By now, if you are at all keeping up with current events within national politics and/or the national security world, you are aware of the feud that has erupted between Donald J. Trump and the intelligence community. Here is a primer, if you still need one.
I should say a few things before we get to the top five questions the CIA must be asking regarding collection on Russia going forward in the Trump administration. First, the source of the leak regarding the existence of the infamous dossier on Trump is anyone’s guess. Yes, it could have been a 7th floor CIA leader involved in the briefing of the information. Yes, it could have been a senior analyst from the counterintelligence (CI) shop involved in preparing the briefing. Yes, it could have been a mid-level operations officer involved in the possible collection of any amplifying information.
All of those things are possible, and thus Trump’s tirade against the intel community, in which he verbally and Twitter-ly diarrhea’d comparisons of the leak (and leakers) to Nazi Germany. Because, who doesn’t remember when the German intel community leaked information about Hitler? Or, wait, are the Nazis the leakers in this analogy, directed against the Jews? I am confused. Never mind.
Furthermore, it could have been any number of politicians, political operatives, or press people who instead leaked the commercially-produced dossier, instead of an intelligence official. In reality, to be clear, the dossier itself was apparently available everywhere, for a long time, before it made its splash in the news. The fact that it was briefed to Trump was the issue, I suppose. Again, it is murky. Should the CIA and FBI not have briefed him that the Russians possibly intended to blackmail him? You would think he would want to know that…
All of this leads us to conclude: who cares? The dossier was collected, passed around D.C. and New York, within the incestuous press-politics-infotainment complex, and was briefed to Trump. That is the bottom line, for now (pending the results of any counterintelligence investigation going on with regards to the substance of the dossier).
So, we shall start from where we are. We shall prognosticate based on the facts at hand, as we know them right now. From where we currently find ourselves vis-a-vis Trump and the intelligence community, here are the top five questions the Central Intelligence Agency should be asking itself regarding Russian collection under President Trump. The CIA is the HUMINT center for the national security establishment, after all, and thus merits our specific focus.
Will the new POTUS change collection requirements on Russia?
Beyond ending any currently standing sanctions imposed on Russia or, God forbid, pulling out of NATO altogether, this will be a telltale sign as to President Trump’s seriousness with regards to seeing Russia as a potential ally. If the President comes into office and directs the intelligence community to place Russia in the same category as our staunchest allies, with regards to collection on their security services, foreign, and domestic policies, then the CIA will know that Trump means business. Such a directive would be a sea-change in U.S. intelligence collection against Russia.
Incidentally, CIA Director-designee Mike Pompeo said during his confirmation hearings that his CIA would provide policymakers with “accurate, timely, robust and clear-eyed analysis of Russian activities.” So there is that. He is clearly more wary of Russia than his soon-to-be boss. Read more here, from President-elect Trump’s favorite news outlet, CNN.
How will the liaison relationship with Russia change?
Piggybacking on question number one, how will the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies change the way they interact with Russian intelligence? Will they grow closer to the famously hostile FSB, and Russian intel writ large? Will the Russians stop beating up our officers in Moscow? Will we all “just get along?” I am skeptical.
If you follow press accounts, counterterrorism cooperation is already pretty decent between Russia and the United States, at times, but in other areas, cooperation with Russia is nonexistent, one must presume. Will this change under President Trump? Can the CIA reap the rewards of Trump’s sycophantic posturing toward Putin? It is a question no doubt circulating widely inside CIA headquarters.
How will our allies view all of this, and will they begin increased collection on the U.S.-Russia relationship?
If the United States and Russia do grow closer, how will this effect U.S. intelligence relationships with our more traditional and longstanding allies? Will they find it necessary to increase collection on us, and our dealings with Russia? Of course they will.
The Germans, for example, will want to know how Russia and U.S. cooperation might play out for NATO and German elections. The British and French, as well, will want to know if we intend to alter policy towards Syria. They will all want to know if they will be able to reap the fruits of increased cooperation through acquisition of any information that we receive from Russia. The questions go on and on.
Where will any possible CI investigation lead?
Is the intelligence community actively investigating President-elect Trump himself, any of his associates, or any members of his campaign staff for CI infractions? Is it possible that the President-elect is an asset — whether witting or not — of Russia? This question is, for obvious reasons, as delicate as an egg balancing on the top of a man’s head as he walks a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. It is delicate, in other words, and even asking this one is going to lead to all kinds of problems for the CIA’s 7th floor and FBI leadership.
Counterintelligence investigators and collectors at the CIA and FBI, on the other hand, will likely try to ignore the delicacy and see where the threads of information lead them. That is their job, after all. Here is the analysis of the BBC’s Paul Wood on the dossier, and its possible legitimacy. You can see where the CI threads might lead (or not!).
Does the CIA’s Russia collection unit have a target on its back?
Following upon the question above, will those tasked with running down this information feel they are in danger of political and/or legal retribution? They have probably already felt some of the former, by way of Trump’s ridiculous Nazi tweets.
The fear of the latter — legal jeopardy — is much more sobering, and will engender feelings of insecurity much like those experienced for personnel involved in the CIA’s interrogation and rendition program a few years back. Such fears can be debilitating for the agency, and slow operations to a trickle.
CIA officers involved in this collection will have to watch their backs, and avoid the chilling effect of such political pressure. The entire intelligence community, in fact, will be feeling this heat. “Good,” some would say. This author disagrees. We need these people to keep us safe and work to advance our interests (i.e., to get what we want as a country).
Perhaps the CIA will/should direct their sensitive briefs to those agency and cabinet officials who do see Russia as a threat, and who also happen to have Trump’s ear. That might ease the passage of the information to a Trump possibly reluctant to hear it.
In any case, these are interesting times for the CIA, and possibly dangerous times for the country, if the President-elect and his intelligence agencies cannot find a way to overcome these issues. The rest of us will be waiting with bated breath.
Image courtesy of Getty