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The prospect of a second Trump presidency worries the intelligence community

The prospect of a second Trump presidency worries the intelligence community

 


America's spy agencies are never completely divorced from politics. But an overhaul of the type Trump is expected to attempt could undermine the credibility of U.S. intelligence services at a time when the United States and its allies are counting on them to manage crises in Ukraine and the Middle East. It could also deprive the intelligence community of the ability to dissuade the president from making decisions that could endanger the country.

POLITICO spoke with 18 former officials and analysts who worked in the Trump administration, including political appointees from both parties and career intelligence officers, some who still speak to the former president and his aides and got a glimpse of conversations about his potential second term. A number of them were granted anonymity to avoid provoking negative reactions and to speak freely about their experience working with him. Others are now openly criticizing Trump and speaking out publicly.

He wants to arm the intelligence community. And the point is, you have to look with a 360-degree perspective. He can't just pick and choose what he wants to hear when there are so many U.S. adversaries and countries that don't wish the United States well, said Fiona Hill, a top Russian adviser. on the National Security Council of the Trump administration, which has regularly criticized its policies. If he destroys information about one thing, he will partially blind us.

Many former officials said they chose to speak to POLITICO because they felt the extent to which Trump could overhaul the intelligence community, despite abundant media coverage, remained underappreciated.

Trump's demands for loyalty, often interpreted as a demand to skew results to suit his political agenda, are not limited to his spy agencies, but in the world of intelligence, these demands carry particularly serious risks, they declared.

If Trump is cavalier in his handling of classified information or documents, as the former president's June 2023 indictment alleges, it could endanger those who provide much-needed intelligence, Dan Coats said. who served as director of national intelligence early in Trump's term.

Human lives could be lost, said Coats, who became an outspoken critic of Trump after he left the administration in 2019.

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said the former president has been under attack since he announced his campaign in 2016. He listed a series of grievances, including the intelligence communities' embrace of a dossier now widely discredited over Trump's ties to Russia, the Russian administration's Russia investigation, and former intelligence officials questioning the validity of allegations against President Joe Biden's son.

In the classified documents case, Trump's lawyers argued that the intelligence community is already highly politicized, but with a left-wing ideology unfair to the former president.

A former senior White House official under Trump, who is still close to Trump and his team, argued that other key national security officials at the time also believed intelligence agencies were political offices and bloated bureaucracies that often misjudged critical issues. Another former Trump administration national security official who still speaks to the former president said Trump, if re-elected, should try to install people he trusts in agencies and oust those who have a habit of trying to undermine it. .

The confirmation process would make it difficult to appoint controversial people to top posts, but Trump could employ a tactic he used during his last administration to fill vacancies with acting directors. He could also place confidants in key positions in the intelligence community and the Pentagon that do not require Senate confirmation as he did in his first term.

Trump's critics say these won't be people with the skills needed for the job.

The main requirements for holding office will be how quickly you say yes, sir, said John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser between 2018 and 2019 and now a critic of the former president. And I think this will apply in particular to the director of the DNI and the CIA.

Such changes could fundamentally reshape agencies.

Over time, if they really intend to put flexible people in high positions, they just have to replace enough people, which leads to real corruption within this institution, said a former senior responsible for intelligence.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council declined to comment on Trump's statements regarding the intelligence community and his plans for a second term.

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