So, yesterday Donald Trump received his first intelligence briefing (see my colleague Susan Wright’s commentary here). It was nothing major in terms of actual content:
The briefing, which lasted about two hours, was designed to give him a slightly more detailed picture of worldwide threats than the one U.S. analysts regularly present in public; it will not reveal sensitive intelligence operations, senior U.S. officials tell NBC News.
Though there were the usual political games played beforehand:
Senior Democrats — including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid — have argued that Trump would not responsibly handle the sensitive information, attacking the Republican nominee for comments they deem reckless, such as his seeming to encourage Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.
“How would the CIA and the other intelligence agencies brief this guy? How could they do that? I would suggest to the intelligence agencies, if you’re forced to brief this guy, don’t tell him anything, just fake it, because this man is dangerous,” Reid told The Huffington Post last month. “Fake it, pretend you’re doing a briefing, but you can’t give the guy any information.”
On the Republican side, House Speaker Paul Ryan called on James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to deny Clinton a classified briefing due to her mishandling of classified information during her time as secretary of state, when she used a private email server.
For what it’s worth, they are both right.
What is noteworthy is what Trump, himself, said about the briefing:
Earhardt followed up by asking whether Trump trusts “intelligence.”
“Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country. I mean, look what’s happened over the last 10 years. Look what’s happened over the years. It’s been catastrophic. And, in fact, I won’t use some of the people that are sort of your standards, you know, just use them, use them, use them, very easy to use them, but I won’t use them because they’ve made such bad decisions,” said Trump, who will also be joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the inaugural briefing.
Intelligence gathering is hard. Intelligence analysis is much, much harder. Worse than its level of difficulty is its thanklessness. As John F. Kennedy said at CIA Headquarters, “It is not always easy. Your successes are unheralded–your failures are trumpeted.” I can’t offer a judgment on how often the CIA is correct other than to say there was never a World War III (at least of the nuclear variety, though the millions of victims of proxy wars in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America might rightfully point to the Cold War as World War III), and we are still here an the Soviet Union isn’t.
And this is not to say that the CIA, in particular, hasn’t been converted into a Democrat fiefdom over the years rendering is analysis questionable because one is never sure of the political motives driving that analysis. In particular, the senior ranks of the CIA essentially declared war on George Bush and did everything in its power to hand the 2004 election to John Kerry (for instance, clearing Michael Scheuer’s book for publication during the election season and leaking damaging assessments of the situation in Iraq).
Having said that, calling out the nation’s intelligence agencies as incompetent when you’ve never, ever been exposed to their product is just douchebaggery of the worst sort.
But what is Trump’s alternative? He’s going to use his own people. Given his track record of hiring pathetic losers this should give even his most enthusiastic supporters pause. Who is he going to rely on? Michael Flynn? The guy who received a seat at the head table of the gala hosted by the Russian government’s English language outlet, RT.com? They guy who met with Putin? Or will it be Paul Manafort? The guy who took about $12 million in cash from what seems to be the FSB to help grease the annexation of Crimea? Or Corey Lewandowski? Or Katrina Pierson? In fact, there is nothing at all in Trump’s history, either in business or in this campaign, that leads anyone to believe that he has the ability to recognize competence much less hire competent people.