The weirdest thing about this piece? It ran in the New York Observer, whose publisher until last month was … Jared Kushner.
It should be noted that the author, John Schindler, is a Trump critic of longstanding and that this claim hasn’t been made by any major paper (that I know of), despite the fact that the Times, WaPo, etc, have bushels of sources inside the intelligence community. It’d be a front-page bombshell for any paper in the country, yet somehow Schindler’s the only one who’s claimed it as a scoop. On the other hand, it’s no secret that U.S. intelligence has had a … complicated relationship with Trump and his right-hand man Mike Flynn since election day, from the rumors of Russian influence among Trump’s advisors to Trump’s skepticism of blaming Moscow for the DNC and Podesta hackings to claims that Trump wasn’t receiving his daily intelligence briefing regularly to that odd appearance before the CIA memorial wall in Langley a few weeks ago. A major Israeli paper reported last month that some U.S. intel officials had warned their Israeli counterparts to be careful about sharing intelligence with the White House lest it mysteriously end up being leaked to Russia. Schindler’s claim is right in line with that. If it’s true that the intelligence community worries about other nations’ state secrets being shared with Trump, it stands to reason they’d worry about America’s secrets being shared with him too.
Trump’s already rightly suspicious of some of his deputies due to the insane amount of leaking happening lately. Imagine his reaction upon reading this.
There is more consequential IC pushback happening, too. Our spies have never liked Trump’s lackadaisical attitude toward the President’s Daily Brief, the most sensitive of all IC documents, which the new commander-in-chief has received haphazardly. The president has frequently blown off the PDB altogether, tasking Flynn with condensing it into a one-page summary with no more than nine bullet-points. Some in the IC are relieved by this, but there are pervasive concerns that the president simply isn’t paying attention to intelligence.
In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets…
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
Schindler doesn’t specify what sort of intelligence might have been withheld but it’s hard not to read that and wonder about the recent operation in Yemen, which Trump reportedly approved over dinner and which ended with one American dead and the Al Qaeda target nowhere in sight. Withholding intel from the president is an awfully dangerous game to play, especially when the administration is still so young. Why would the IC go nuclear by hiding secrets from the White House — a massive scandal if true, worthy of congressional hearings and a major house-cleaning in the intel community — when Trump’s barely had a chance to prove himself to them yet?
Although there are no reports besides Schindler’s of the IC withholding info from Trump, there are reports of Trump withholding info from the IC. That’s a direct result of the leak problem and that too has led to turbulence for U.S. intelligence:
Three weeks into the Trump administration, [National Security Council] staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.…
Paper flow, the lifeblood of the bureaucracy, has been erratic. A senior Pentagon official saw a draft executive order on prisoner treatment only through unofficial rumors and news media leaks. He called the White House to find out if it was real and said he had concerns but was not sure if he was authorized to make suggestions.
Officials said that the absence of an orderly flow of council documents, ultimately the responsibility of Mr. Flynn, explained why Mr. Mattis and Mike Pompeo, the director of the C.I.A., never saw a number of Mr. Trump’s executive orders before they were issued. One order had to be amended after it was made public, to reassure Mr. Pompeo that he had a regular seat on the council.
Trump doesn’t trust the intel bureaucracy, with some reason. How far-fetched is it that the bureaucracy wouldn’t trust him with some information they’ve concluded the president doesn’t really “need to know,” especially when there are reports floating around of Trump coordinating his response with Shinzo Abe to North Korea’s missile launch this weekend during a crowded dinner on the Mar-a-Lago terrace?
One massive question hanging over all of this: How much of the cold war between Trump and natsec pros would be eased if he fired Mike Flynn? The knives are out for Flynn, as I noted a few days ago, and the major papers today are filled with stories about how he’s on thin ice for allegedly having misled Mike Pence about the phone call he had with the Russian ambassador in December. “Spread the butter: He is toast,” said one source to Mike Allen about Flynn. The Wall Street Journal claims that Trump is prepared to keep Flynn on for now, but that Steve Bannon wants to “be ready” to replace him quickly if need be. Some officials are allegedly hoping Flynn resigns and spares Trump the headache of a firing. “The broad consensus in the White House is that he lied,” an administration official told WaPo. “The vice president feels like he lied. In a position that needs to be no drama, it’s nonstop drama. I would be very surprised if he lasts much longer.” Tellingly, Trump advisor Stephen Miller refused to say Flynn’s job was safe yesterday when asked even though he was the White House’s top surrogate on the Sunday shows.
It may be that the people leaking to Schindler, whether they’re lying or telling the truth, are offering a tacit deal to Trump. Fire Flynn and replace him with someone who plays more nicely with the rest of the intelligence community (David Petraeus?) and maybe information will start flowing to the White House more smoothly. It’d be seen as a confidence-building measure. Right now there’s little confidence on either side.