February 2, 2017

(Spy) Communication Breakdown



The seeming rift between the new President and the American intelligence community has been widely publicized. While President Trump has taken pains to assure intelligence agencies that they have his respect and backing, questions still linger over his disagreements with their analyses during the campaign and post-election period. Hostility between the President (and his supporters) and the intelligence community has domestic ramifications—most notably in the larger breakdown of public trust in governing institutions that has occurred in recent decades. However, more concerning is how this distrust may break down international cooperation between the United States and its allies. Without this cooperation, Americans will be placed at greater risk.

The U.S.-led intelligence network evolved during, and after, World War II. This network is now buzzing with concerns that the Trump Administration, with its unique approach to Russia, may no longer be as reliable a partner with longtime allies as previous American administrations. With Trump questioning America’s own intelligence agencies after they reported that Russia had intervened in the election, foreign agencies will likely be wondering whether information they pass on to their American counterparts would be impartially received. Also, allied intelligence agencies are concerned that their reporting may be passed to Russia—and from there to Russian allies.

Intelligence officials in Britain, a long-time intelligence ally of the United States, have reportedly asked for assurances that the Trump administration won’t endanger its clandestine spies working in Russia. Other reports claim that American spies warned their Israeli counterparts to be careful in passing on information, concerned that shared intel might get to Iran through the U.S. administration’s ties to Russia. Of course, these reports cannot be verified. That being said, in the shadowy world of espionage, concerns about these reports may still have a chilling effect on American relationships with traditional intelligence allies. If American allies become wary of sharing intel with the United States, it could endanger American lives.

In today’s world of global terrorism, information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies is a must. According to the 9/11 Commission, lack of information sharing was one of the contributing factors in the intelligence community missing opportunities to prevent the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 also stemmed, in part, from a lack of information sharing. Russia had warned the FBI about one of the attackers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but did not pass on the information that the FBI needed to conduct a more in-depth investigation. If they had, the FBI may have been able to prevent the attack.

That particular instance is an example of where better ties with Russia may have been beneficial. That being said, would it be wise to exchange a better relationship with a geopolitical opponent—Russia—for worsened relationships with multiple other allies? While Western allied relationships have endured throughout the post-War period, America’s relationship with Russia has ebbed and flowed. After all, the attempted reset under the Obama Administration did not last. The United States should not sacrifice an established—and extensive—web of partners in exchange for the uncertain backing of an unproven partner that is often hostile to American interests and allies.

From a security point of view, undermining  American intelligence networks would make it harder for American agencies to catch threats before they unfold. That increases the likelihood that they miss something and a terrorist attack occurs. Americans would be unnecessarily put at risk.

While there are maybe those who would support the dissolution of America’s expansive surveillance network, in reality it may lead to more invasive surveillance by the United States itself. Because poorer relationships with allies could lead to other countries withholding information or degrading the quality of information passed on, the U.S. government may be inclined to increase its own collection of information. The burden on Americans for the costs of their own security would increase as well.

The inability to prevent attacks may reduce public opposition to greater funding and scope for intelligence agencies. While Americans generally have a negative view of the government’s collection of phone and Internet data, they also believe that the government has not adequately protected them. There’s some cognitive dissonance in those answers, but a terrorist attack in the United States may incline more Americans to support things they might normally oppose. In an effort to compensate for the lack of a global intelligence network, ramped up domestic counterterrorism efforts may further impinge on civil liberties or target mistrusted groups. This could both increased radicalization at home—by alienating targeted groups for example—and fail to replace the international intelligence that comes from our existing networks.  The United States would then wind up with a more expansive, but less effective surveillance state.

The spat between the new president and the intelligence community is more than just a domestic issue then. It could have much wider ramifications, with both fiscal and security costs. It would benefit Americans for the administration to patch up relations with the American—and Western spy—community. If it can do so remains to be seen.