You gotta feel for the US intelligence community in the wake of Helsinki

The US intelligence community is huge.  I mean HUGE.  At least 16 separate agencies and hundreds of thousands of men and women, civilian and military, all dedicated to doing their utmost to keep America safe and protect US interests.  Is the community perfect? Of course it isn’t.  The Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction debacle and the colossal error that was Guantanamo Bay, rendition and ‘black ops’ sites have done their part to sully the reputation of America’s spies (although I am pretty sure that political meddling had a role to play in each of those mistakes).  On the whole, however, I think US citizens get good value for their investment in intelligence.

As a former Canadian intelligence analyst I had extensive dealings with US agencies, from the CIA to the NSA, from the FBI to the DIA.  The US is a very important partner of Canadian intelligence agencies and we get a lot more from them than they get from us.  Simply stated, Canada’s intel organisations could not meet Government of Canada intelligence requirements without access to US product (and to a lesser extent the other allies in the so-called 5-eyes partnership).  On a personal note I have good friends who worked in the American spy business and while I had healthy disagreements with some US assessments I nevertheless still have a deep respect for those who toil in the shadows for their country.

Which is why today I want to express my disgust at what the US President said yesterday in Helsinki during his meeting with Russian President Putin regarding US intelligence bodies.  In a nutshell, the US President sided with Mr. Putin on every count in opposition not only to what his advisers are telling him (the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers a few days ago over allegations of interfering in the 2016 elections should say something) but facts (real facts: not ‘fake news’).  Russia may not be the Soviet Union, against whom we fought a multi-generational Cold War and devoted the lion’s share of our intelligence assets for decades, but it is clearly not on the side of the West.  Whether it is the invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, their war alongside the Syrian regime, the downing of civilian aircraft, the probable poisoning of UK citizens or the use of cyber warfare (well beyond the last US election), Russia has shown its colours and they are not ours in the West.  Putin, and by extension Russia, is not our ally.

The US intelligence community knows this and has been telling the current president and his administration so for years.  I do not have access to that kind of information anymore (sigh!) but I imagine it is very solid, has been corroborated and ‘red-teamed’ to death and is the best picture anyone can have at this time on Russia’s actions and intent.

And yet the President essentially dismissed all of this yesterday, telling his spies and the world that he would prefer to believe the word of a common foe to the West over the best and the brightest the US intelligence community has to offer.  This is unprecedented and I am having a hard time imagining an analogy.  I suppose if Winston Churchill had told the codebreakers at Bletchley Park that he’d prefer to trust in the promises of Adolf Hitler over the messages they were decrypting that would come close.  But I am not so sure.

We are faced with a significant challenge from a large power that is attacking our vital computer systems, affecting elections by spreading false information,  invading allies and propping up dictatorships, and all the ‘leader of the free world’ can do is dismiss this and side with the enemy?  Have we entered a parallel universe?  Where does all this end?  I am very fearful for what may be next. I have no idea why Mr.Trump is doing this – all kinds of theories are out there – but this cannot end well for those of us who still have faith in the Western alliance.

To my friends in the US intelligence community I offer my sympathies.  I never had to face the scorn of my leadership (the worst I saw was indifference) so I cannot really know how you feel today to be told by your boss that you are at best incompetent and at worse liars.   I don’t know what advice to give you, although I see that a former senior US intelligence official would tell those still in the community to resign.  Even though I completely understand if you are demoralised and want to leave I do believe your country needs you.  As hard as it may be to see now, the current administration shall pass and you will again have the trust you need from the top.  Hang in there guys or defect to Canada (we could use more bodies up here!).

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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