August 20, 2016–By now you will have heard that this past week presidential candidate Donald Trump received his first intelligence briefing from America’s top spy organs, led by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). You’ve probably also heard what Trump had to say going in about how he trusts our spooks: “Not so much from the people that have been doing this for our country. I mean, look what’s happened over the last ten 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 . . . because they’ve made such bad decisions.”
On the other side you have former senior CIA officials like Michael Morrell saying the country cannot afford to have Donald Trump for its president, or agency director Michael Hayden insisting that if Trump is in charge and wants to carry out his promise to torture people, he’ll have to bring his own bucket.
This is really quite an odd circumstance. Think about it. Mr. Trump has based his entire campaign on selling fear, the fear of an existential threat from which only he can rescue the nation. Meanwhile our intelligence community has been selling fear also. The continuing terrorist threat and so on, so much so that in this space we have taken to calling the present DNI, General James Clapper, our Fearful Leader (and Michael Hayden–who devoted his tenure at CIA to an attempt to preserve the torture program– a fabulist). That sides with such comparable worldviews eye each other so darkly says something about the reality of the United States today.
First to Trump. Take his ten year standard. Actually you can do better and go back to September 11, 2001. No American has died on U.S. soil from an islamist terrorist attack since then. There have been a host of remote conversions and gun massacres, from Orlando to San Bernardino, to Aurora; but it remains debatable whether those represent disturbed individuals grabbing the cloak of jihadist justification or true terrorists. There have also been an even larger number of cases where weak individuals have been converted in entrapment schemes by our own security services and then condemned as terrorists. If Trump’s point is that the FBI and others made dubious decisions in those cases, he’d be right, but somehow I don’t think so. He would also be right if he meant the intel pukes miscalled the growth of ISIS, or Iran’s alleged rush to the bomb, but that’s not Trump either–he is about threat to the homeland. Anyway, bottom line is that on his decade-long measure of merit, intelligence performance has not been “catastrophic.”
As for the spooks themselves, it is a matter of both relief and concern that they speak up about the Trump candidacy and his specter of fear. The intelligence chieftains’ protests give us relief because they show the spies themselves recognize the danger inherent in the stoking of paranoid fears, and they agree that Trump, as the personification of that irrationality, would be dangerous in the White House. But the spooks themselves seem not to understand that their own fear-mongering created the atmosphere of hysteria in which a Donald Trump could flourish.
Suddenly the spies find themselves in a situation where Mr. Trump could actually become President of the United States. And the Donald has promised to sweep their halls clean of the old spooks if he wins. Fearful Leader and the others ought to have thought long ago about the consequences of their fear-mongering.