While many people lacked surprise at President Trump’s removal of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Mcguire, I was appalled. Shooting the messenger can be a bad move, poking your eyes out is worse.
The DNI coordinates the various agencies in the committee, creating National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that are as insightful as possible. The position was created in the aftermath of 9/11, when the president was overwhelmed by competitive and sometimes conflicting intel. Don’t be surprised, each agency has its own value to prove, sharing intel between agencies has always been dicey. I’m going to use the names you are familiar with rather than the nicknames they have. The FBI is charged with a counterintelligence mission, thwarting foreign intel. The FBI is only authorized to operate within the United States. The CIA is charged with intelligence gathering, their theatre is strictly outside the United States. The intel of one is crucial to the other, yet they are in competition with each other to produce results.
There are seventeen major agencies that you may be aware of, and over twelve hundred that you are probably not aware of, each chasing their own prescribed threats according to their specialties. There is very little respect among them, each believing they are the best, sometimes thwarting other agencies to remain so. You are no doubt aware of situations in your own experience in which one law enforcement agency refused access to another, it works the same in the intel community.
By removing the DNI, Trump has created an environment of fear within the community. “Don’t tell the boss bad news or he’ll fire you” can be deadly. Prior to the Cuban Missile crises, the Kennedy administration belittled Nikita Kruschev, and publicly stated that he would never bring nuclear missiles to Cuba. At the time, intel was presented to the President by the United States Intelligence Board, which provided an estimate that the Soviets were unlikely to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. The current consensus is that the Board knew that the Kennedy Administration would discount any other conclusion because it had already publicly dismissed it. Intelligence officials and White House advisers knew that bringing forward an estimate contrary to the Administration’s position could damage their careers or weaken their influence in future debates. Sound familiar?
It took the death of U-2 pilot Rudolf Anderson Jr., and the subsequent words of Airman 1st Class Michael Davis; “Major, take a look at this, I think you’d better call the colonel” when he saw cigar shaped tubes in the photographs, to provide the fortitude required to brief President Kennedy with the truth. (Full disclosure, Airman Davis was a member of my wing, the 544th SIW; I’m still rather proud).
Trump has denigrated the intel community before, but removing the DNI because he didn’t like the NIE is reminiscent of Caesar ignoring the call to beware of the Ides of March. We can only hope the results are personal to Trump rather than the downfall of our nation.
The president has created the visage of a ruthless tyrant. That may have served him well in the corporate jungle, but as a world leader he looks more like Kim Jong-un. Fear of reprisal destroys the community, and there is every reason to believe he will be lovingly sabotaged. Without intel there is no insight.
Every president has had intel blunders, even after 9/11 Obama ignored NIEs about Russian cyber threats, setting up Secretary of State Clinton’s cyber naivete. But dismissing the DNI and replacing him with a civilian with zero experience is insane.
Your impression of spooks may be formed by James Bond or Jason Bourne. My experience is radically different. The point is to not stand out in a crowd, just accomplish your mission in silence. In that silence we are often forgotten, which was the purpose from the beginning. In doing so, we have no glory, only medals locked in a box somewhere. The public probably shouldn’t even know who is the DNI, our service is clearly labeled clandestine. Michael Davis wasn’t recognized for over fifty years.
You should seriously question a president who publicly denigrates the community.