by Matt Raab
Professor Colin Kahl and Center for Security Studies Senior Fellow Paul Pillar joined forces to consider the future of the U.S. intelligence community and relations with Russia as they relate to the rhetoric and actions during the first month of the Trump administration. Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2014 to 2017, and Pillar, veteran of a 28-year career in various positions throughout the U.S. intelligence community, commented on their concerns about Trump and the frenzy of analysis that his words produce.
Flynn and Russia
The discussion, which included thoughts from both speakers along with a Q+A session, began with Kahl’s perspective on the firing of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, alongside contention about the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions on Russia’s involvement in the U.S. presidential election.
“Since 9/11 and the WMD issue in Iraq, the intelligence community concludes almost nothing with high confidence, in terms of interval of confidence,” Kahl said, “especially about the really big issues. There’s a tendency to be extraordinarily cautious, and yet the intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Russians had a comprehensive plan to try to influence the U.S. election.”
These findings, and President Obama’s punitive response, which included the removal of three dozen Russian intelligence officers from the country and the shuttering of two compounds outside of Washington, played directly into concerns about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.
“[Obama’s] decision happens on the 29th [of December]. Obama called Trump to tell him about it on the 28th,” Kahl said. “Mike Flynn who was the designee to be the National Security Advisor, calls the Russian ambassador on the 29th … and by all accounts basically suggests to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll smooth this out after the election.’”
Kahl noted that while it is unclear to what degree Trump explicitly authorized Flynn’s actions, but he definitively expressed approval, applauding Russia’s restraint from a punitive response on Twitter during the same time frame.
Flynn was ultimately removed from office after weeks of conflicting accounts from administration officials and investigations from Federal agencies. While this series of events would serve as a political black eye for any administration, the added context of alleged ties between Trump and Russia has complicated and stratified debates and concerns.
“There are several different clusters of issues that have gotten woven together here,” Pillar said, including policy towards Russia, inter-agency relations and Trump’s personal motivations.
“Unfortunately, I think some of these, in much of the public discourse over the past couple weeks, have been woven together in unhelpful ways that don’t help to clarify these issues,” he continued.
Kahl provided similar perspective, identifying the two separate areas of takeaways from the episode as “the degree to which there’s any relationship between the Trump administration and the Russian government” and “the sheer dysfunction of the Trump administration right out of the gate.”
Pillar condemned the polarization of the debate on attitudes towards Russia, where many have conflated an anti-Trump administration stance with taking a hard line against Russia, arguing for an alternative that takes Trump’s transgressions seriously, but approaches Russia differently.
“There’s no contradiction between on one hand seeing the need to get to the bottom of the issue of what these connections with Russia may be,” he said, “and on the other hand being very open to detente with Russia, toward improving our relationship with Moscow.”
“I would argue that the most effective and robust sorts of coming to terms with the Russians and and finding areas for cooperation depend on dispelling the sorts of suspicions, doubts and uncertainties that are floating around about what’s motivating Donald Trump,” Pillar said.
Trump and the Intelligence Services
Pillar went on to express concerns about the intelligence community, whose troubled relations with the president are concerning but not unprecedented.
He considered the “question of how receptive this president is going to be … to all sources of info and truth, whether it’s from the mainstream media or intelligence services.”
Presidential rhetoric has defined the relationship between the administration and the intelligence community, in ways both new and old.
“Donald Trump is certainly not the first president who came into office with a jaundiced view about the intelligence services,” Pillar said. “Richard Nixon came into office in 1969 with a horrible view of the CIA … I think the main difference with regards to this president is we’ve had more open, invective public discord and enunciation then we’ve had–certainly at this point, just one month into the presidency.”
He deflected concerns about the so-called ‘deep-state’ and internal dissention, however.
“The great majority of people involved are going to simply stay in their lane and do the best job they can and be satisfied with the mission they’re performing.”
Looking ahead, Kahl and Pillar highlighted an environment where concerns can be overly heightened, but threats are also very real. Precedent can continue to guide relationships with Russia and the rest of the world, but uncertainty causes complications.
“People are confused,” Kahl said. “They don’t know what the administration’s policy is amidst the conflict between aggressive Trump rhetoric and the professional opinions of some of the veteran figures Trump has placed in his cabinet.”
Truth and communication were serious areas of concern for the speakers.
“To discredit any institution that opposes–this is an old authoritarian technique,” Kahl said. “Any institution that could oppose executive power is being discredited. The courts, the ‘so-called judges’ in the courts, the media, the intelligence community, in air quotes, who are like ‘Nazi Germany’, and now the ‘Deep State.’ Anything that opposes Donald Trump is fake, corrupt, out to get him and an enemy of the American people.”
Pillar expressed similar concerns.
“When you have an attitude towards truth that we’ve seen by the guy at the top over this last month, that makes for a different operating environment for anyone who’s trying to deal in a truthful area.”
One month into the new presidency, these experts counseled awareness and careful analysis as the debate surrounding the Trump presidency continues to swirl.