As the Biden administration takes office, it will have to prioritize myriad critical global and regional challenges, ranging from terrorism to rebuilding alliances and improving intelligence collection. The past four years have seen foreign security agencies less interested in sharing intelligence with their U.S. counterparts, which in turn has deprived our national leaders of critical information.
A departing president usually shares with the incoming one the “crown jewels” of intelligence reporting, sources, methods, presidential findings and ongoing cases. Intelligence plays a critical role in informing policy decisions. That has not been the case with President Trump.
U.S. intelligence officers need to collect all source information across the globe relevant to important national security policies, including such existential issues as terrorism, nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction.
Although since 9/11 terrorism understandably has headed the list of critical national security issues against which intelligence is collected, other important targets have included weapons of mass destruction, nuclear programs and missiles, banking, trade sanctions, cyber security and hacking, and intellectual property theft.
Once they collect the information, these partners share it with American intelligence collectors, often at considerable risk. As they do so, they expect the information they share with their American counterparts to reach senior policymakers at the highest levels of government.
During my government career, I interacted with dozens of intelligence services across the globe and often realized how much the national security of the United States was enhanced by the information and analysis they provided. No matter how many American intelligence and national security officials are stationed overseas, they cannot possibly by themselves collect on all the critical national security threats facing the United States without collaboration with other intelligence services.
In his book “At the Center of the Storm,” former CIA Director George Tenet cites numerous trips he took to other countries in the Middle East, the Balkans, Asia and elsewhere for the purpose of further collaboration with other intelligence services. His personal contacts with the heads of those services helped cement intelligence sharing between the United States and other countries.
Partnering services continued to provide valuable information because they realized that senior policymakers in Washington, including the president of the United States, often relied on the collected information as they made decisions on terrorism and related issues.
During the past four years, however, as President Trump’s negative attitude toward American intelligence agencies, especially the Central Intelligence Agency, became more strident and as he continued to ignore and denigrate intelligence warnings and briefings, bilateral and multinational collaboration began to dry up. Foreign sources became less inclined to risk their own lives and expend precious resources to collect information for their American partners. Some judged the potential risks to their agencies and staff far outweighed the benefits that would accrue from a disinterested Trump administration. Others were afraid he might reveal some of the classified information to third parties.
More importantly, Trump’s disrespect of the intelligence community and inexplicable tolerance of the insidious behavior of unfriendly regimes, such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, has given them the audacity to wage dangerous social media, disinformation and hacking operations against American intelligence agencies and other government departments.
Pitfalls of sharing
Revitalizing bilateral and multinational intelligence exchanges requires rebuilding the trust that was lost in the past four years. Foreign services will have to believe that the intelligence they provide will be valued and protected and their sources and methods will be safeguarded. The complexity of transnational intelligence collaboration is a function of the partners’ professionalism, substantive and tradecraft training, political orientation, acceptance of shared values, and relationship to their countries’ national leadership.
Transnational intelligence agencies may be divided into different tiers: Commonwealth countries, other Western countries, East Asian countries, Arab and non-Arab Middle Eastern countries, Islamic countries and African countries. Working with different services varies significantly from one country or region to the next. American intelligence cooperation with Western and other industrialized countries is usually more encompassing and seamless because it reflects a commonality of concerns, values and professionalism. Governments and national security agencies in these countries believe intelligence is integral to international diplomacy and national decision making.
A key pitfall in intelligence sharing arises when a particular foreign intelligence agency is controlled by an adversarial or hostile regime and engages in obfuscation, disinformation, denial and deception.
As the incoming Biden administration begins to revitalize international intelligence exchanges, it will have to whittle away some of the key biases among international partners, for example in Muslim countries, that developed in the past four years because of President Trump’s Islamophobic statements and executive orders restricting Muslim immigration into the United States.
The new administration will have to work hard to de-politicize and professionalize intelligence collaboration. For the United States, such a process should enhance the cause of diplomacy, identify and neutralize potential threats, and punish the hackers of American government and private institutions. It will also safeguard the national security interests of the United States.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version was published on The Cipher Brief.