Reagan Would Not Think Kindly of Trump’s Assault on the Intelligence Community

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tags: election 2016, CIA, Reagan, Trump

Laurence Jurdem is an independent scholar who received his Ph.D. in U.S. History from Fordham University. For more information, please visit the author's website

A report released Friday by U.S. intelligence officials, stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” The conclusions of the study are in sharp conflict with President-Elect Donald Trump’s assertion that there was no proof Moscow had hacked the Democrats or interfered with the election. Mr. Trump’s harsh critique of the American intelligence system could lead to long-term problems between the White House and America’s spy agencies. Despite the president-elect’s claim that he is now receiving intelligence updates, he has in the past ridiculed the idea of daily intelligence briefings from national security officials, because, as he said last month: "I don't have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years.” By constantly belittling and criticizing American intelligence organizations, the incoming president has displayed an attitude that is directly in conflict with the chief executive with whom Mr. Trump is frequently compared by conservatives – Ronald Reagan.

During the period that followed Reagan’s victory over President Jimmy Carter in November, 1980, the former governor of California was fully aware of the international challenges he was about to inherit. In the Middle East, 52 Americans were being held hostage by a militant Islamic regime in Iran, while the Soviet Union, having invaded Afghanistan a year earlier, continued to increase its power across the globe by whatever means necessary.

The situations regarding Iran and the U.S.S.R. were only two of the many complicated scenarios Reagan would have to address as America’s fortieth president. The former actor and spokesman for General pric was aware of the unpredictable nature of global affairs, having written about arms control and other foreign policy issues for a daily radio broadcast he delivered between 1975 and 1979. As Reagan moved through the transition process, the president-elect knew it was important he be kept up to date on the latest national security information, a concept that Mr. Trump seems to have had difficulty understanding.

As the inauguration approached, Reagan continued to pay careful attention to the shifting nature of events occurring abroad. In an article published by the Center for the Study of Intelligence in 2011, CIA historian Nicholas Dujmovic wrote that Reagan eagerly anticipated the briefings he received from the national intelligence community. During his conversations with CIA officials, Reagan surprised them with his curiosity, concentration and attention to detail. Most importantly, the man who many believed was a hardcore ideologue, showed himself to be open and amenable to alternative opinions even if they clashed with some of his own long held policy ideas. Due to the hectic nature of his schedule, Mr. Reagan did not receive briefings every day. However, when he did have spare time, Reagan read the intelligence material that he had missed with the knowledge that events around the world could change at any moment.

Reagan paid attention to these CIA briefings not only because of the importance they played in keeping the nation safe, but also because he had great reverence for the institution itself. Following the divisive congressional hearings into CIA activities during the 1970s, Reagan concluded that it was necessary to raise the confidence of the agency due to the important role he believed it played in the struggle against international Communism. Reagan also understood that launching tirades of negative criticism, as Mr. Trump has done, serves no purpose except to create mistrust and dissention. The late president would not have looked kindly on Mr. Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community, simply because he did not agree with their findings regarding the question of Russian cyberespionage.

Is Trump’s dismissive attitude towards intelligence estimates and those who analyze them going to continue into his presidency? Time will tell. Throughout the Reagan administration, the president was a regular consumer of clandestine information. During his time in the White House, national security officials requested reports on specific regions and issues from the CIA in which the president had expressed interest. That background material frequently proved helpful, particularly if an important policymaking decision was upcoming. Reagan also continued his close reading of the daily intelligence briefings. An NSC official who prepared the intelligence summary commented that Reagan was consistently on top of the issues officials discussed with him – evidence that he actually read the materials he was given.

While skepticism about the information provided by the national security services is a healthy thing, the barrage of Twitter attacks Mr. Trump has launched against the intelligence community over the last few months can do nothing but weaken the motivation and optimism of the men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis. As shown by the contributions made by U.S. intelligence during the latter stages of the Cold War, Mr. Trump would be wise to follow the lessons of President Reagan, who clearly understood the difference intelligence information can have in achieving victory over a formidable adversary like Russia, which under Vladimir Putin behaves in ways comparable to the old Soviet Union.

A whole range of complicated foreign policy issues face Mr. Trump: Russian meddling in Ukraine and Western European democratic politics, the spread of Islamist radicalism, nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, and an aggressive Iran. In an age where America’s national security can be penetrated in innumerable ways, President-Elect Trump must view the intelligence services as allies and not as adversaries. In a world where the president of Russia is a former officer of the KGB, a dysfunctional relationship between the White House and the intelligence community is not something America can afford.

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