Donald Trump will win his battle with the spies
      
The idea that the spooks are more powerful than the president is mistaken       
by: Gideon Rachman
    

     
James Jesus Angleton, who ran counter-intelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1954 until 1975, once described his world as a “wilderness of mirrors”. The heads of America’s intelligence agencies must have felt a similar sense of surreal disorientation, when they briefed Donald Trump last week.

The directors of National Intelligence, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were charged with describing a Russian intelligence operation. The difficulty was that the intended beneficiary of that operation was none other than Mr Trump himself. Moreover, the president-elect had already publicly derided the spies’ work on Russian hacking during the election.

The clash between the president-elect and America’s powerful “intelligence community” has led many wiseacres to suggest that Mr Trump is making a dangerous error. It is said they could easily destabilise the new president. The idea that the spooks are more powerful than the president himself sounds worldly. But it is almost certainly wrong. If there is a struggle between the White House and the intelligence agencies, Mr Trump is clearly in the more powerful position.

The legal, political and bureaucratic prohibitions placed on the intelligence agencies spying on Americans — let alone the president — are formidable. It is true that the spooks are powerful and well-resourced actors in the Washington system. But their main skill is gaining the ear of the president in struggles with other government agencies. When the president is the problem, it is less clear what the spies can do.

In any battle between the spies and the White House itself, the intelligence community’s only real resort is to brief or leak against the president. But there are no guarantees that this will be effective.

In 2004, CIA officials were widely accused of briefing against the administration of George W Bush, reflecting the agency’s discontent with the handling of the Iraq war. The Wall Street Journal even ran an editorial headlined “The CIA’s insurgency” and accusing “senior rungs of the agency” of “clearly trying to defeat President Bush and elect John Kerry”. But if regime change was indeed the intention, the CIA failed. Mr Bush was re-elected.

The whole controversy highlights a divergence in the international and domestic images of the US intelligence agencies. For the global left, the CIA has always been regarded as a sinister rightwing organisation supporting a reactionary world order. But in Washington the CIA is often regarded with suspicion by conservatives who believe it to have a liberal bias. The agency is, after all, full of people with advanced degrees and knowledge of foreign languages, who tend to raise tiresome factual objections to the right’s worldview.

This tension between some of Mr Trump’s close advisers and the intelligence agencies could become a recurring theme. One of the fascinating subplots of last Friday’s meeting between Mr Trump and the intelligence chiefs was that it placed Michael Flynn and James Clapper in the same room. Gen Flynn will head the National Security Council staff in the Trump White House. But in 2014 he was sacked as head of the Defence Intelligence Agency by Mr Clapper, the director of National Intelligence. Ever since, General Flynn has argued vociferously that the US intelligence community has failed to understand the true threat from Islamist terrorism.

Given his contempt for his old colleagues, the tensions between the spies and the White House could extend well beyond the question of Russia.

While there is little reason for Mr Trump to fear plots by the spies to destabilise his administration, picking a fight with the intelligence agencies could still be a bad idea for other reasons. Many of the most difficult foreign-policy decisions that he will have to make will rely on intelligence assessments. But it could be hard for Mr Trump to cite secret intelligence in support of action against, for example, North Korea given that he has publicly mocked the CIA’s work.

However, Mr Trump’s ability to brazen his way through contradictions and embarrassment could make this problem more apparent than real. The new president will simply claim that the intelligence agencies’ performance had radically improved after his appointees had been placed in charge.

By contrast, the intelligence community has every reason to fear the Trump White House. Mr Trump will appoint their leaders, he will control the trajectory of their careers and, judging by congressional Republicans’ efforts to loosen civil service protections, he may soon have the power to fire them at will.

The question of the “politicisation” of intelligence is hardly new. It was raised in acute form during the Bush administration’s drive towards war in Iraq. Nonetheless, the idea that it is the job of the spies to present the unvarnished truth to the president remains fundamental to the way the system is meant to operate.

Mr Trump has made very clear that there are certain truths he is not keen to hear. The furore over Russian hacking forced the president-elect to give the current intelligence chiefs an audience. But once he is firmly installed in the White House, he will be in a much better position to impose his will and views on the CIA, the NSA and the FBI. After all, he will be the boss.

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