Everybody Loses in Trump’s War on Intelligence Agencies

Dont tread on me.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, the U.S. intelligence community struck back. Not at Russia, which it accuses of hacking the Democratic National Committee to destabilize American democracy and swing the 2016 presidential race, but at President-elect Donald Trump, whose recent tweets have called into question not just the agencies’ findings but their competence.

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
The "Intelligence" briefing on so-called "Russian hacking" was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

It’s entirely appropriate, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee, for the president to express a “healthy skepticism” about intelligence. But, he added, “there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.” What he didn’t add is that the president has crossed that line -- and in a typically public way.

Clapper acknowledged that, because of the need to protect secrets and sources, the full case against Russia hasn’t been made public. But he said an unclassified report with more details would be released next week, and that the intelligence community’s belief in Russia’s responsibility was only getting “more resolute.” He also pointed out that hacking is only part of a Kremlin game plan of “classical propaganda, disinformation [and] fake news” to undermine Western democracies.

Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, was admirably succinct about the necessary response: “We have got to get faster.”

But that response is not sufficient -- and both the president and the intelligence community appear to agree on the need to rethink the entire approach to cybersecurity. There remains great confusion, for example, over which agency would be atop the chain of command in the event of a systemwide attack on U.S. civilian infrastructure. How Trump’s reported plans to restructure the intelligence agencies figure into this plan remains to be seen. This week, he selected former senator Dan Coats as his Director of National Intelligence, a position he reportedly considered abolishing earlier.

A public spat between the incoming president and the intelligence community helps neither side. It can only result in greater politicization of intelligence issues, recalcitrance from the agency’s professional staffs, and a loss of public faith in the ability of the executive branch to protect the nation’s vital interests.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.