War Stories

Lack of Intelligence

Trump’s latest attacks on his own intelligence agencies are galling, even by his standards.

President Donald Trump makes a statement at the White House on Friday in Washington.
President Donald Trump makes a statement at the White House on Friday in Washington.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

What must it be like to work in intelligence under Donald Trump? You delve as deeply as anyone into the area of your specialty, parse data from myriad sources (satellite imagery, communications intercepts, spies, open reports), weave your findings with those of 16 other agencies into carefully crafted reports. Then, the president, the sole customer for your products, denounces you on Twitter as “extremely passive,” “naïve,” and “wrong!” (The exclamation point is his.)

That’s what Trump did Wednesday morning, the day after his top intelligence officials testified before Congress about a report that disputes his opinions on Iran, North Korea, Syria, and more.

Let’s be clear: U.S. intelligence agencies are far from infallible, they’ve been wrong many times in the past, and one of the distortions that the Age of Trump has spawned among the opposition is a romanticized worship of the wisdom and goodness of America’s spies.

But Trump’s latest Twitter jabs go beyond the pale. It would be one thing if he based his critique on conversations with outside experts, perusals of scholarly analyses, or events from his own experience. But of course, he talks with no such oracles, reads nothing worthwhile, and has accumulated no life lessons of any relevance here.

Nor could the intelligence analysts’ findings be dismissed as fake news from the “deep state” or the “swamp.” The witnesses at Tuesday’s Senate hearing—Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel—were appointed to their jobs by Trump himself.

Trump clearly draws on very different sources of intelligence. Between his eruptions against Coats and Haspel on Wednesday morning came this tweet:

“Three separate caravans marching to our Border. The numbers are tremendous.” @foxandfriends

And:

“Our economy, right now, is the Gold Standard throughout the World.” @IngrahamAngle So true, and not even close!

It is perpetually amazing, and alarming, that the president of the United States—who could consult the world’s leading experts, in or out of government, on every subject imaginable—chooses instead to rely on the random ravings of cable newscasters with no claim to special wisdom or inside knowledge on anything.

Trump went after his intelligence directors with such harsh defensiveness—unusually so, by even his standards—because their congressional testimony contradicted his well-known positions too blatantly for him to ignore.

For instance, Coats testified—reflecting the findings of a 42-page “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” a report that his agency releases to the public each year—that Iran has been abiding by the nuclear deal, which it signed with the U.S. and six other nations in 2015, and that it is not engaged in any activities that would be “necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

Trump, who pulled out the U.S. out of the accord last year, calling it one of the worst deals ever made, fired back with two tweets:

The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naïve when it comes to the dangers of Iran They are wrong! When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different… ….a source of potential danger and conflict. They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge. There economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back. Be careful of Iran. Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!

Actually, Iran’s behavior, good and bad, hasn’t changed in the slightest since Trump abrogated the deal, except for one thing: As Haspel testified, the Iranian leaders are now “debating amongst themselves” whether to resume their nuclear program because “they’ve failed to realize the economic benefits they hoped for from the deal.” In other words, according to the director of the CIA, the Iranians are thinking about breaking the deal because Trump has re-imposed the economic sanctions that had been lifted as part of the deal—i.e., they’re thinking about breaking the deal because Trump broke it.

On North Korea, Coats testified that though Kim Jong-un has suspended testing missiles and nuclear devices, he is “unlikely” to give up his nuclear weapons, mainly because he and the country’s other leaders “ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.” Haspel added that Kim is still “committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States.”

Trump—who has said that he and Kim “fell in love” at their summit in Singapore in June and who, immediately after the meeting, proclaimed that North Korea no longer posed a threattweeted back:*

Time will tell what will happen with North Korea, but at the end of the previous administration, relationship was horrendous and very bad things were about to happen. Now a whole different story. I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un shortly. Progress being made-big difference!

Time will tell, indeed. But according to officials familiar with the negotiations between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, no progress is being made whatsoever—in part because Kim thinks, with good reason, that he can pry more concessions from desperate-for-a-deal Trump directly. This is why the North Koreans savor—and many of America’s Asian allies fear—the upcoming summit.

On ISIS, Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that, though the jihadi group also known as Islamic State has lost almost all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, it still has thousands of fighters who continue to “stoke violence” in those countries, as well as a dozen or so outlets throughout the world. This was contrary to Trump’s claim—which he tweeted in December to justify his decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria—that ISIS was defeated.

In response to Coats’ statement, Trump batted out this tweet at 3:25 a.m.:

When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks. Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.

Three things are wrong here. First, Trump’s military campaign against ISIS was, in fact, a somewhat accelerated version of the campaign that President Obama had launched. Second, though he has achieved progress, there’s been none since five weeks ago, which is when Trump announced the withdrawal. In fact, perhaps because of that announcement, ISIS has stepped up its offensive operations, in one attack, on Jan 17, killing four Americans—as many as they had killed in Syria over the previous four years.

Finally, the intelligence directors said that Russian cyberoperations continue to threaten U.S. infrastructure and still pose a threat to U.S. elections—a fact that Trump has never accepted (though he ignored it in his early morning tweet storm).

In his written report, Coats leveled a still more serious critique of the president: “Some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing U.S. policies on security and trade.” The report also warned that Russia and China are pursuing common goals in a race for technological and military superiority—and that the two countries are more aligned than at any time since the mid-1950s. Taken together, those observations amount to a finding that Trump’s policies are weakening America’s global position and strengthening that of its main rivals. Trump has not yet responded to this particular critique.

It’s good to know, in a way, that reports like these are jolting Trump up in the morning.* It’s doubtful, though, that he’ll do anything about them except rave on.

Correction, Jan. 31, 2019: This article originally stated that Trump sent a tweet at 3:40 a.m. The tweet was sent at 6:40 a.m. in Washington.