Nation's intelligence officers are resigned to serving a president who doesn't trust them

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

At a private luncheon in New York on Sept. 26, President Trump labeled a CIA employee turned whistleblower “almost a spy,” doubling down on assaults he’s launched against the nation’s intelligence employees since before he was inaugurated in 2017.

The whistleblower’s chief concern, now backed up by at least one other colleague with direct knowledge, is that Trump implied to Ukraine’s freshly elected leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, that he would withhold U.S. military aid in exchange for the government in Kiev reigniting an investigation into the family of Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

While those two intelligence officers have taken the rare step of formally reporting concerns about Trump’s activities, others employed throughout the government’s intelligence community are putting their heads down and hope to stay out of the political fray, according to over a dozen current and former intelligence and national security officials who spoke to Yahoo News. Those officials requested anonymity to discuss private conversations about the internal atmosphere at the agencies, and to avoid retaliation.

It is possible that additional whistleblowers will come forward to pile on evidence that Trump is committing crimes, making the original Ukraine whistleblower the impetus for a watershed moment that will topple Trump’s presidency.

One former intelligence officer who also served on the National Security Council told Yahoo News that a CIA analyst, in some ways, makes for the perfect whistleblower: someone familiar with a “set of constraints” that, once “violated,” inspires that person to speak out.

President Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)

“People in the intel community really do believe in the rule of law [and] will stand up if they see something egregious,” said another former senior intelligence official.

However, for the average analyst, the president’s general proclivity toward ignoring expert advice and criticizing civil servants is well established. The secretive society of the nation’s intelligence employees, while certainly not a monolith or united in matters of opinion, has largely managed to insulate itself from many of the daily challenges of working within or alongside an unstable White House.

“We’ve never once seen a dramatic shift in how the [intelligence community] does their jobs,” said one national security official who requested anonymity to discuss interactions with intelligence officers. “There’s a sense of resignation. ... It’s no secret ... that Trump doesn’t listen to their advice,” but “these guys are pros,” continued the official.

One former official who recently met with current intelligence officers said that “while they talked about how nuts it was” to be serving amid one of the most tumultuous periods of Trump’s presidency to date, “they mostly were focused on it being promotion season.”

Another former official who recently attended meetings at different intelligence agencies said it was almost “weird” how “people were just going about their business,” they continued. “Some of the higher-ups are retiring sooner than planned, but nothing drastic.”

“Everyone respects the whistleblower but people are doing their jobs regardless,” said another national security expert with ties to the intelligence community.

“It’s a blend of ‘Here we go again’ and ‘I guess at least they are taking baby steps towards resolving this,’” added a former foreign intelligence officer, who argued there likely wouldn’t be a mass defection from the government unless the president ordered the intelligence agencies to investigate Biden or “renewed his insane calls to do torture.”

While there is always a certain amount of anxiety and frustration associated with the president’s negative comments about the intelligence community, including comparing them to Nazis or threatening to revoke opponents’ security clearances, like Trump did with former CIA Director John Brennan, the agencies’ leadership has worked hard over the last several years to keep their business off the front page of the newspapers.

Agency directors have sought to reassure their workforce they will be protected from political retaliation for doing their jobs — and remind them of the importance of the work. FBI Director Chris Wray has on multiple occasions sent out bureauwide notes lauding FBI officials and encouraging them to remain focused, according to one former intel officer familiar with the messages.

Trump’s criticism may have little direct impact on the community’s most-secret operators.

While intelligence officials consistently complain about Trump’s refusal to even read reports generated by the intelligence community, there have been fewer siren calls emanating from the officers who conduct covert operations overseas. Trump’s White House has actually removed some bureaucratic hurdles and reporting requirements for mounting operations both in cyberspace and with drones.

Langley has been a particular target for Trump and his allies, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, particularly after the New York Times made the controversial decision of reporting that the whistleblower was a CIA employee. But the agency is familiar with being the scapegoat, former officials said.

“They’re just used to it, they’re used to being the football in some of these political games,” said one former senior official who compared this moment to disagreements over whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war, widely regarded as a catastrophic intelligence and political failure.

Perhaps the most concerning result of the president’s ongoing attacks on his intelligence agencies could be the erosion of relationships with key allies. One foreign intelligence official told Yahoo News that most partners have little choice “than still working with the U.S.” The United States remains a powerhouse of intelligence gathering and influence, and its ties to officials around the world typically transcend politics.

However, “the world is watching the meltdown of the U.S. government and its foreign policy,” the official continued. “What a f***ing disgrace this all is.”

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