Trump+ National Security: Intelligence Impaired?

Since the Trump administration took office in January 2017 policy analysts have been dissecting his every move trying to figure out what how the incumbent President of the United States will approach the complex international and domestic policy challenges that will confront his administration. From legislation amendments to twitter chatter, this three-instalment series — part of a larger paper — will examine President Trump’s approach to national security issues and challenges, so far. The three extracts focus on distinct components of national security strategy and architecture: i) intelligence, ii) domestic counterterrorism and iii) international counterterrorism.

The dispersed intelligence community includes bodies such as the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Although they are not responsible for making policy, these bodies carry out the research into the security priorities as laid down by the administration. Transparency, trust and communication between the President, his administration and intelligence are essential components for successful Intelligence operations.

However, a fractious relationship between the President and his intelligence community has developed over scandals and accusations emerging on both sides. On the one hand, intelligence chiefs have been investigating Trump over alleged Russian intelligence interference with the US elections, as well as issuing a public report denouncing his implementation of the travel ban early in 2017. On the other, President Trump has made claims that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during his campaign, and also publicly accused the intelligence community and the press, for orchestrating the downfall of Michael Flynn from his post as National Security Adviser. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell argued that Trump’s attacks on the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community over the “assessment that Russia interfered in our presidential election” will weaken the agency and the much-needed influence it holds in protecting US National Security. Perhaps the peak of the drama occurred when Trump sacked FBI director James Comey over his involvement with investigations into Russian involvement with the US election.

On the contrary. Domestic intelligence issues turned into international security concerns when the New York Times leaked critical and classified information from the Manchester terrorist attack investigations in May 2017. The latest indiscretion by the Americans is at best, embarrassing for the Trump administration, and at worst, demonstrates that the US’s “strongest allies cannot rely on this president or his administration to keep their secrets.” The damage caused by this leak is probably not irreparable in the long term, but the short-term negligence has caused British law enforcement to stop sharing information with the US, at least for now.

Information and intelligence sharing and cooperation has long been a vital component of robust national security practices, but as the emphasis has been placed on deeper coordination, the responsibilities of sturdy safeguarding of information needs to be maximised. A strong and symbiotic team is a vital component to achieving a robust and long lasting national security strategy. Discord across and between differing security bodies will result in confused and incoherent approaches to policy making. An increasingly worrying pattern of discord, between the President and his intelligence community has demonstrated an element of alienation among personnel, which has resulted in compromising the integrity of national security investigations.

Continued tensions between the intelligence community and the President — is damaging for Trump on three accounts. Firstly, it risks alienating close allies in government. Secondly it damages a credible relationship in the eyes of the public, who rely heavily on robust partnerships such as these, to ensure their safety and security. Thirdly, the US’s trusted partnerships of information sharing between allies has been compromised, resulting in the need for urgent and robust damage control to repair certain relationships — especially with the UK. An independent review of their intelligence agencies will be the first step.

There is now a need more than ever to repair broken relationships between the President and the intelligence community, and also to restore public trust and confidence in the institutions that are supposed to ensure national security. This includes re-examining domestic counterterrorism and countering violent extremism strategy and architecture, which has struggled to respond adequately to the changing nature of the threats faced on home soil. This will be discussed further in the following post.

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