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President Trump has always had a strained relationship with the intelligence community. Since entering office, he’s rejected intelligence professionals’ assessments of issues ranging from Russian interference in the 2016 elections to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials. Most often, the president has rejected intelligence analysis when it does not conform to his pre-existing worldview—or his political interests. In other cases, he’s denigrated career intelligence officials as members of a “Deep State” conspiracy, publicly threatened those who raised alarms about his conduct and even cut short the careers of more senior officials who moved those concerns forward in line with existing practices and procedures.
But as concerning as these actions are, they pale in comparison to the most dangerous way in which presidents sometimes use our intelligence agencies: pressuring them to reach conclusions that are consistent with the president’s political agenda, even where such conclusions are not supported by the facts.
Yet that is exactly what the Trump administration was accused of having done earlier this year, when senior Trump administration officials reportedly pressured intelligence officials to corroborate a theory that the coronavirus COVID-19 originated with China, despite internal skepticism. And now that Trump has succeeded in placing a series of political loyalists in the position of Director of National Intelligence—first former Ambassador Richard Grennell in an acting capacity, followed by former Rep. John Ratcliffe on a permanent basis—his ability to manipulate the intelligence community has likely only increased.
In May, these concerns led the two of us to request two specific sets of data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): (1) the results of the intelligence community’s internal climate survey, which measures morale and work attitudes across the Department; and (2) the results of the intelligence community’s Analytical Objectivity and Process Survey (“AOPS”), which specifically looks at whether intelligence officials feel pressured to reach certain conclusions in their analyses. Both are narrow and discrete requests for specific information that is not only unclassified but already publicly released in part, a fact that gave us some hope that ODNI might respond without the need for litigation.
But two months later, even our polite inquiries as to the status of our requests have only been met with radio silence.So earlier today, we—represented by our friends at Protect Democracy—filed a lawsuit in federal court to compel ODNI to provide the information requested.
The climate survey results are similar to data we’ve requested and—through litigation—secured from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for the past several years. Using that data, we were able to show a major drop in rank-and-file confidence in FBI leadership following the FBI’s controversial role in the 2016 elections and the even more controversial 2017 removal of former Director James Comey. We did also find an improvement in morale in much (but not all) of the FBI a few years into Director Christopher Wray’s tenure. Securing comparable data for the intelligence community as a whole could give us a sense of morale across its various constituent agencies, and how intelligence professionals view the leaders put in place by the Trump administration. Right now, ODNI only releases the results for the intelligence community as a whole—and only results up to 2017.
The AOPS survey results, meanwhile, seem likely to prove even more useful, as the AOPS is specifically designed to probe the extent to which intelligence professionals feel they have been pressured to reach certain conclusions or otherwise adjust their analysis. Notably, the partial results of earlier AOPS surveys played a central role in a 2015-2016 investigation of CENTCOM intelligence analysis relating to the counter-Islamic State campaign in Iraq and Syria spearheaded in part by then-congressman, now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The resulting report repeatedly cites the AOPS survey results as evidence that CENTCOM respondents “felt their supervisors distorted, suppressed, or substantially altered analytic products” at a substantially higher rate than other intelligence community components. The report criticizes ODNI and other supervisory offices for not pursuing corrective action. Hence, it seems hard for anyone to dispute that the same survey results will provide valuable insight into how the intelligence community has felt about its independence during the Trump administration’s tenure.
As always, we will keep Lawfare readers informed of the results of our litigation as it proceeds.
You can read the complaint below: