Monday, January 16, 2017

Sushil Aaron: Why Donald Trump will not win his battle with US intelligence agencies

It is astonishing to watch the current confrontation between US intelligence agencies and Donald Trump. The president-elect has finally conceded that Russia may have meddled in the US presidential election but is incensed that a report by a former MI6 officer about the Trump team’s alleged contacts with the Kremlin and his lurid escapades in Russia were leaked to the media. Trump blamed the intelligence agencies for the leaks. The agencies are not backing down. On January 15, John Brennan, the outgoing CIA director, termed Trump’s comments equating the intelligence community with Nazi Germany as “outrageous” and mentioned that he didn’t think Trump “has a full appreciation of Russian capabilities, Russian intentions, and actions.”

Trump is carrying on blissfully unmindful of the inner dynamics of the United States government. He seems to think that presidents can easily tame structures of the government, such as intelligence agencies. He talks as though his job were that of a CEO, whereby his main task is to get the best people in important positions and that as the new boss in town things will turn around in the government as they did in his overrated business empire.

Nothing could be further from reality, particularly when dealing with the national security establishment, owing to their power and influence which are capable of containing and shaping elected institutions, including the presidency. Trump is, in effect, taking on the American ‘deep state’ – a fight he’s bound to lose unless he compromises.

One way to think through such tensions in Washington is the work of Michael J Glennon, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, who offered great insight into the workings of the US national security institutions in his 2014 book National Security and Double Government. He draws on Walter Bagehot’s thesis of “double government” in the book The English Constitution that described the dual power set-up in Britain in the 19th century wherein “dignified institutions” like the monarchy and the House of Lords had the regalia of power but the real work of governing was done by concealed “efficient institutions” like the Prime Minister, Cabinet and the House of Commons.

Glennon applies this theory to the US and points to two set of institutions that wield power unevenly in Washington. One is the “Madisonian” institutions like the presidency, Congress and the courts, named after James Madison, the “principal architect of the American constitutional design”, who favoured the separation of powers between the three pillars in order to safeguard liberty. These are America’s dignified institutions where the public believes power rests. But there is another set of institutions called the “Trumanite network” that gets its name from National Security Act of 1947, which restructured the government to give the executive more flexibility to meet security threats. The act “unified the military under a new secretary of defense, set up the CIA, created the modern Joint Chiefs of Staff and established the National Security Council (NSC).” Truman also set up the National Security Agency and now the network consists of several hundred executive officials who “manage the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies” that deal with international and internal security.

Over the decades, the power of the Trumanite network has grown at the expense of the Madisonians. Trumanite officials deal with threats and so seek greater power and capability, extending the reach of the State in ways that makes civil libertarians uncomfortable. In 2011, the Washington Post identified 46 federal departments and agencies “engaged in classified national security work.” In Glennon’s narration, “Their missions range from intelligence gathering and analysis to war-fighting, cyber operations and weapons development. Almost 2,000 private companies support this work, which occurs at over 10,000 locations across America.” The size of their budgets is classified “but it is clearly that those numbers are enormous – total annual outlay of around $1 trillion and millions of employees.” Presidents usually choose only around 4,000 individuals of the 2.8 million non-military federal employees that they are in charge of – and several hundred policymakers needed for national security are drawn from the bureaucracy. 

At the apex of this is the most powerful of the lot, the professional staff of the National Security Council which has nearly “400 aides” but needs to now reduce to 200 owing to recent legislation. The wider group of several hundred policymakers includes professional staff, political appointees, academics, think-tankers, military figures and officials seconded from executive agencies – and this according to Glennon constitutes America’s Trumanite network which sits at the pinnacle of what Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith has called “Washington’s tight-knit national security culture.”.. read more: