Global Watch

The Trump presidency starts on the back foot

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Tension between United States President-elect, Donald Trump, and the US intelligence community places not only US national security, but also the international order in jeopardy, with Russia as beneficiary.

The cracks emerging between Trump and the US intelligence community (IC) developed into a rift after a controversial IC dossier was leaked to the media.

The 35-page dossier, compiled by Orbis, a British private intelligence company owned by two former members of Britain’s external intelligence service (MI6), was originally commissioned by a contestant for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

In line with a contemporary trend, also in South Africa, of what can be called ‘freelance intelligence’ work, Orbis was instructed to collect dirt on Trump in his dealings with Russia.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party took ownership of the dossier after the original client – who remains unknown, but is rumoured to be Jeb Bush, brother of former President George W. Bush – gave up his nomination bid.

The dossier contains a litany of alleged transgressions by Trump, including personal indiscretions and sexual escapades during a visit to Moscow in 2013.

The overarching and most damaging conclusion of the dossier is that Trump was in servitude to Moscow because they were blackmailing and bribing him.

Coupled with the intense debate in the US regarding the involvement of the Russian intelligence service (FSB) under the alleged direct supervision of President Putin – himself a former Russian intelligence head – to influence the US election outcome in favour of Trump using cyber espionage, the dossier set the stage for a perfect political storm in the US.   

Serious concern

Only days before Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the US, the world’s attention was captivated by the sensational contents of the dossier after it was leaked to the media.

None of the sensational claims in the dossier have been verified.

The ensuing public spat that followed, after Trump rebuked the IC for leaking the dossier, and after he and President Obama were briefed on the content, must be reason for serious concern.

On Twitter, his preferred method of communication, Trump compared the leak to “Nazi Germany” and lamented that, “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

Attempting to release the tension, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, said he did not believe the leaks to the press came from the IC. He also explained that it was a collective IC decision to share the material with Trump because its mere existence was important for the incoming president to know about despite not being verified.

Apprehension justified

Apprehension is justified because the Trump presidency will start with a frosty relationship between the new president and the US’s IC.

The ramifications of public spat could not only obstruct a smooth transition to the administration but with the current frenzy likely to intensify, rather than subside once Trump sits in the Oval Office, it will be a challenge to heal the rift between the president and the IC.

Now is the time for cool heads and Trump needs all the level-headed support he can get from all his intelligence chiefs – those that will be leaving with President Obama, and their replacements.

Trump will also have to tone down his nonconformity and start acting presidentially.

It is imperative for Trump to understand and accept that he needs to trust the IC without hesitation.

Failing to do so will not only jeopardise the national security of the US, but will have global consequences.

Damage is guaranteed globally, both politically and economically, if the most powerful head of state in the world and the intelligence community that must serve him with the required intelligence and advice to keep the US and the world safe, remain at odds. 

Fortunately, the row occurred before Trump took the oath of office. It should serve as warning to both him and the US intelligence community that they will have restore the required healthy, professional working relationship between the White House and the CI that is required.

The relationship between the head of state and intelligence chiefs and advisers must at all times remain cordial, respectful, professional, and above all, honest and untainted.

There is no other choice or alternative – at stake is the nation’s safety. The paramount responsibility any intelligence community is always to inform the head of state about threats and opportunities facing a country, the good and the bad just as it is, without fear or favour.

Real challenge

Trump has often openly expressed his contempt for the IC, on various occasions ridiculing their findings and mockingly reminded them of how they endorsed the misguided belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

He also accused the IC of involvement in a “political witch-hunt” against him. Trump’s accusation could be passed off as subjective – being offended, but the fact remains that senior intelligence chiefs have openly expressed support for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell publicly announced his endorsement of Clinton and claimed: “Mr Putin had recruited Mr Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”

He also complained that Trump’s disparagement of the US intelligence community was undermining national security and emboldening Russia and other “enemies” of America.

Likewise, CIA and NSA director under George W. Bush, Gen. Michael Hayden, also endorsed Clinton and warned that, “Donald Trump really does sound a lot like Vladimir Putin”, adding that Trump is “the useful fool, some naïve, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited”.

In another astonishing move Trump revealed that he plans to scupper the long established practice of the daily intelligence briefing of the president, suggesting that he considers the work of the IC as of little value.

Trump’s criticism and contempt has eroded morale in the IC and it is to be expected that he will not be popular in those circles.

A commentator with experience of the IC in the US, summed up the mood: “We are at our peril to be entering an era in which there is such open, irrational and hysterical hostility by a president against a community of 17 agencies whose mandate is to keep us safe.”

Concession

With the new US president and the IC at loggerheads the Trump administration, already facing a credibility challenge at home, will start its term with a concession to the Russians.

The Guardian newspaper’s assessment of the outcome of the current standoff between Trump and the IC is proof that the international order is under strain,

“But for Vladimir Putin, the dossier affair, following allegations of a compromised presidential election, has the effect, deliberately planned or not, of advancing Moscow’s long-held aim of weakening the US, paralysing its political decision-making process, and avenging Russia’s humiliation at the close of the Cold War.

“The unprecedented confusion and disarray in the US is what old KGB agents like Putin could only dream of. The American ‘target’ has been destabilised, its democratic system of governance discredited before the world, and its new leader compromised before he takes power. Time will tell whether Putin has overplayed his hand”.

Next week we will look at the shady world of intelligence for sale

by Garth Cilliers

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