President Trump on Wednesday renewed his attacks on the intelligence community, calling them “extremely passive and naive” after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other senior intelligence leaders contradicted the president’s assertions on Iran, North Korea, and ISIS.
“They are wrong!” Trump wrote in a pair of early-morning tweets bashing “the intelligence people” for testifying on Tuesday that Iran is not currently taking the steps that intelligence officials believe would be necessary for them to produce a nuclear device — an assessment at odds with Trump’s assertion that the regime was cheating on the spirit of the 2015 deal curtailing its nuclear program. “[They] are coming very close to the edge…Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
The tweets were latest in a series of Trump salvos at the intelligence community. Soon after he was elected in 2016, he horrified career professionals when he attacked the CIA for its assessment that Russian hacks on Democratic political targets were intended to help him win the White House. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” he said in a statement, and later compared alleged leaks to “something Nazi Germany would have done and did do.” As he prepared to take office, he declined to receive many of the daily intelligence briefings typically given to the president-elect, saying that he was “a smart person” who didn’t “need to hear the same thing every day.”
Field professionals and scholars have raised concerns about these attacks, and about Trump’s wider approach to his intelligence community. In theory, career officers and analysts are supposed to gather, analyze, and then present intelligence to stakeholders without taking domestic politics into consideration, in order to ensure that the information on which policy-makers are basing critical national security decisions is as accurate as possible. Although experts say that healthy skepticism is an important part of a functioning relationship between intelligence and policy-makers, critics fear that Trump’s dismissal of the intelligence community suggests that the administration is ignoring its own trained professionals in order to advance policies that are not based on the true nature of a given threat. The attacks might also dissuade officials from bringing important information to the president that they know he won’t like, some onlookers say.
“Coats’ job isn’t to support whatever the president wants. It’s to say what the president needs to know, based on the intelligence community’s best assessment of ground truth. He did that and deserves props, not insults,” Amy Zegart, an intelligence scholar at Stanford, said in an email.
Some Democratic critics were harsher.
“The President has a dangerous habit of undermining the intelligence community to fit his alternate reality,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted Wednesday morning. “People risk their lives for the intelligence he just tosses aside on Twitter.”
Fred Fleitz, until recently chief of staff for National Security Advisor John Bolton, offered a different perspective, telling Fox News’ Lou Dobbs that Coats should be fired for his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Intelligence is to inform presidential policy,” Fleitz said. “It’s not supposed to undermine, it’s not supposed to second-guess presidential policy.”
Several of the assessments that Coats presented to the Senate panel on Tuesday diverged sharply from Trump’s depictions. In his written statement, the DNI told lawmakers that ISIS would “exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to…accelerate rebuilding key capabilities” and “very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.” Trump, in announcing an abrupt withdrawal of roughly 2,000 troops from Syria fighting the extremist group, “declared that ISIS has been ‘defeated.’” In particular, Coats’ portrayal of the North Korean threat appeared to undercut Trump’s version of events. The president claimed in June following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” But Coats said in his testimony that the intelligence community believes that North Korean leaders “view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival” and it “continues to assess that it is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.”
Trump hit back against those assessments on Wednesday morning, boasting that “the Caliphate will soon be destroyed” and claiming a “big difference” in North Korea’s conduct since he took office. (He softened his language on North Korea slightly, saying that there is a “decent chance of denuclearization.”)
With a few exceptions, Coats has managed to avoid much of the high-profile political controversy that has surrounded Trump’s other senior national security appointments. Last summer, he was forced to issue a statement downplaying his apparently astonished reaction to the news that Trump planned to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House and insisting that “my admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president.”
But even among Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, support for his under-the-radar DNI has remains high. The former senator — an erstwhile member of the Intelligence Committee — is well-liked among his former colleagues, several of whom on Wednesday bemoaned the president’s tendency to discuss national security issues on Twitter. In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who talks frequently to the president and is one of the leading GOP critics of the FBI, praised Coats and said he would advise against dismissing him.
One House Intelligence Committee Republican said, “I haven’t talked to a lot of people about it but I know of no one here who wants to see him go.” (Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top-ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee and frequent critic of the intelligence community, said he hadn’t watched the Senate hearing.)
The relationship between the intelligence community and the president varies from administration to administration. President Bill Clinton was known not to be close to James Woolsey, one of Clinton’s CIA directors. In 1994, after a man crashed a Cessna onto the White House lawn, Washingtonians joked that it was Woolsey trying to get a meeting with Clinton.
The Bush administration drew fierce criticism for its handling of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War — in particular its false assessment that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction. A 2007 report from the Pentagon inspector general found that Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith had “developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaeda relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers.”
Senior administration officials also famously embraced raw intelligence from a source known as “Curveball” to build their case that Iraq had WMDs; it emerged later that intelligence officials had long considered the low-level Iraqi defector to be unreliable and his information no good.
At the time, the deputy chief of the CIA’s Iraqi Task Force threw cold water on a Defense Department agent who wanted to warn then-Secretary of State Colin Powell about relying on Curveball.
“Let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about,” the official wrote.