Donald Trump has taken the presidency’s sometimes contentious relationship with the intelligence community to new levels. Traditionally, the CIA views itself as above politics, and Trump has criticized the agency for what he alleges are its politically-motivated leaks and reports. And in his bizarre visit to Langley the day after his Inauguration he may have only dug himself into an even deeper hole, as some worried that he was trying to pressure the agency into falling in line. But the reasons for concern over Trump’s behavior don’t just stem from horror at his erratic and adversarial behavior. His willingness to ignore intelligence information and substitute his own judgments for those of the professionals follows a long line of Presidents who have done the same.
The best reason to repair the relationship between the President and the intelligence community is that, when there is a gulf between the two, the results usually turn out badly. The historical track record shows that problems ignored tend to fester and explode into wars, nuclear proliferation, political instability, and tarnished presidential legacies. Ignoring uncomfortable intelligence over the long term can lead to a process of politicization wherein the information most likely to reaffirm the President’s worldview is the information he is most likely to see.
Trump has already mocked the expertise of the professional intelligence bureaucracy and made clear that since he’s “a smart person” he doesn’t need the daily intelligence briefings that all modern presidents before him have received. His transition team then disparaged the intelligence community as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” And now he says it is time “to move on” from concerns about Russian interference in the election.
Trump’s bravado on social media may be unprecedented behavior for a President, but ignoring intelligence information is not. Setting aside the hysterical and conspiratorial tweets, Trump’s behavior bears the hallmarks of past cases in which Presidents have ignored intelligence information when it gets in the way of their goals. In many ways, Presidents who ignore intelligence are like anyone who puts off doing something uncomfortable. Faced with a tough situation, kicking the can down the road is naturally appealing. For example, President Barack Obama neglected warnings that a civil war was brewing in Syria. Intervening carried major political drawbacks—he had campaigned as a peace candidate looking to extricate the United States from the Middle East, and his intervention in Libya had, at best, mixed results. Additionally, engagement in Syria would have meant working with a ragtag band of rebels, not all of whom were friendly to the United States. But by letting the problem simmer, the Syrian conflict exploded into a full blown civil war, initiated a refugee crisis, and opened the door for Iran and Russia to help force the rebels into retreat.
This kind of failure to heed warnings has a long tradition in the presidency. President George H.W. Bush, for instance, didn’t take seriously warnings that Iraq was a threat to its neighbors; the collapse of the Soviet Union was more interesting. As a result, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait caught U.S. policymakers by surprise.
Looking deeper into history shows that ignoring problems does not make them go away, even if things seem quiet for a time. As early as 1958, the CIA explored the possibility that India might develop nuclear weapons. As years passed, the government shifted attention to other problems and courted India as an ally during the Cold War. It came as a surprise when India detonated a “peaceful” nuclear explosive nicknamed “Smiling Buddha” in 1974. President Gerald Ford did not want to disturb relations with the world’s largest democracy and ended up playing along in the charade that India was not a nuclear weapons state. At the time, this may have been the path of least resistance, but letting the problem fester introduced a troubling dynamic in which countries seeking nuclear weapons, or countries like Israel that already had them but were outside of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, felt like India received a sweetheart deal. Other countries were thus enticed to conclude that they, too, should secretly develop weapons.
Even if the intelligence community issues a warning, it can’t pursue the problem without presidential backing. For example, the intelligence community concluded that North Korea was probably conducting a secret nuclear weapons program even after the 1994 agreed framework in which the country pledged to cease nuclear weapons activities. But the Clinton Administration did not ask for a formal estimate because doing so might bring to light revelations that would endanger the 1994 agreement.
The President always has the option to ignore intelligence, but repeatedly doing so risks politicizing intelligence across the intelligence community and all the way up to the White House. Politicization occurs when the President penalizes advisors who tell him what he doesn’t want to hear and rewards those who tell him what he does. The result is that intelligence advice can bend to the President’s whims.
For example, just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States Intelligence Board issued a now infamous estimate that the Soviets were unlikely to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. The scholarly consensus is that the Board knew that the Kennedy Administration would discount any other conclusion because it had already publicly dismissed the worry that Khrushchev would bring nuclear missiles to Cuba. Intelligence officials and White House advisers knew that bringing forward an estimate contrary to the Administration’s position could damage their careers or weaken their influence in future debates.
This cost-benefit calculation is similar to the idea of groupthink, whereby rewards flow to those who can “get with the program,” but rather than the peer pressure of a group, the intelligence producer-consumer relationship relies on a hierarchical system of rewards and sanctions. The Nixon White House was famous for rewarding advisors who were “team players.” One Nixon White House aide recalls National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger being unhappy about the CIA’s conclusions regarding Soviet plans: “He kept saying he didn’t want to influence our judgments—but’!” Nixon also famously clashed with the CIA, and he ignored their analysis of the Vietnam War’s progress when the agency’s pessimism contradicted the Administration’s public pronouncements. The result was a lengthened war in Vietnam and a tarnished legacy for many of the decision makers involved, not to mention the country.
Making a habit of ignoring intelligence information opens up a gulf between the President and the intelligence community. In the past, that gulf has created a space for the intelligence community to engage in questionable behavior and for the President to maintain plausible deniability. For example, the CIA didn’t formally register a briefing with President George W. Bush about its enhanced interrogation programs until April 2006, long after they began. And the President was never told the location of the agency’s black site prisons. It wasn’t that the CIA conspired to keep the President in the dark; it’s that the President didn’t want to know too many details so that he could avoid being blamed for skirting the law.
Trump has taken presidential antagonism toward the intelligence community to unprecedented levels. By doing so he risks creating a chilling atmosphere in the White House where yes-men tell him only what he wants to hear. Kicking the can down the road on warnings raised by the intelligence community may deliver short-term political benefits to the Trump White House, but the long-term costs will rise—and they will be borne by his legacy, his successors, and the country.