m hoping that someone will speak out as soon as Brennan and Clapper ride off into the sunset,” McGovern said.