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Why Donald Trump will not win his battle with US intelligence agencies

analysis Updated: Jan 17, 2017 12:13 IST
Sushil Aaron
Donald Trump

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan.(Reuters Photo)

It is astonishing to watch the current confrontation between US intelligence agencies and Donald Trump. The president-elect has finally conceded that Russia may have meddled in the US presidential election but is incensed that a report by a former MI6 officer about the Trump team’s alleged contacts with the Kremlin and his lurid escapades in Russia were leaked to the media. Trump blamed the intelligence agencies for the leaks. The agencies are not backing down. On January 15, John Brennan, the outgoing CIA director, termed Trump’s comments equating the intelligence community with Nazi Germany as “outrageous” and mentioned that he didn’t think Trump “has a full appreciation of Russian capabilities, Russian intentions, and actions.”

Trump is carrying on blissfully unmindful of the inner dynamics of the United States government. He seems to think that presidents can easily tame structures of the government, such as intelligence agencies. He talks as though his job were that of a CEO, whereby his main task is to get the best people in important positions and that as the new boss in town things will turn around in the government as they did in his overrated business empire.

Nothing could be further from reality, particularly when dealing with the national security establishment, owing to their power and influence which are capable of containing and shaping elected institutions, including the presidency. Trump is, in effect, taking on the American ‘deep state’ – a fight he’s bound to lose unless he compromises.

One way to think through such tensions in Washington is the work of Michael J Glennon, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, who offered great insight into the workings of the US national security institutions in his 2014 book National Security and Double Government. He draws on Walter Bagehot’s thesis of “double government” in the book The English Constitution that described the dual power set-up in Britain in the 19th century wherein “dignified institutions” like the monarchy and the House of Lords had the regalia of power but the real work of governing was done by concealed “efficient institutions” like the Prime Minister, Cabinet and the House of Commons.

Glennon applies this theory to the US and points to two set of institutions that wield power unevenly in Washington. One is the “Madisonian” institutions like the presidency, Congress and the courts, named after James Madison, the “principal architect of the American constitutional design”, who favoured the separation of powers between the three pillars in order to safeguard liberty. These are America’s dignified institutions where the public believes power rests. But there is another set of institutions called the “Trumanite network” that gets its name from National Security Act of 1947, which restructured the government to give the executive more flexibility to meet security threats. The act “unified the military under a new secretary of defense, set up the CIA, created the modern Joint Chiefs of Staff and established the National Security Council (NSC).” Truman also set up the National Security Agency and now the network consists of several hundred executive officials who “manage the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies” that deal with international and internal security.

Over the decades, the power of the Trumanite network has grown at the expense of the Madisonians. Trumanite officials deal with threats and so seek greater power and capability, extending the reach of the State in ways that makes civil libertarians uncomfortable. In 2011, the Washington Post identified 46 federal departments and agencies “engaged in classified national security work.” In Glennon’s narration, “Their missions range from intelligence gathering and

analysis to war-fighting, cyber operations and weapons development. Almost 2,000 private companies support this work, which occurs at over 10,000 locations across America.” The size of their budgets is classified “but it is clearly that those numbers are enormous – total annual outlay of around $1 trillion and millions of employees.” Presidents usually choose only around 4,000 individuals of the 2.8 million non-military federal employees that they are in charge of – and several hundred policymakers needed for national security are drawn from the bureaucracy. At the apex of this is the most powerful of the lot, the professional staff of the National Security Council which has nearly “400 aides” but needs to now reduce to 200 owing to recent legislation. The wider group of several hundred policymakers includes professional staff, political appointees, academics, think-tankers, military figures and officials seconded from executive agencies – and this according to Glennon constitutes America’s Trumanite network which sits at the pinnacle of what Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith has called “Washington’s tight-knit national security culture.”

This cross-departmental cohort are “not yet driven to work in the morning by a black car but are one step away”; they “draw little overt attention but wield immense, unnoticed power.” They travel the world; they attend big meetings, participate in secure videoconferences, read key classified material and offer briefings to political masters. They have technical expertise and the contacts to draw on other specialist resources. This Trumanite set largely controls the policy process; policy decisions emerge from debates within the network that has a tendency to exaggerate threats and defines security “in military and intelligence terms rather than political and diplomatic ones”. These policymakers are the ones with departmental memory; they see elected politicians as “temporary occupants” and prefer continuity to change often because the network is too complex and big to secure consent for transformational change and because policymakers often do not have the time to think about the big picture.

The Trumanite network’s power and influence in Washington has increased also because they have, through various methods, been able to stave off challenges from Madisonian institutions that are supposed to be the real originators of policy. Glennon offers several illustrations of this. For example, the courts can be co-opted because key judicial nominees often come from ranks of prosecutors, law enforcement and national security officials – who are then well-disposed to rule on legal challenges to official decisions. Before becoming the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist was an assistant attorney general who “directly participated in military surveillance of domestic political groups”. Justice Antonin Scalia was also an assistant attorney general – and both judges passed crucial rulings that aligned with the preferences of intelligence agencies. Courts certainly rule against the position of the agencies but the trend has been in favour of the Trumanites. Apart from the apex court “numerous district and appellate court judges with ties to the network also adjudicate national security cases”, often in terms favourable to the establishment.

The US Congress, similarly, is also unable to check the power of the Trumanite network, writes Glennon. Lawmakers are overburdened; they are under constant scrutiny and are expected to be experts on everything. They cannot match “Trumanites informational bases” and are wary of contradicting the network and career-destroying voting in Congress. It does not help that Trumanites are active in the legislative process; they “draft national security bills that members introduce, they endorse or oppose measures at hearings … They lobby members, collectively and one-on-one.”

Congressional oversight instruments like intelligence committees are also severely ineffective because of secrecy rules that prevent public debate or because security agencies resort to outright deception or resistance. In 1983, a representative famously said Congressmen were “like mushrooms. “They [the CIA] keep us in the dark and feed us a lot of manure.” More than 20 years

later, a senator complained of “years of misleading and deceptive statements that senior officials made to the American people.” Information conveyed to oversight committees is “wildly over classified” so that the relevant material is way beyond the purview and Congressional “staff members seen by the CIA as pressing too hard can find themselves improperly monitored by the agency…” When CIA officials destroyed videotapes of water boarding sessions, no one bothered to tell anyone in Congress.

US presidents are also manoeuvred into preferred directions by the Trumanite network. “Top down decisions that order fundamental policy shifts are rare,” writes Glennon. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson wrote, “One fact… is clear to anyone with experience in government: The springs of policy bubble up; they do not trickle down.” To return to Glennon again “the reality is that when the President issues an ‘order’ to the Trumanites, the Trumanites themselves normally formulate the order.”

Presidential decisions do matter, arguably as in the case of Barack Obama’s policies towards Iran and Cuba. But the network does, in many instances, frame policy options in ways that force the president to pick the course it prefers. When Obama was deciding the number of troops to be deployed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon gave him four options, two of which, in Obama’s words, were not realistic while the other two were practically indistinguishable. “So, what’s my option? Obama asked. “You have essentially given me one option.” Glennon points to Vali Nasr’s reporting of his time working in special representative Richard Holbrooke’s office where he said that the Trumanite network not only persuaded Obama to continue the policy of using armed drones “but succeeded in curtailing discussion of the policy’s broader ramifications. There were essentially “four formidable unanimous voices” in the Situation Room: the Pentagon, CIA, office of the director of National Intelligence and the White House’s counterterrorism adviser. Nasr writes that this bloc “by and large discouraged debate over the full implications of this strategy in national security meetings”.

It is perhaps for that kind of bureaucratic resistance that Obama was not able to do as much on human rights as advocacy groups had hoped. Human Rights Watch pointed recently to Obama “mixed record” on human rights and criticised him on efforts to protect privacy, the use of drones, his refusal to prosecute those responsible for torture (while ending the practice) and his “half-hearted” attempts to close Guantanamo.

It is this thicket of incestuous institutions, hardwired for continuity and self-aggrandisement, which Trump wants to take on and reorient with the few “fantastic” people he appoints. He has a couple of immediate problems to tackle. The leaks suggest that the US intelligence community does not trust him and his dealings with the Kremlin. Not only has he not come clean on contact with Moscow, he is nudging the US towards an accommodation with the Putin regime, which large swathes of the National Security bureaucracy may be loath to. In an interview to Slate in November (after Trump won but before the latest Russia-related leaks), Glennon surprisingly said the intelligence services might not be willing to refuse the new president’s orders if he starts firing officials, since there will be other personnel willing to take their place. He said on issues like reinstituting water boarding or “taking out the families” of suspected terrorists, for instance, the agencies may find ways to cooperate with Trump as both sides stand to lose legitimacy during a confrontation. Glennon concluded that he didn’t see “bureaucratic checking as a realistic way of stopping a populist authoritarian president”. (Serious confrontations did not occur during Obama’s time as his administration and the Trumanite network were in sync on national security issues, suggesting that conventional tools were enough for the network to persuade Obama as compared to what they’d need for an erratic figure like Trump.)

Be that as it may, it looks unlikely that US intelligences services will yield to Trump when it comes to Russia because accommodation with Moscow through a possibly compromised figure threatens the internal coherence of US national security institutions. It is one thing to get an entirely new set of officials and political appointees with a change of government, but quite another to expect a vast bureaucracy to quickly warm up to Russia, a country that American bureaucrats have long been reared to oppose. Brennan’s misgivings about Trump’s approach to Russia are thus likely to be shared by many Trumanites. The rumble within the establishment may be too much to handle if Trump presses ahead with his Russia plans without first convincingly clearing suspicions about his dealings with Moscow. The early stages of Trump’s presidency could see him attempt to stamp his authority while the agency may use leaks as a negotiating tactic to make Trump change or pace his embrace of Russia – which is currently unnerving America’s allies in Nato and elsewhere.

The Trumanite network has many resources to hurt Trump. It has the liberal media and Democrats with it on the issue and it enjoys a strong standing in American culture – thanks to Hollywood’s positive portrayal of the US military and intelligence personnel, which will lend greater ballast to leaks against the administration. Plotting his way ahead, Trump ought to note Glennon’s warning that “no president has reserves deep enough to support a frontal assault on the Trumanite network”. The new US president may be about to learn more about Washington the hard way.

Views expressed are personal. The author tweets from @SushilAaron