In his Tweets of 140 characters or less, President-elect Donald Trump is undermining our national security by creating a schism between himself and our dedicated intelligence community. Since our country’s founding, intelligence has played a critical role in informing our military, our foreign policy, and the commander in chief.
Dating back to 1777, General George Washington wrote “the necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent…” and as President, Washington sought funding from Congress for intelligence operations. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333 setting forth the responsibilities of the intelligence community emphasizing “timely, accurate, and insightful information … is essential to the national security of the United States.” Reagan’s executive order notes the need for “the best intelligence possible” in order for the president to “base decisions concerning the development and conduct of foreign, defense, and economic policies, and the protection of United States national interests from foreign security threats.” We have seen time and again a strong institutional relationship between the commander-in-chief and the 17 agencies and departments that make up the intelligence community.
Trust and confidence between the president and our intelligence service is paramount to the safety and security of the American people. The men and women of our intelligence agencies risk their lives to gather up-to-date and accurate information, often in hostile regions, for the purpose of enabling the president to make informed decisions on momentous issues. The discovery of Osama Bin Laden would not have been possible without years of CIA intelligence, the Obama administration’s call to authorize the raid, and the daring mission of the Navy’s Seal Team 6. All three groups worked together to kill the world’s most wanted man — one individual alone cannot replace the value of the collective input from the president, intelligence community, and military.
The president-elect has been at times dismissive, petulant, and insulting to the intelligence officers and personnel who risk their lives to help our leaders make fact-based decisions. President-elect Trump claimed on Twitter that the “ ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case,” while the White House confirmed it was always scheduled for that date. Trump cast doubt on the CIA and FBI’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the election, telling Time magazine, “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered.” And Trump told reporters at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Day that an assessment of the intelligence community was “a disaster and they were wrong.”
Trump has been continually skeptical of the intelligence community’s conclusions. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper pointed out during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, “There is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism . . . and disparagement.”
Meanwhile, Trump has seemingly looked benignly on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military aggression in Crimea and in Syria. This can only encourage China’s overreaching in the South China Sea. Apparently, Trump has a whole new playbook that redefines what is in America’s and NATO’s security interests.
I fully accept that, as commander in chief, Trump will have the final decision in weighing the intelligence put before him. I would hope that at the very least, those decisions would be based on facts derived from the best intelligence available. Trump needs to sit down for his briefings, build a relationship with the heads of the agencies, and gain a level of mutual respect and trust. Our commander in chief should appreciate the valuable work of the rank and file of the intelligence community who work every day in service to our country.
With emerging terrorism threats from organizations like the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and volatile situations in hot spots around the globe, we need the president-elect to be ready on day one to make tough calls and safeguard our democracy. He will need to weigh the intelligence and information put before him and act quickly to protect the United States. It will be difficult to do so if he casts doubt on the experienced professionals tasked with briefing him on the active threats facing our country and our allies.
If Trump’s dismissive conduct and ongoing battle with the intelligence community one tweet at a time continues, the morale and the relationship of our intelligence service will continue to suffer, along with their relationship with the incoming president. This is good news for our adversaries, but it unfortunately makes Americans and our allies less safe.
US Representative Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts is the ranking Democrat on the National Security Subcommittee.