It is no secret that things have been “testy” recently, at least in public, between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the President-elect, Donald J. Trump. To hear it spoken of in the media, you would think that the CIA is filled with Trump haters looking to stymie the newly elected incoming POTUS, and that Trump himself takes no intel briefings, does not trust the CIA, and blames them for the faulty intelligence that came to light before the Iraq war in 2003.
Like everything else involving the CIA in the public sphere, and increasingly Trump, as well, there is more to the story than meets the eye. It is not quite as simple as the usual narrative would lead us to believe, namely that the two sides are diametrically opposed (or, that there are even “two sides,” for that matter).
Let us look at the CIA itself, for example. It is not a monolith. In a perfect world, one should not need to explicitly state that fact, but alas, it does indeed need stating. Similarly to the U.S. military, the CIA is made up of individuals, many of whom likely voted for and/or support Trump and his ability to run the government as he sees fit. CIA officers of course have individual views on the American political system, most if not all of which have virtually nothing to do with their work at the CIA. At the working level, no matter who gets elected, CIA officers will continue on with their mission to the best of their ability.
At the top levels, though, the story is a bit more nuanced. Up there in the rarefied air of the CIA’s seventh floor, some are indeed wed to the fortunes of the administration. That is simply a fact. The head of the CIA, after all, is a political appointment, and those surrounding him also owe varying degrees of allegiance to the director, and to the administration. That also means owing loyalty to certain policies which might not survive a change in administration.
The Russian target comes to mind. It is completely plausible that the CIA’s posture towards the Russian collection target will change when Donald Trump comes to power in January of 2017. That will make some at the CIA nervous and frustrated, though it is hard to imagine that the Russian target will ever fully go away in terms of strategic importance (not if we Americans are smart, that is).
Therefore, it should not be surprising that there might be a certain amount of trepidation within the ranks of the CIA that the mission might change drastically, at least for those focused on certain targets. Despite that fact, though, for the working-level officers, who are professional intelligence officers after all, there will be an acceptance of their orders and directives, and they will adjust as necessary. That is what they do. They serve America and the politicians in charge, who are duly elected by the people.
As far as the leadership of the CIA, that problem will correct itself the day that Trump takes office, and presumably re-shapes the agency’s front office according to his own vision. Some senior officers will be asked to retire. Some will be reshuffled. Some might refuse to serve in a leadership role under Trump, if they cannot stomach his policies. That is their prerogative. They can always retire, and move on. No one forces them to serve an administration with which they disagree. What should not be in doubt, however, is that there will be changes in the CIA’s leadership, as is fitting with a change in administration.
Some senior leaders might stay on, and serve under Trump, hoping that they can speak truth to power, in keeping with the best traditions of the CIA. They can make themselves as apolitical as possible, respond to the requirements of the principals (the Trump administration), and serve the Executive Branch to their utmost. That is what we should all expect of them, as Americans.
At its best, and when it works properly, the CIA is a professional organization dedicated to intelligence collection to keep America safe, and to facilitate the advancement of the country’s interests, as dictated by the elected leadership. You should trust that the great majority of CIA officers know this, and adhere to it, because they do. CIA officers do not do their job to advance their own individual political agendas. If that was the most important thing to them, they would go into politics (and some do).
There will surely be a “feeling out” phase between the incoming President and the CIA. No one should doubt that, given the events that have transpired over the last few years. The agency will need to “recruit” the new President, and the new President will need to learn to trust the CIA. For the good of the country, and all of us, that is the only way that the United States can best be served by its intelligence community.
We need it now more than ever.
(Photo courtesy of Drew Angerer/Getty Images)