President Donald Trump’s public insults against his top intelligence chiefs and apparent unwillingness to accept assessments that contradict his own beliefs pose a dire threat to US national security and create a goldmine for foreign intelligence services to exploit, current and former intelligence officials told INSIDER.
Trump’s latest attacks came after US intelligence leaders, including FBI director Chris Wray, CIA director Gina Haspel, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee at an annual hearing on Tuesday regarding the top global security threats facing the country.
Trump grew enraged when, among other things, the officials testified that while Iran is still a global threat, it is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an international deal the Obama administration spearheaded that’s designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The assertion directly contradicted the president’s claims that Iran is violating the deal and poses an imminent nuclear threat to the US. The officials also offered intelligence assessments on other hot-button issues, like the Islamic State and North Korea, that went against Trump’s foreign policy claims.
In a typical reaction, Trump took to Twitter to lash out after the hearing.
“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” the president tweeted. “They are wrong! When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different, but … a source of potential danger and conflict.”
He added: “They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge. There economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back. Be careful of Iran. Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
Asked to weigh in on Trump’s public attacks on his intelligence chiefs, one current FBI agent put it bluntly.
“He’s doing the enemy’s job for them,” the agent, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, told INSIDER.
A goldmine for foreign intelligence
Trump’s apparently short attention span during intelligence briefings is well established. Several media reports over the last two years said officials try to keep the president focused by using visual aids and photographs and by condensing the material. They also reportedly use his name and title as often as possible to get him to pay more attention.
But according to TIME, officials are most alarmed by Trump’s angry reactions when they brief him on information that contradicts his beliefs. Two intelligence officers told TIME that they had been warned not to give the president intelligence assessments that contradict his public stances.
A current FBI agent who works in intelligence-gathering reacted wryly to the report by comparing Trump to a toddler.
“This isn’t unusual,” the agent told INSIDER. “It’s like when my son threw temper tantrums when I told him he couldn’t do something or if I said something he didn’t like.”
The agent added: “Of course, my son was three years old at the time and wasn’t sitting in the Oval Office with the nuclear button.”
Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative who spent his career recruiting foreign spies as double agents for the US, offered a more sobering assessment.
Trump’s repeated unwillingness to accept the findings of his own intelligence community “makes Americans in the national security establishment more vulnerable to approaches by foreign intelligence services — and more vulnerable to accepting those approaches — than any other time in US history,” Carle told INSIDER.
“Here’s the dilemma: how do you serve an executive who might be a foreign asset and who undermines the functioning of the national security establishment?” Carle said. “If you serve him, you might be betraying your oath to preserve and protect the Constitution. If you don’t, then you’re betraying your oath to serve the executive and your commander.”
He added: “CIA officers spend our careers preying upon exactly this dilemma.”
‘There’s never been a man in the Oval Office who has zero regard for the truth’
Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community are not a new phenomenon. He began casting doubt on the CIA’s assessment that Russia interfered in the election as early as December 2016. In the months before and after, he repeatedly refused to publicly condemn the Russian government for meddling in the race and said it could also have been China or independent hackers.
Last year, the president stunned observers when he said during a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he trusted Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere over the US intelligence community’s findings. Following swift public backlash, Trump walked back his statements and said he had confidence in US intelligence.
After intelligence officials testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, Trump met with them in the Oval Office.
Before the meeting, reporters asked Trump whether he had confidence that Haspel and Coats would give him sound advice.
“No, I disagree with certain things they said,” the president replied. “I think I’m right, but time will prove that. Time will prove me right, probably.”
On Thursday, after their meeting in the Oval Office, Trump claimed the intelligence chiefs told him their testimony had been “misquoted,” “mischaracterized,” and “distorted” by the media.
“They said it was fake news, which frankly didn’t surprise me,” Trump said.
The hearing was public and was broadcast on multiple news networks in real time. Coats, who spoke on behalf of the five intelligence officials who appeared before the panel, also submitted 42 pages of written testimony, and video of the hearing was posted to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s website.
Ned Price, the former Senior Director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, outlined the myriad national security risks that stem from the divide between Trump and the US intelligence community.
“First, there’s the risk that senior intelligence officials begin to pull their punches, watering down their assessments in order not to offend the President and his advisors,” Price told INSIDER. “Doing so could well leave our top national security officials blind, or at the very least, more susceptible to threats facing us.”
The attacks could also “continue to fuel a sense of demoralization within our intelligence community,” Price added.
One recently retired FBI agent echoed Price’s assessment, telling INSIDER that morale within the bureau “has already been down — especially in the rank and file — because of the president’s public attacks on the work they do.”
The agent added, “On top of that, FBI agents went without pay during the longest government shutdown in US history. In some way, the president’s latest actions are just adding another straw to the pile. But that doesn’t make it sting any less. How can you effectively work for someone who publicly insults everything you stand for and demonstrates so little confidence in your product?”
Carle agreed, highlighting that Trump’s personality traits add another layer of complexity.
“The US intelligence community’s job is to speak truth to power,” Carle said. “It’s not to tell the executive what he wants to hear and what supports his positions. But there’s never been a man in the Oval Office who has zero regard for the truth. He is only interested in his own self-aggrandizement. There is nothing else. Nothing.”
Perhaps the most chilling effect of Trump’s actions, national security experts said, is the goldmine it produces for foreign intelligence services.
“For decades, the Soviet Union and, more recently, Russia, have denigrated the CIA and our intelligence professionals, attempting to delegitimize US intelligence in the process,” Price said. “Now our adversaries have a helper who sits in the Oval Office.”