Trump and the spies: They're worried - but they'll still take orders


As Trump lashes out at the intelligence services, the professionals are not sure where this crisis will end

Yossi Melman's picture
Monday 20 March 2017 18:49 UTC

NEW YORK CITY - Like most weekends in the past two months, demonstrators gathered last Saturday in front of 721 Fifth Avenue. Even the freezing weather of -8 celsius couldn’t deter them. They came to express their solidarity with the tenant of the penthouse on the 58th floor of the tower building that carries his name.

The enthusiastic crowd of a hundred or so didn’t care that the US president was not at home. He preferred to stay at his Mar-a-Lago resort in the Sunshine State.

A pro-Trump demonstration in liberal New York City is unusual enough. But what made this protest particularly odd were the demonstrators’ demographics. There were African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians – all minority groups that Trump has supposedly turned against. They carried American flags and chanted not only against former president Barack Obama, but also against the CIA and the FBI.

Fickle stances

Their denouncement echoed Donald Trump’s strange tweets a week before in which he accused Obama of wiretapping the phones in the Trump Tower before the elections.

Obama and his aides rushed to deny the accusations, pointing out that only a judge in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court – a federal court established and authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance of 1978 to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against foreign spies inside the US - can order law enforcement agencies to wiretap on US soil.

In the meantime, without apologising or explaining, this week the White House changed its version and said that Trump doesn’t believe Obama wiretapped him.

Without apologising or explaining, the White House changed its version and said that Trump doesn’t believe Obama wiretapped him

Ahead of the Trump administration’s change of story, FBI Director James Comey reportedly asked the Department of Justice – instead of doing it himself - to deny Trump’s claims, fueling speculation that the FBI had obtained a FISA court order to investigate accusations of Russian spies interfering in the US election – and that the trail had led to Trump’s aides and their unexplained relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin. 

Another pro-Trump rally held this month (AFP)

Today, there are several investigations underway into these matters, at least three by the FBI and six others by various Congressional committees and a subcommittee.

They will try to shed light about the allegations that Russian intelligence was behind the hacking of the Democratic party’s emails. But the inquires may broaden in scope to include the suspicion that Trump or his assistants either encouraged, or knew before hand or afterwards, that Russia was behind the hacking.

Collision course

Director Comey finds himself in the very peculiar situation of confronting his own president. This has only happened once before to the FBI in the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon eventually decided to resign over the Watergate scandal instead of being impeached by Congress.

However, it is not only the FBI which is on a collision course with the White House. The entire US intelligence community feels under fire, challenged in an unprecedented manner by a president who distrusts and even loathes it.

“Trump’s onslaught on the intelligence community weakens it,” Peter Earnest, a former senior CIA operative told me when we met at the International Spy Museum in Washington.

He is the founding executive director of the museum after 35 years in the agency, 25 of them in the clandestine service as a case officer recruiting and running agents in Europe and the Middle East.

Yet, Earnest says it is “too early to say” what Trump’s real motives are for the attacks on the intelligence community. It is unclear to him whether Trump really aims to weaken the community or if his declarations are simply a tactical ploy to smear the FBI because of the investigation and to divert attention away from it.

Difficult relationship

Nevertheless, as David Sanger, a New York Times reporter and commentator on national security and winner of two Pulitzer prices for his investigations, told me, “it is no exaggeration to say that the relationship now between President Trump and the intelligence community is fraught”.

“Mr Trump, in a news conference just before his inauguration, denounced leaks that surrounded reports - all unconfirmed - of Russian efforts to compromise him and his aides,” Sanger said.

“‘That's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do,' [Trump] said. The line offended many of the 70,000 or so who work in the intelligence world in the United States.

“And when Mr Trump sought to make amends, by visiting the CIA the day after his inauguration, he spent most of the time talking about the size of his crowds at the ceremony (which he insisted were the highest ever), and speculating that the CIA officers had mostly voted for him,” he said.

"They worry about whether they can reveal all their sources to him, especially on Russia"

Sangar also said that many in the intelligence community are suspicious of Trump. “They question whether he values what they do - from the collection (often at great risk) to the analysis,” he said.  “They wonder if he is only interested in conclusions that reinforce his pre-existing views. They worry about whether they can reveal all their sources to him, especially on Russia.”

But above all, Earnest, Sanger and other former CIA spies that I talked to emphasised that the men and women of the intelligence community are professionals and will work for whatever president is elected, whether they like him or not.

- Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: US President Donald Trump speaks at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on 21 January 2017 (AFP)