US media have claimed President Trump’s recklessness with the CIA cost America its top spy in the Kremlin. Even if the president is not to blame, there is still a lot of tension between him and US intelligence services.
Even before US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 he regularly criticized the intelligence services.
There have been several instances where he publicly questioned his analysts’ findings and sided instead with foreign leaders.
In a joint press conference with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, speaking about the CIA’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 elections, Trump told reporters, “They [the CIA] said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia… I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
But then, on Monday, US broadcaster CNN published a story highlighting an apparent new low point in the intelligence community’s relationship with President Trump.
The report said the CIA had extricated a valuable spy, well-placed in the Kremlin, because it feared the president or someone in his administration might be too careless with sensitive information.
Essentially, according to the report, the CIA had lost its best asset in Russia because it could not trust the president.
CNN claimed Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in May 2017, in which he discussed highly classified intelligence, prompted officials to remove the agent.
But the White House and the CIA both pushed back against the story.
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, branded the story “incorrect” and said it “has the potential to put lives in danger,” while CIA’s director of public affairs, Brittany Bramell, said it was “misguided speculation” that the president’s handling of sensitive information caused the CIA to act.
In similar stories reporting the extraction of the spy in the Kremlin, daily newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post claimed intelligence officials had first wanted to get him out of Russia in 2016.
They said it was only after they approached the spy a second time, with increasing media speculation of a mole in the Kremlin supplying the CIA with key evidence of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, that he agreed to leave Russia.
Tension over who Trump believes
Whether or not the CIA was prompted to act after Trump’s meeting with Lavrov, Trump’s relationship with his intelligence officials remains difficult. Particularly when it comes to Russia.
According to Suzanne Spaulding, senior advisor for Homeland Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the worry for intelligence services is less about Trump giving away their classified information and more about whether he believes them.
“I think the tension is more around what public reporting seems to portray, which is a question of whether the president puts more credence and credibility in statements from Putin than he does in statements from his own intelligence community,” she told DW.
The issue, she argues, stems from the fact the intelligence services don’t always deliver news the president wants to hear. Sometimes that can lead to their advice being shut out.
Such as in Helsinki. After the CIA concluded that Putin personally had orchestrated Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, Trump appeared to take the Russian leader’s word for it that he did not.
“The risk is always that they are delivering assessments that are inconvenient and that can create a rift and a tendency to dismiss what they say or not have them at the table when they should be,” she said.
No change in intelligence priorities
That view is shared by Ian Brzezinski, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Clearly this a president who doesn’t like being contradicted,” he explained to DW.
But, he argues, Trump’s friendlier stance towards Putin in comparison to his predecessors, and criticism of the intelligence services, does not mean the US has taken a softer stance on intelligence gathering in Russia.
“I haven’t seen evidence that Trump’s rhetoric has led to a realignment of our intelligence priorities when it comes to Russia,” he added.
The New York Times and CNN reported that the spy extracted from Russia had been providing intelligence to the US for decades.
His removal left the CIA “effectively blinded” to possible Russian efforts to interfere in the 2018 midterms and the upcoming 2020 elections, the reports said.
However, Brzezinski cautioned against seeing his removal as too much of a blow for US intelligence in Russia.
“The bad news is that this particular operation has had some light shed on it. That’s never good for an intelligence operation,” he said.
“But at the same time it does reflect a certain robust posture on the part of the US government and its intelligence apparatus in addressing this particular adversary.
“I think what’s more important is that this operation was underway and based on what’s been reported it seems to have provided some very very good data.”