Nothing wrong with eliminating or streamlining parts of the bloated federal bureaucracy — that’s a core reason to vote for Republicans, at least in theory — but it’s impossible to view this plan in isolation from Trump’s running war with the intelligence community over Russia’s role in the DNC and Podesta hackings. Is he restructuring these agencies because he thinks he can make them more efficient or is he restructuring them to weaken them, so that they’ll be less able (or less willing) to challenge his assumptions on foreign policy?
The move is prompted by his belief that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has become bloated and politicized, these people said…
One of the people familiar with Mr. Trump’s planning said advisers also are working on a plan to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world. The CIA declined to comment.
“The view from the Trump team is the intelligence world has become completely politicized,” said the individual, who is close to the Trump transition. “They all need to be slimmed down. The focus will be on restructuring the agencies and how they interact.”…
[Incoming national security advisor Mike] Flynn and [incoming CIA director Mike] Pompeo share Mr. Trump’s view that the intelligence community’s position—that Russia tried to help his campaign—is an attempt to undermine his victory or say he didn’t win, the official close to the transition said.
Mike Pompeo’s going to go waltzing into Langley next month as a newbie DCIA and tell the brain trust there that they’re liars with respect to Russia’s motives? I’ll believe that when I see it. Anyway, it’s worth nothing that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been targeted before for reform, long before Trump became a politician. It was created after 9/11 to encourage better coordination between different U.S. intel agencies, adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to the IC, and ever since politicians have been kicking around ways to downsize it. Trump’s not coming out of left field in wanting to restructure it — although of course he might have motives besides efficiency in doing so. Back when Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort were jockeying for power over Trump’s campaign, much was written about how Trump’s management style in business has been to pit different deputies against each other and let them compete for influence over him. Call it management by turf war. Weakening ODNI could nudge U.S. intel agencies into a similar dynamic by getting rid of the umbrella agency that’s designed to help them coordinate. Good luck explaining that decision to the public if/when there’s a terror attack and it turns out that the CIA and FBI might have stopped it if only they’d shared information with each other more freely.
But wait. According to Sean Spicer, Trump’s soon-to-be press secretary, none of this is true:
“These reports are false,” said Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary. “All transition activities are for information-gathering purposes and all discussions are tentative. The president-elect’s top priority is to ensure the safety of the American people and the security of the nation and he is committed to finding the best and most effective ways to do it.”
“There is no truth to this idea of restructuring the intelligence community infrastructure,” Spicer added. “It is 100 percent false.”
Where does that leave us? The Journal report quoted above is awfully detailed in naming the specific agencies Trump is targeting, yet Spicer’s denial is bold as can be. Maybe anti-Trumpers in the intel bureaucracy leaked a false report to the WSJ about Trump looking to punish the IC, suggesting that an alarming purge by the new president is in the offing. That would make Trump’s shilling for Russia seem even more dubious: It’s one thing to question the CIA’s findings, it’s another thing to retaliate by shipping its officers out into the field to scatter its power centers. Or maybe Trump is planning to do this restructuring but someone leaked it before the transition team was ready to announce it publicly. The timing, with Trump set to meet with intelligence leaders tomorrow to be briefed on Russia, couldn’t be worse. The meeting was already destined to have an adversarial vibe; now, with news of Trump putting ODNI on the chopping block, it might turn hostile. Spicer’s denial could be a way to defuse that situation — for now, until it’s safer politically for Trump to take up the subject. Or maybe the leak is coming from Team Trump itself, because they want to put a scare into ODNI and the CIA before tomorrow’s briefing. They might have leaked deliberately as a warning to the IC that if they continue to challenge Trump on Russia publicly, their own agencies may pay a price. In that case, Spicer’s denial may simply be a way to keep the transition team’s fingerprints off the leak.
It is … not a good sign that we’re parsing motives this way, a la two enemy nations holding a summit with threats of war in the air, in talking about a meeting between an incoming president and his own intelligence chiefs. Anyway, here’s former natsec analyst Gillian Turner on Fox News this morning sounding cautiously skeptical of Trump’s plans. Streamlining is good in theory, she notes, but there are costs in this case. In particular, note what she says about Trump supposedly wanting to send more CIA officers into the field. Gathering intelligence isn’t the chief problem the IC has, she notes. Analyzing the enormous volume of intelligence we already gather is the problem. You don’t need to scatter the ranks at Langley to do that. On the contrary.