The Clinton campaign and the mainstream media are in high dungeon over comments Donald Trump made at Wednesday’s “Commander in Chief Forum.” Trump said that intelligence analysts who briefed him recently were not happy with President Obama, who often ignored their analysis.
According to Trump:
What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly — when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason — what our experts said to do. And I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance, and I could tell, I have pretty good with the body language, I could tell, they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.
In response, Clinton supporters, former intelligence officers, and some current intelligence officials lashed out at Trump for politicizing intelligence.
Based on my 25 years working in U.S national-security posts, I agree that Trump’s intelligence briefings have been politicized, but not by Trump.
Trump did not break the rules by revealing classified information from his intelligence briefings. The concerns he voiced, based on the briefings, that President Obama ignored crucial intelligence were warranted, given numerous reports of intelligence politicization during this administration — such as the politicized 2012 Benghazi talking points drafted by the CIA and the slanting of CENTCOM intelligence analysis on ISIS to support Obama-administration policy.
You may remember that in January 2014 President Obama called ISIS a “JV” terrorist group. To counter criticism of this remark and the administration’s failure to address the growing threat from ISIS, Obama officials circulated stories in mid 2014 that they were caught off-guard by ISIS because of a failure by U.S. intelligence agencies to warn about the ISIS threat. I wrote in a June 2014 article how House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers disputed this claim, and that Defense Intelligence Agency director Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, now a Trump senior adviser, warned about the growing threat from ISIS in congressional testimony in February 2014.
My guess is that Trump or his advisers asked a question during the intelligence briefings about when the Intelligence Community first warned U.S. officials that ISIS posed a serious threat to international and American national security. If the answer was that it occurred prior to the president’s “JV” comment (which I am sure it was), Trump would be justified in expressing his concern that Obama has been ignoring crucial intelligence analysis.
Several former senior intelligence officers rejected Trump’s comments by telling the news media that U.S. intelligence agencies are completely divorced from policymaking and domestic politics. These claims were unconvincing and were made in at least two cases by individuals who engaged in improper political activities when they served as senior intelligence officials.
For example, Politico quoted former acting CIA director Michael Morell, who has endorsed Clinton. He said that Trump “used the intelligence professionals who were briefing him in an absolutely nonpolitical setting, he imputed to them views that were politically useful to him in the moment.”
Morell has no credibility in discussing the politicization of intelligence, since he is the CIA official who altered the 2012 Benghazi talking points, one of the most notorious incidents of intelligence politicization in the CIA’s history. The Politico article failed to mention this.
Washington Post writer Greg Miller, in a September 9 Washington Post column, said former intelligence officers told him that Trump’s claims about the intelligence briefings “would represent an inconceivable violation of training and tradition” by intelligence analysts and cited condemnations of Trump by former CIA officer Paul Pillar.
Pillar also has no standing to discuss intelligence politicization. Miller did not mention Pillar’s attempt to influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election as a senior CIA officer when he gave a controversial off-the-record speech in September 2004 to undermine President George W. Bush’s reelection bid.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden, who has not endorsed any presidential candidate, called Trump’s comments “awful” and said that if he was still in government, he would say to Trump adviser Chris Christie: “Look governor, we’re going to brief the candidate . . . but can I have your commitment that nothing that transpires in those meetings will be made public again?”
Given the manipulation of U.S. intelligence by this administration and the fact that Trump did not reveal classified information from his intelligence briefings, Hayden’s criticism of Trump was dead wrong.
More important is a serious violation of the rules for presidential-candidate briefings that Hayden did not condemn: intelligence officers’ leaking to the press what went on in the briefing room. This came to light in a September 8 NBCNews.com story quoting six current and former senior officials — two of whom were identified as current intelligence officials — who said there was friction during the briefing with Trump adviser General Michael Flynn, who repeatedly interrupted the briefers with pointed questions.
It is outrageous that intimate details of these closed briefings were made public by intelligence officials, because such leaks undermine the relationship of trust that is essential between a president and his intelligence advisers. Presidents and presidential candidates are not going to engage in candid discussions with intelligence analysts or believe their assessments if they are worried that details of their meetings with these analysts could be leaked to the press.
I wrote in a July 19 National Review article that Trump will face a huge challenge with U.S. intelligence if he wins the 2016 presidential election because of politicization of our intelligence agencies by the Left. The recent attacks on Trump by former and current intelligence officers over his intelligence briefings are a good preview of this challenge.
I am hopeful that if he wins the 2016 election, Trump, assisted by experienced national-security advisers such as General Flynn, former House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra, and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, will treat this incident as a learning experience on the urgent need to reform American intelligence to ensure that it produces the objective, hard-hitting, and non-political intelligence Trump will need to protect the national security of our nation.
— Fred Fleitz is the senior vice president for policy and programs at the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz