CIA officials are learning to live in an era when the president-elect publicly disparages them
One day in 1986, Melvin Goodman walked into his boss’ office at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and resigned. He’d been serving as an analyst in Langley for more than two decades, most recently on the Soviet desk. Government work had been his entire life. But in the previous few years, he’d grown disenchanted by what he saw as the politicization of the intelligence he served up. He felt it was being disregarded or manipulated to serve a political goal. “I’d just had enough,” he said recently.
Goodman, who is now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for International Policy in Washington, went public with his concerns, and in 1991 he testified before the Senate against his superiors. Lately, he’s been closely watching the drama unfolding between the intelligence community and President-elect Donald Trump — looking for echoes of the past.
There’s good reason for worry. Over the past few weeks, Trump has waged a public campaign against the intelligence community, accusing it of leaks and misinformation. Earlier this month, an investigation concluded that Trump’s election had benefited from Russia’s help, in the form of computer hacking and information warfare. Then, a secret dossier, compiled by a former British spy and filled with lurid, unsubstantiated reports, went public, alleging that Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence — and was largely under their control. Trump lashed out, comparing the U.S. intelligence service’s actions to “something that Nazi Germany would have done.”
Intelligence professionals have, predictably, reacted with alarm. James Clapper, the outgoing director of national intelligence, warned Trump against “disparagement” of the agencies. Spies in Britain and Israel hinted they might restrict information-sharing with Trump, out of fear that his administration would pass it on to Russia. And Michael Morell, who ran the CIA in the early 2010s, accused Trump of waging a “crusade” against the agency, and wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that there would soon be a “wave of resignations.”
Goodman is worried about the fallout too. “This kind of campaign that Trump is on is totally unprecedented,” he said. But he isn’t so ready to accept the worst prognostications, like intelligence staffers walking out en masse, as he did 30 years ago. “I don’t think it’s gotten there yet,” he said. “The CIA would continue to do its job. They are public servants; they are not contrarians. People aren’t going to leave.”
It’s a view shared more widely than one might think — at least among the rank and file.
“Nobody’s going to quit,” said Aki Peritz, who served as a CIA counterterrorism analyst in the 2000s. Peritz, who since leaving the agency has worked at liberal and center-left think tanks, is no Trump enthusiast. But he finds the talk of agency chaos overblown. “I think most people are professional,” he said. “They might be bummed out, but they’ll do their job. We saw it in the ’60s, when Nixon hated the CIA. People put their heads down and did their work.”
Peritz noted that many of the key voices in the intelligence community’s dispute with Trump so far have held political appointments, and came out strongly against Trump during the campaign; men like Morell, John Brennan and Michael Hayden, who was agency director during the George W. Bush Administration. “Morrell was very much on Team Hillary, and Hayden hates Trump,” Peritz said. “But the regular people in the workforce who aren’t in the press: What do they think about it?”
David Grantham, a former Army intelligence officer who works for the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis, thinks some of them might actually like what they’re hearing. Unlike the top officials, who are appointed by presidents, the rank and file of the intelligence community is made up of people across the political spectrum, many of them voted for Trump, and feel that the politicization of their analysis has already happened.
“The Obama administration has — I don’t want to use the word ‘delegitimized’ — but the president has, I think, failed to properly utilize the intelligence community,” Grantham said. He mentioned reports from last year that intelligence analysts were compelled to change their conclusions on the rise of the Islamic State, because it didn’t match the downplayed assumptions of the White House.
“There’ve been a lot of instances where intelligence has been scrubbed to make it look better,” he said. “You’ll see that in every administration, let’s be honest, they’re humans, they’re politicians. So there’s a lingering frustration. But that’s also part of the job: you provide the best intelligence you can.”
The real question now is whether Trump will actually take his public eviscerations into the Oval Office. Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA analyst who has criticized Trump’s insults of the intelligence community, said he was impressed by the recent performance of Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for director of central intelligence, at his confirmation hearing. “He was good,” Lowenthal said.
But he added that Pompeo wouldn’t be making policy on Russia, and may struggle to mediate between his boss and the agency if Trump keeps up the confrontational approach. Should that happen, he said, morale will only get worse. “It’s going to suffer; it has to suffer,” he said. “Do you want to go to work in the morning with your boss saying you’re a Nazi? The CIA prides itself on the president’s agency, so the guy who’s your ultimate customer doesn’t trust you? It will hurt.”
Carmen Medina, who served for 32 years at the CIA including as the deputy director of intelligence, says she thinks the agency’s workforce will be fine. “I have a lot of faith in the CIA’s professional integrity,” she said. And she has another thought about the whole spectacle playing out in the run-up to inauguration: Trump might be trying to keep people from focusing on other indiscretions, like his business conflicts. “Trump seems to be the master of deflecting attention,” she said. “Is he purposefully drawing attention away from other things?”