While some members of the US intelligence community have acknowledged that they are frustrated by President Donald Trump’s public rejection of the CIA’s assessment regarding the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, current and former officials accept that it is well within the President’s rights to be skeptical about information presented to him.
Intelligence officials have been here before. At times they have appeared to break with the President on key issues, including the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and its belief that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has no intention of immediately giving up his nuclear weapons program.
Some current and former officials note that Trump is certainly not the first or last President to make decisions that will frustrate many in the intelligence community, specifically referencing instances in which the George W. Bush administration disregarded information related to weapons of mass destruction that the CIA believed to be correct in the run up to the war with Iraq in 2003.
But Trump’s handling of Khashoggi’s murder has once again raised questions about the relationship between the White House and those serving in US clandestine services.
Trump rankled top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Tuesday by signaling he will not take strong action against Saudi Arabia or its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi.
He also raised doubts about the CIA’s assessment connecting the regime to the murder in an exclamation-mark laden statement subtitled “America First!” that said “our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
A US intelligence official acknowledged that Trump’s statement has irked some members of the clandestine community but noted that the CIA provided the White House with an assessment based on the facts available and if the President is skeptical or doesn’t believe certain pieces of information, then that is his right.
“The White House might not like what’s brought forward but ultimately what we provide is based on facts and it is up to the President to believe it or not,” the official said, adding that the role of the intelligence community is to offer a confidence-based assessment given the facts available, not a conclusive determination.
A senior administration official told CNN that an intelligence report about the murder reportedly sent to Trump on Tuesday and delivered in physical form is an assessment of all the intelligence gathered so far, but will not present a final conclusion. That’s in keeping with intelligence community practice: agencies assign a confidence level to their findings because intelligence isn’t conclusive.
And though sources tell CNN that the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of bin Salman’s inner circle, the fact that they don’t make a final conclusion gives the White House an out.
While Trump has indicated he will continue to back the Saudi regime, US officials said that the intelligence community stands ready should the President request additional support regarding the Khashoggi investigation.
“We know what we’ve given him and if something terrible comes up, will push it through the White House immediately,” the intelligence official told CNN, noting that there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
The CIA declined to comment on the issue and Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
But the public manner in which Trump appeared to undermine the CIA’s assessment in Tuesday’s statement is what makes this situation unique, according to David Priess, a former CIA officer who served during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
“It’s not unusual for a President or other senior policymaker to disagree with intelligence analysis, or even to reject it outright, when it clashes with deep policy preferences. What’s highly unusual about the way this played out yesterday is that the President disregarded the intelligence so publicly,” he said.
Former CIA officer John Sipher echoed that point, telling CNN that there are certainly “serious frustrations” within the intelligence community over Trump’s comments but noted that it is difficult to make broad characterizations given intelligence officers would “rarely admit it.”
“Some seniors I know are fed up and angry. I hesitate to say it as a generalization, however because I’m sure others would deny it,” he said.
“It is easier for them. They can put their head down, focus abroad and do their job. Our tribe is pretty resilient and already looks down on politicians. Remember, they come through our Stations for briefings. We know damn well that they are often fools,” added Sipher, whose 28-year career at the CIA included a stint running the agency’s Russia operations.
Two former senior intelligence officials, who both served during Democrat and Republican administrations, told CNN that Trump is certainly not the first president to disagree or even reject such findings when they do not align with the administration’s policy objectives and that tension frustration within the intelligence agencies is not uncommon.
“Of course the agency is frustrated … there have been scores of times when agency people have been frustrated that the president or the administration has not taken their advice. To think that this is an anomaly is … the totally wrong assessment of the situation,” one former senior CIA official said.
“The President communicates differently but I really don’t think this reaches the threshold … that the intelligence community is going to be taken aback by this,” the former official said, pointing out that two previous administrations disregarded the CIA’s warnings about an potential attack in the lead up to 9/11.
“I can’t tell you how frustrating that was. Everyday we would go to the White House and say ‘something is going to happen’ … and we were not prepared,” the source said. “When the next president is elected, whoever it is, the agency will be frustrated as well.”
Another former senior CIA official told CNN intelligence officers will “be frustrated a little bit but recognize that nobody elected them and so they just keep doing their job and providing the best intel they can.”