Democracy & Elections

Is the Trump Administration Unduly Influencing the Intelligence Community?

Scott R. Anderson, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, May 14, 2020, 11:35 AM

We’re using FOIA to find out if the intelligence community feels like it’s being pressured to reach certain conclusions—and, if so, how that’s impacting employee morale.

The Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters in the George Bush Center for Intelligence (CIA Photograph/Wikimedia Commons/ Domain)

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To put it mildly, President Trump and the intelligence community don’t always see eye to eye. In the past, Trump has publicly disagreed with the intelligence community’s assessment of issues ranging from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Now there’s reportedly internal tension over the intelligence community’s skepticism about the proposition that the novel coronavirus might have originated in a Chinese laboratory—an unfounded claim that members of the Trump administration have begun citing as part of its increasingly transparent efforts to pin blame for the global pandemic on China. As the New York Times recently reported:

Senior Trump administration officials have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, according to current and former American officials. The effort comes as President Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic.

Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.

Disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing where it’s principled and evidence based. But the burden for disagreeing with an entity with the expertise and resources of the U.S. intelligence community should be a very high one. Where it’s not met, disagreement can raise reasonable questions as to whether a person is simply ignoring the views of experts that do not fit with their own, potentially self-serving narrative of events. And when that person is the president of the United States or one of his senior advisers, it raises even more serious concerns that they may leverage their authority and influence to pressure the intelligence community to adjust its assessments accordingly.

Fortunately, the U.S. intelligence community is not unaware of this risk. Every year since 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has conducted what it calls an Analytic Objectivity and Process Survey (AOPS) that asks intelligence community employees whether they have felt pressure to change their analyses or believe that relevant intelligence products have been unduly politicized or shaped by the country’s political leadership. The results of these surveys have played a central role in at least one prior assessment of possible political manipulation of intelligence community conclusions: a 2016 investigation by the (then Republican-controlled) House of Representatives investigating whether U.S. Central Command’s intelligence directorate was pressured to produce unduly positive assessments of the counter-Islamic State campaign. Thus the surveys can help provide a credible baseline for evaluating allegations that the Trump administration has been pressuring the intelligence community to adapt intelligence assessments to its preferred versions of the facts.

Yesterday, May 13, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the ODNI for any records showing the results of the annual AOPSs from 2015 through 2020, including any that break the results down by unit or agency. You can read our request below:

Of course, the objectivity of intelligence products isn’t the only concern raised by the Trump administration’s actions. On multiple occasions, President Trump and his policy advisers have also denigrated the intelligence community’s work and openly questioned its reliability, especially when it did not align with their preferred narratives. This sort of treatment may have a very negative impact on morale inside an agency, especially if it’s combined with efforts to pressure the intelligence community to reach certain politically favored conclusions. Poor morale may in turn undermine the intelligence community’s ability to pursue its work to the best of its abilities, and to recruit and retain the talented workforce on which it depends.

Over the past several years, we’ve tracked similar morale concerns inside the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) using the results of an annual “climate survey” it administers to all of its employees. And the FBI isn’t the only agency to use such a tool. The ODNI has issued its own climate survey for the intelligence community since 2005. Some results for the intelligence community as a whole are even publicly available on the ODNI’s website, though they only reflect results through 2017. More useful, however, would be results through the present that are broken down by individual components within the intelligence community. This would enable an evaluation of how various indicators of morale have been affected in those offices most directly affected by the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions.

To secure this information, we also filed a second FOIA request that asks for any documents showing the results of the annual intelligence community climate survey administered by the ODNI from 2015 to 2020, including any where the results are broken down by individual agency and office component. You can read our request here:

As always, we’ll keep Lawfare readers informed on the results of these requests—and what they may tell us about the state of objectivity and morale inside the intelligence community.

Scott R. Anderson is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Fellow in the National Security Law Program at Columbia Law School. He previously served as an Attorney-Adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State and as the legal advisor for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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