RICHARD BUTLER-Fake News, Alternative Facts and now Alternative Intelligence

Aug 1, 2019

Trump has terminated the supremo of US intelligence, John Coats, and has nominated as the new Director of National Intelligence, Texas Congressman John Ratcliffe. His unstinting commitment to all things Trump and, his inexperience in intelligence and foreign affairs, would seem to guarantee that he will provide alternative intelligence to Trump’s liking.

The Washington Post fact checker records the fact that Trump has now exceeded 10,000 and getting close to 11,000 lies or false/misleading statements, since he took office.

In fields in which the US’ vast intelligence capability ( 17 Agencies, tens of thousands of staff) are deemed competent and expected to deliver objective, factual and evidence based analysis, he has rejected their advice because it did not accord with his preferred narrative. Chief amongst these have been: Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election; Iran’s nuclear programme; DPRK unwillingness to terminate its nuclear and missile programme; Saudi direction of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

In each of these matters, Dan Coats, the outgoing DNI, told Trump that the intelligence community did not agree with the stance Trump was taking. Most other experts, and a majority of members of Congress, agreed with the intelligence community’s assessments.

Trump’s nominee to replace Coats is a congressman from Texas, John Lee Ratcliffe. He has had no experience relevant to the job and has made misleading statements about this.

On this phenomenon: lies or false or misleading statements, Ratcliffe stated in an interview with Fox, that the Mueller Report was not written by Mueller but by staff from Hillary Clinton’s team. Further, a week ago, when Mueller was giving evidence to the House Judiciary Committee, of which Ratcliffe is junior member ( he has only been in Congress for four years), he put in a shocking performance, claiming that Mueller’s appointment was illegal and that every aspect of his report was illegitimate and fabricated. He out -Trumped the “witch hunt” claim made endlessly by Trump.

We weren’t to know that a few days later, he was to be nominated to replace Coats, but given this coincidence of events, his performance in the hearing could be read as the concluding portion of his job application.

Whether or not this was the case, it was a clarion signal that, in his new job, if he is confirmed, Ratcliffe will have no difficulty in serving-up to Trump what Trump’s devoted servant, Kelly Anne Conway, called “alternative facts”, when some 18 months ago, she attempted to rationalise instances of Trump lying in the face of factual evidence contradicting claims made by him.

Serious concern about the proposed appointment of Ratcliffe has been expressed by: senior members of Congress; off the record by members of the intelligence community; on the record by former members of it; and reputable editorialists. Given Trump’s, usual stance, this may not matter to him, unless Fox turns against Radcliffe – hardly likely.

But, it is not clear that Radcliffe will have a simple passage through the Senate hearings. The Senate has accepted the intelligence community’s conclusions on the Khashoggi murder and legislated to restrict US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and further support to the Saudi war on Yemen. So far Trump has ignored this. How long the Senate will accept such neutering is in question.

There is also the issue of Ratcliffe’s ability to command respect and loyalty within the staff of the intelligence community. It is clearly concerned that his appointment would further exacerbate and maybe extremely so, the depressing view held amongst the staff and, in the wider community, that under Trump, objectivity on their part has been rendered valueless.

The US intelligence community is still smarting from the abuse it suffered when the Bush Administration, that is, Cheney/Rumsfeld, obliged it to fabricate intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is the key reason why it has been so fastidious in refusing to declare, that Iran has been cheating on the Iran nuclear agreement, when the evidence does not support that. Equally, it sees no reason to support Trump’s theatrical declarations that DPRK is willing to commence de-nuclearisation. Its assessment is that in spite of the two TV summits with Kim Jong Un and the recent walk across the Korean DMZ, the DPRK, it will remain a nuclear weapon state.These fact-based analyses have not endeared them to Trump.

Trump’s dalliance with the nomination of Ratcliffe, in the belief that, in the future, he will be served-up alternative intelligence; analyses suited to his preferences, reflects on the overwhelmingly most important issue raised by his presidency: the salience of the truth of any matter in public discourse and politics.

Trump is elementally a vain showman; some now liken him to a clown, and the US public seems to have concluded that he is unfit for his job. Latest polls show that 54% of the people believe he should not get a second term. Part of that unfitness is Trump’s serial attempts to invert the relationship between intelligence and policy formulation: – where the former shapes the latter, not the reverse.

But, sight must not be lost of Trump’s enablers; the Republicans in Congress, particularly Senate majority leader Mich McConnell. He shows no inclination to distance Republicans in Congress from Trump, even marginally, although as mentioned above, there has been a little daylight on Saudi Arabia and many Republicans are at least puzzled and some disturbed by Trump’s handling of his relationship with Putin and, the issue of past and possible future external interference in US elections.

Many Republicans in Congress believe they need Trump’s endorsement for their reelection.Trump’s relentless courting of his much vaunted base suggests that he knows it will not be sufficient next time. He will need wider Republican support, for victory.

It is not impossible that the Ratcliffe nomination might cause alarm amongst the enablers. Their personal friends in the intelligence community will surely make their concerns known, privately. For now, however, it seems that Trump’s hold over the Republicans remains fast. This is based on two main factors: his repeated threats of oblivion to Republican members of Congress, that they will be “primaried”( denied preselection) before the next election if they don’t declare, enthusiastically, their loyalty to him; and, the depth of individual greed that has spawned the latest Trump budget and tax legislation. What they appear to be determined to ignore, is the long term: the damage Trump is doing to the Republican brand through, for example, his racism; and , his attacks upon the Constitution.

So there they are, in their danse macabre.

All of this is a mess made in the USA and, primarily their’s to address. But, it is undeniable that what is now widely regarded as the gut toxicity of much of the political discourse in the US has shown up in a number of other countries.

It is beyond doubt that the viability of democracy itself has been placed into question by the scorn for facts in public discourse in the US and, the impact upon it of unreliable materials initiated and circulated in social media.

If Trump were to succeed in arranging for himself to be provided, in the future, only with with alternative intelligence, then the dangers of further instability in international relations and possibly, war, will increase.

On the latter, it should be recalled that during his presidency, he has threatened to obliterate; Iran, DPRK and during the last week, Afghanistan – in this case he made his threat in the Oval Office, in the presence of the Prime Minister of Pakistan and, the way he couched it, clearly implied the use of nuclear weapons. He spoke of 10 million dead. Mercifully, his words, often turn out to be empty, or when they attract negative reaction, he claims he never said them.

There is merit in the saying that: “truth is the first victim of war”.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University

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