RICHARD BUTLER. A Guessing Game

Trump’s extraordinary public attack on the whole of the US intelligence community has fuelled a guessing game: the well established one which questions the relationship between intelligence assessments and policy development; and, a current one, which questions whether Trump has any interest in policy having a factual basis. It’s anyone’s guess where the latter will lead.  

 Dan Coats, Director of US National Intelligence, delivered to the Congress yesterday, on behalf of the entire intelligence community, the annual omnibus assessment of threats to US national security. That assessment contradicted Trump’s key, stated, understandings of the situation with respect to: Iran, ISIS, DPRK.

Trump then savaged the report and its authors. There’s no need to discuss what motivated him to do that. That they disagreed with him, was surely enough for them to be awarded such treatment.

What is useful is to consider the dynamics under which consideration of any such report labors or, especially given the recent track record, of the US intelligence Agencies, should be judged.

There are four main considerations:

  1. It could prove to have included mistakes in data. It is human to err. But, errors can also be seeded by adversaries and, disinformation. This may not be known until later; a bit like retrieving the black box following an air crash. It is to be hoped that in such circumstances, the authors of the assessment would acknowledge the error and, correct it.
  1. The Agencies may decide to reinforce the known prejudices, political predilections of the Executive. This may not involve outright fabrication, often more a question of nuance or bent. This tendency can be very much heightened by competition for recognition or praise, amongst the Agencies themselves.
  1. The Agencies may accept a priori direction by the Executive, to produce specific outcomes. This is pernicious and vitiates the notion of objective intelligence assessment. This was done by Cheney and Rumsfeld, (the author of the memorable concept of: ”known unknowns”), to provide a justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Blair and company did the same in London.Our John Howard stated then, that he believed all of them, and then committed Australian troops to the invasion. A captain’s choice. Only years later, did he meekly aver that the intelligence was “wrong”, in such passive terms as to imply that it had simply dropped from a tree, at the time. He was an innocent bystander.
  1. There is no guarantee that intelligence assessments will shape policy. Between the objective assessments of the facts, which intelligence is expected to provide; and, decisions on actions to be taken, lies political judgment. This is as it should be, especially in popular democracies.

Trump’s extreme reaction to yesterday’s US national intelligence assessment, indicates that he has not the remotest interest in facts challenging his prejudices. He prefers to take his guidance from Foxland, represenatives from which immediately denounced the national assessment, on national television.

It is important to recognize that accurate intelligence, especially that gathered during periods of great danger (the Bletchley Park code-breakers, the coast watchers in New Guinea, for example), have played vital roles. But, even in such periods, invaluable intelligence has sometimes been ignored. Stalin was warned of Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of the USSR- but chose to ignore it, partly because it was clandestinely obtained.

A striking aspect of yesterday’s US national intelligence assessment was the Agencies’ resistance to be misused, as they were, most flagrantly by the Bush administration. They were also not particularly disposed towards bellicosity. They seemed to imply the view that objectivity in assessments might contribute to the avoidance of “wars of choice”.

Trump’s angry reaction gave further credence to the notion, now current, that his conduct has seen the bifurcation of the US into two policy entities: Trump and Twitter on the one hand and a coalition of: decently motivated, well educated public servants/think tankers/ academics, on the other.

Policy makers and managers in other countries and institutions who prefer to continue to have dealings with the US are tending to ignore the former and deal, very much, with the latter.

There is growing comment about the increasing isolation of Trump. And, here’s, the guessing game; which many have entered.

On what issue, where and when, will he lash out, in rejection of that isolation; meaning in Trump vanity terms, that fewer and fewer people want to play with him, meet him, praise him. And, now the intelligence team has tried to take away some of his targets, well at least the Iranian one so cherished by Netanyahu and Prince Salman.

As the domestic legal and, increasingly political net, tightens around Trump; where will he find the great international distraction for everyone’s attention; beyond another summit farce with Kim Jong Un, who the intelligence community states has displayed no concrete interest in nuclear disarmament in Korea?

This incurred Trump’s ire, though there are no facts to challenge the intelligence assessment.

Still, Trump assures us that he and Kim have forged a great personal connection.

As Trump would say: Huge.

Richard Butler AC former Head of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq, in which context he received regularly, US intelligence assessments.

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6 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. A Guessing Game

  1. Stephen Lusher says:

    I recall that, during the transition period prior to his swearing in, Trump declined to take the daily intelligence briefing. Perhaps he still does. He would say he knows better.

    Most western democracies have career services with long traditions, long corporate memories and deep connections with co-operating allies. With rare exceptions they provide considered, professional, impartial advice to their political masters who, it has been said, come and go. (Colin Powell should have resigned rather than make the UN WMD speech.)

    It is not incumbent on government to take advice but it should be rejected with caution.

    In his contradiction of the evidence put before Congress by the intelligence agencies Trump offered conflicting information . My question is: if the information did not come from the intelligence community where did it come from?

  2. Mark Freeman says:

    Good article Richard but like others I suspect you’re in a bit thick with the military – security establishment. Surely no one seriously expects NK to even begin thinking of nuclear disarmament now. Apart from the domestic political disaster it would be it would be foolishness towards a belligerent and unrepentant US. The US likes to say it has no permanent enemies but it’s nonsensical treatment of NK for six decades proves otherwise. To my eyes the US is mostly the reason NK has nuclear weapons as there’s little reason otherwise. A poor mountainous country wedged between three major powers should be easy to cajole into peaceful neutrality or something besides a heavily armed garrison state.

    Trump is a fool but at least he’s an innocent fool. The military establishment gave too much bureaucratic and career castles to lose and gamble with our peace and security. Shame on the lot.

  3. John Forrest says:

    On the other hand, “The current crop of national intelligence chiefs are cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. They are careerists who have risen to the top not through their analytical or operational talents, but through their willingness to conform to a system that is designed not to challenge conventional thinking—especially when such thinking sustains policies that have been given the imprimatur of the entrenched establishment.
    Rare is the politician who is well enough versed in the minutia of history and foreign affairs to generate original thinking—or bold enough to challenge the status quo on the grounds that it isn’t working.”
    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/trump-is-right-the-intelligence-community-needs-to-go-back-to-school/

  4. Philip Bond says:

    When a fuckwit drives the vehicle, an accident follows.

  5. R. N. England says:

    I should have inserted “obfuscators” between “careerists” and “liars” in that crescendo of denunciation. Such people will always be found in a very large population. The better the culture, the fewer there will be. The denunciation is aimed not at the individuals, but at those aspects of a culture which select such behaviour, worst of all, in its leaders.

    • R. N. England says:

      There was a preceding comment which is necessary for the above comment to make sense. It was:-

      The mistake here is to present this contest as a battle of truth against falsehood, when it is a contest between the Washington swamp and the legally elected presidency, two factions of careerists, liars, extortionists, kidnappers, and mass-murderers.

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