This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Kent Harrington, a former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and Director of Public Affairs at the CIA.
Project Syndicate: Your latest PS commentary highlights US President Donald Trump’s willingness to compromise national security for his own political interests, exemplified by recent revelations that he attempted to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. As the 2020 election campaign heats up, what actions can US intelligence officials take, publicly or otherwise, to protect national security?
Kent Harrington: It is an oft-quoted truism that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Unfortunately for today’s intelligence officers, the twenty-first century addendum is, “at home as well as abroad.” Nothing could better represent the significance of this admonition than the actions of the CIA officer who blew the whistle on Trump. Indeed, those actions exemplified the values that the public servants of the intelligence community seek to reflect in their work.
For the intelligence community’s leadership, the first order of business is to acknowledge that the whistleblower was fulfilling a duty, and lend their support to the act. In fact, by reporting Trump’s abuse of office in his July telephone conversation with Zelensky, the analyst not only demonstrated courage and integrity; but also implicitly revealed the intellectual sophistication, skills, and insights that the people in the intelligence community bring to their jobs. The public rarely gets to see the quality of the work CIA analysts produce. Yet that is what makes the professionals in the intelligence community so valuable, and it is worthy of attention.
We’ll see where the House intelligence committee’s investigation into the whistleblower’s information takes the Congress and the country. But the letter alone is (or should be) an exemplar of what intelligence officers – indeed, all government officials – must do: to deal forthrightly, apolitically, conscientiously, and honestly with facts as they present themselves, wherever they’re found and wherever they may lead.
In this sense, for the intelligence rank and file, the simple answer to the question of how best to protect national security is: keep doing your jobs. Given Trump’s attempt to collude with his Ukrainian counterpart, that means placing the highest priority on foreign interference in next year’s presidential election.
With Trump in the White House and the Kremlin as eager to keep him there in 2020 as it was to help install him in 2016, the challenge the intelligence community faces is formidable. FBI Director Christopher Wray has already warned that Russia is ramping up its political warfare to foment discord. With its favored candidate facing political trouble, Russia can be expected to try exploiting any possible opening in 2020 even more vigorously than in 2016.
It would be naive to think that the Russians’ increased experience and capabilities – as well as Trump’s failure to lead a nationwide effort to secure the electoral process – hasn’t increased America’s vulnerability to disinformation and, perhaps, electoral interference. One way for the intelligence community to push back is to publicize all it can about Russia’s political offensive, educate citizens about what to look for in disinformation campaigns, and help to expose and debunk bogus stories when they appear. This approach will run counter to the instincts of many intelligence professionals, who are conditioned to protect sources and methods, but in today’s context, it is badly needed.
PS: What effect might the recent allegations have on the already-tense relationship between the intelligence community and Trump, who, you’ve observed, has sought from the outset of his administration to “bring the intelligence services to heel”?
KH: Trump judges the performance of the members of his administration by one criterion: loyalty. The intelligence agencies are no exception. Add to that Trump’s enduring fury over the intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that his 2016 campaign was supported by Russia’s cyber-warriors – a conclusion that Trump denies, despite all facts and findings – and there is no question that relations will be fraught in the months ahead. The consequences won’t be pretty.
For reasons only a psychiatrist can explain, Trump appears to view any uncongenial information or analysis as evidence that its bearers represent outright opposition, and he responds with unbridled – even unhinged – antagonism. His response to the whistleblower’s letter are a harbinger of what’s to come.
That response has included questions as to why he is not “entitled to interview & learn everything about” the whistleblower, whose identity is protected by federal statute, as well as accusations that whoever gave the whistleblower information was “close to a spy.” In the “old days,” Trump said ominously, spies were dealt with differently.
With these fulminations, Trump seeks to discredit the whistleblower and to intimidate the rest of the intelligence community. Based on my experience, this is a bad strategy, though for Trump, that’s par for the course.
How far Trump will go in attacking the intelligence community remains to be seen. At the very least, the political disinformation campaign being conducted by him and his colleagues will continue. So will his attempts to stonewall the House, where the impeachment inquiry is picking up speed.
But Trump won’t stop at lies and arm-waving: placing malleable minions in senior intelligence positions is also high on the agenda. Even before the whistleblower came onto the scene, Trump was trying to install a loyalist to be head of national intelligence. As other senior posts open, expect to find more cronies, sycophants, and unknowns at the top of Trump’s roster of nominees.
It’s worth noting that no new arrival is likely to have a major impact on the intelligence community’s day-to-day operations. Even if there are Trump toadies in place attempting to design presidential intelligence briefings that don’t produce tantrums and retribution, the vast majority of intelligence professionals will keep their heads down and do their jobs – protecting their institutions and, above all, national security.
PS: Last year, you sounded the alarm about China’s “influence operations.” Recent revelations that China has used social-media accounts to sway public opinion about the protests in Hong Kong lend further weight to such concerns. What should Western policymakers understand about China’s operations, and how should they respond?
KH: There’s a “Rip Van Winkle” quality to the current attention to China’s effort to capitalize on its soft power. The facts speak for themselves, and there’s no question that China – through its intelligence services and the “united front” operations of the Communist Party of China (CPC) – has dramatically expanded its operations to sway the opinion of publics and elites around the world.
The scope of China’s efforts is hidden in plain sight. The country has been making multi-billion-dollar investments in media that share news about China abroad. It has in place sophisticated mechanisms for controlling domestic information outlets. And it is rapidly expanding its presence in foreign institutions.
Counter-intelligence officials in the US, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere are now paying increasingly close attention to China’s business and technology ties. This is appropriate, but the focus should be broader. American universities, for example, have been surprisingly incurious about China’s influence operations on their campuses, which include infiltration by Chinese intelligence services.
It is no secret that China keeps tabs on its students abroad; nor are the methods it uses. Chinese spies monitor them directly and through co-opted collaborators, such as Chinese “student associations.” Universities that claim to prize freedom of thought and unfettered pursuit of knowledge, and yet ignore such covert political intrusions, need to ask whether they are meeting their own foundational values.
The same holds true for educational programs in China, where the intelligence services and CPC are even more intrusive. Universities like Duke, Johns Hopkins, and New York University claim that their campuses in China are sanctuaries, where students experience education no differently than in the US. But while establishing institutional ties with counterpart institutions abroad can serve many laudable goals, it makes a difference whether those institutions are in authoritarian states. The leaders of US universities need to be more vigilant and self-aware when collaborating with repressive regimes.
Needless to say, there is no neat policy response to China’s growing political reach. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s political and economic ambitions are obvious, and he has the resources, in terms of trade or investment, to advance them. It is up to the recipients of Chinese largesse – whether universities, research institutes, think tanks, or corporations – to identify the true risks this entails. This means asking the kinds of questions that were clear during the Cold War.
The US is not the only open democratic society that must cope with China’s growing influence operations. Along with our friends and allies, we also have experience to apply. That experience suggests that, while a succession of US administrations have allowed information services to atrophy and have reduced funding to programs that educate audiences at home and abroad, it’s not too late to revitalize and refocus such efforts.
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From the PS Archive
Harrington points out that Trump is not the only right-wing populist leader to attack his own country’s spies. Read the commentary.
Harrington considers the long-term impact of Trump’s sharing of sensitive information with Russia. Read the commentary.
Around the web
Last year, Harrington warned that Trump’s focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons – and his seeming willingness to use US forces as a bargaining chip – was missing the North’s real leverage: hundreds of thousands of soldiers and firepower within easy striking distance of Seoul. Read the commentary.
Following Trump’s revocation of a former CIA director's security clearance, Harrington discussed what could be done to constrain a US president keen to exploit the office’s powers and engage in political coercion. Listen to the podcast.
This summer, Harrington argued that precisely because Trump's authoritarian outbursts, parroted by party loyalists and amplified in right-wing echo chambers, have become epidemic, media outlets must not ignore them. Read the commentary.