Trump Dissing Intelligence Briefings Worsens Rift With CIA

(Bloomberg) -- To U.S. intelligence agencies, the President’s Daily Brief is a gold mine of classified information from around the world, polished through the night for presentation each morning to the commander-in-chief. To Donald Trump, it’s a mind-numbing repetition of the obvious that he’ll often skip.

“You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” the president-elect said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t need that. But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know.’”

That put-down captures a growing rift between an incoming president sure of his own views and the agencies that spend billions of dollars to provide the executive branch with intelligence on everything from terrorist plots to global energy resources. It’s a rift threatening to undermine a relation between the institution of the president and intelligence agencies that has been honed over decades to almost sacrosanct status.

“The CIA has a strong spine and is accustomed to controversy, but this is way out of bounds,” George Little, a former spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, said in an e-mail. “It won’t help any of us if he continues to disparage and undervalue intelligence when the stakes are so high.”

Reason for Repetition

Former officials familiar with the intelligence briefings say that although they may seem pointlessly repetitive to an incoming president, there’s a reason for that: The reports contain strategic intelligence meant to help the commander-in-chief gain a broad understanding of trends, threats and people over time. What may appear to be small or inconsequential changes in the world could heat up unexpectedly. In those circumstances, it’s important for the president to be familiar enough to make difficult decisions quickly.

If Trump doesn’t think the briefings are worth his time, he can order them to be tailored to his preferences, as his predecessors have done. Former President George W. Bush liked in-person briefings while President Bill Clinton read his, according to one of the former intelligence officials, who asked not to be identified discussing the classified sessions. President Barack Obama -- who has an eye for detail and, critics say, for micromanaging -- usually does both. A president can wave off topics he finds repetitive or irrelevant and press the briefers to explain their sources and methods.

Agencies have a responsibility “to provide a briefing that the incoming president will find useful,” said Christopher Porter, manager of analysis at a unit of FireEye Inc. and a former CIA officer.

While intelligence officials contend it’s important for a president to receive their unfiltered analysis, President-elect Trump is getting updates sometimes through the President’s Daily Brief but other times in meetings with aides such as retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who will be his national security adviser.

“He’s definitely up-to-date and up-to-speed with what’s going on,” spokesman Jason Miller told reporters Tuesday during the transition office’s daily press call. “General Flynn and others keep him up-to-date at all times.”

Campaign Hacking

Tensions have been exacerbated by reports that the CIA believes Russia hacked the U.S. presidential campaign with the goal of helping Trump win, a step beyond the intelligence community’s earlier finding that the cyberattacks were aimed more broadly at undermining confidence in the political system.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s transition team said in a statement on Friday, chiding erroneous intelligence that Bush’s administration seized on to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Republican as well as Democratic political groups were hacked by Russia, but Republicans were largely spared from public leaks, according to a cybersecurity analyst with knowledge of the hacking who asked not to be identified discussing the confidential matter. Still, it wasn’t clear if the CIA’s new assessment is an official finding, and there were disputes over it by some in the intelligence community, according to a U.S. official briefed on the matter who also asked not to be identified.

Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, demanded in a letter Monday that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provide a briefing and written assessment of Russian hacking by Dec. 16. Nunes cited “the reported conflicting assessments and the CIA’s reported revision of information previously conveyed to this committee.”

But Trump’s dissing of the daily brief has triggered particular distress, according to former intelligence officials who say it would be dangerous if Trump fails to absorb valuable intelligence that doesn’t fit into his world view.

‘Dangerous Territory’

“It’s unprecedented for a president-elect to be engaged in a controversy with the intelligence community over the legitimacy of his election," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who spent 30 years at the CIA. "This is dangerous territory for the country."

Spokesmen for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA declined to discuss Trump’s comments or the latest reports regarding Russian interference in the presidential campaign.

At the White House,  press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday that “Obama has deep respect and admiration for the men and women of our intelligence community that work literally through the night to compile an intelligence briefing for the president of the United States.” Rebuffing Trump’s criticism, Earnest said, “‘The intelligence community needs to be able to operate without fear of retribution for presenting bad news.”

Officials declined to disclose confidential tips in past President’s Daily Briefs that guided important decisions, but one crucial tip that went unheeded has become part of history.

While Bush’s administration said a daily brief in August 2001 had too little detail to act on, its title proved prophetic in the terrorist attacks a month later: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”