What Happens When Intelligence Agencies Lose Faith in the President?

Vice President Mike Pence, left, walks off stage after introducing President Donald Trump at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

Andrew Harnik/AP

AA Font size + Print

Vice President Mike Pence, left, walks off stage after introducing President Donald Trump at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

If bureaucrats restrict the information they share with political leaders, the damage could prove deep and lasting.

American military and intelligence agencies must assume from now on that the president of the United States is a security risk. He cannot be trusted to protect state secrets.

In a parliamentary system, a head of government who did what Donald Trump has done would already have resigned. There is no sign of that from the 45th president. Instead, the remainder of the U.S. government must cope with a president who has proven himself unable to understand the significance of the secrets shown him—proven himself a compulsive blurter and blabber—and added new urgency to the fear that he is somehow under the thrall of Russia.

Would the president have so abjectly tried to impress representatives of any other country? He blabbed because he bragged, and he bragged because he values Russia’s and Putin’s goodwill so bizarrely much. As the economist Justin Wolfers noted, if officials had not revealed the truth to the media, the Russians would now genuinely have damaging kompromat on Trump: the secret of a dereliction of duty that would have gotten anybody else in government fired, if not indicted.

So what happens now?

When officials at one agency of government become convinced that another cannot be trusted to preserve secrets, they slow the flow of information to that agency. Can they do that when the distrusted agency is the White House; the distrusted person, the president of the United States?

The president can never be cut out of the information loop altogether. But consider how little information Trump wants in the first place. He is satisfied with single pagers dotted by colorful bullet points. If that is all he uses, maybe it’s better for everybody to hold back information he could possibly misuse?

Or maybe the sterilization will happen inside the White House itself. The National Security Council staff, formerly tasked to integrate the presidency and the government, could find a new rule: quarantining the president from the government.

Read more: Trump’s Disclosures Are Another Win for Russia
Related: Foreign Leaders Have Realized Trump Is a Pushover
See also: The Terrible Cost of Trump’s Disclosures

If so, they’ll be averting one immediate danger by creating another for the longer term: They will be rerouting the government of the United States around its constitutional head. Unelected staff will decide what the elected president can safely be allowed to know.

It’s understandable why conscientious professionals would take such measures. Yet consider the troubling consequence of that decision. The security aspects of government would slip away from political control—for reasons that might seem necessary in the short run, but could be hard to reverse in the longer term. Donald Trump promised to shake up Washington. And what is being shaken is the trust of those who must carry out his orders. Someone has to be ultimately in charge of the national-security portions of the U.S. government. After this week, it may become a lot harder to identify precisely who that someone is.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Top 5 Findings: Security of Internet of Things To Be Mission-Critical

    As federal agencies increasingly leverage these capabilities, government security stakeholders now must manage and secure a growing number of devices, including those being used remotely at the “edge” of networks in a variety of locations. With such security concerns in mind, Government Business Council undertook an indepth research study of federal government leaders in January 2017. Here are five of the key takeaways below which, taken together, paint a portrait of a government that is increasingly cognizant and concerned for the future security of IoT.

  • Coordinating Incident Response on Posts, Camps and Stations

    Effective incident response on posts, camps, and stations is an increasingly complex challenge. An effective response calls for seamless conversations between multiple stakeholders on the base and beyond its borders with civilian law enforcement and emergency services personnel. This whitepaper discusses what a modern dispatch solution looks like -- one that brings together diverse channels and media, simplifies the dispatch environment and addresses technical integration challenges to ensure next generation safety and response on Department of Defense posts, camps and stations.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.