U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday, appearing to reignite his long-standing feud with the country’s intelligence agencies by belittling their assessments on Islamic State, North Korea and Iran.
In a series of posts, Trump claimed responsibility for key improvements while calling out his intelligence chiefs for being “extremely passive and naive.”
“When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks,” he wrote, using an acronym for the terror group. “Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.”
“North Korea relationship is best it has ever been,” he wrote of his efforts to engage with Pyongyang. “Decent chance of Denuclearization…”
And on Iran, he wrote intelligence officials, “are wrong!”
“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” the president added.
A differing threat assessment
Trump’s tweet-storm came just one day after his director of national intelligence, along with the directors of five other key intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and NSA, delivered their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment to U.S. lawmakers.
In contrast to Trump’s tweets, and other previous public statements, the picture painted by the intelligence chiefs was grim, warning the United States was facing a “toxic mix” of threats and is in danger of seeing its global influence wane as key adversaries, like Russia and China, position themselves to fill the resulting void.
Their public, unclassified assessments on IS, North Korea and Iran also stood in stark contrast to the president’s past assertions, for example from December, when Trump said, “We have won against ISIS… We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly.”
“ISIS will continue to be a threat to the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers Tuesday, saying the terror group “still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.
On North Korea, Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel reiterated long-standing concerns that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, despite being willing to talk with the U.S., is not truly ready to give up its nuclear ambitions.
“The regime is committed to developing a long-range nuclear armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States,” Haspel said.
As for the assessment of Iran, for which Trump labeled the U.S. intel chiefs as “wrong,” the differences between the intelligence agencies and the president appeared to be less glaring.
The intelligence officials told lawmakers that the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Tehran, which the president has repeatedly called a failure, is working, at least for now.
And Coats agreed with the president about the larger threat and concerns for a “long-term trajectory of Iranian influence in the region and the risk of conflict escalation.”
Reaction to Trump’s tweets
The CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency declined comment when asked about the president’s tweets Wednesday. But the public critiques drew a quick response from some U.S. lawmakers and former intelligence officials.
“The President has a dangerous habit of undermining the intelligence community to fit his alternate reality,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat, tweeted in response. “People risk their lives for the intelligence he just tosses aside on Twitter.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan, an outspoken critic whose security clearance was revoked last August, also took Trump to task, calling the president’s tweets an indication of “the extent of your intellectual bankruptcy,” writing that Americans “need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.”
And former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told VOA the president’s tweets were “sophomoric.”
“He should actually read the written assessment,” Clapper said. “I guess he’s reacting to the media focus on the disparities between what the IC [Intelligence Community] assessed and what his ‘gut’ tells him, so, of course he had to push back.”
‘Not that big’ a deal
Yet other former officials described the commotion over the president’s tweets as overblown.
“This is not that big a thing,” said Steve Bucci, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation who previously served as an assistant to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“Frankly, I see both sides kind of doing what they get paid to do,” he told VOA. “The intel community is supposed to be the factual analyzers and the president picks the policies he wants to follow.
“They clearly have failed to convince him that their position is correct. And now everybody is going nuts because he’s not treating what the intelligence community says as holy writ,” Bucci said.
Bucci also said it would be a mistake to view Trump’s tweets as an indictment of his intel chiefs as opposed to messages meant for Iran and North Korea.
“He’s trying to move both countries in directions that are beneficial to U.S. interests,” he said. “He’s not shutting down the intel community.”
Other former officials agree that despite a history of public hostility between Trump and U.S. intelligence officials – stemming from the community’s public assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election –the president’s tweets were likely not intended to further inflame any feud.
“Trump’s critical tweets about the new worldwide threat statement, however, probably have less to do with general antipathy than with how the statement includes inconvenient truths that clash with incorrect assertions by the administration,” Paul Pillar, a veteran CIA officer now with the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, told VOA in an email.
Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community with stints as senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, said such tension, in and of itself, is not unusual.
“I can’t think of a president of the United States or a policymaker who didn’t like what the intelligence community had to say,” Pfeiffer said, adding intelligence officials have long seen it as their job to tell truth to power.
But Pfeiffer cautioned that Trump’s responses could still take a toll.
“It can publicly affect morale … when the ultimate customer has this kind of attitude,” he said. “He’s publicly criticized the intelligence community more than he’s criticized [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
“The question for me is, at what point do these intelligence chiefs quit,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA who once ran the agency’s Russia operations.
“It is one thing for the president to have differing views,” he said. “It is another thing altogether to openly attack or belittle the IC.”