The detailed briefing this past spring by Central Intelligence Agency analysts came to a clear conclusion: Iran appeared to be complying with the terms of the 2015 deal negotiated by the Obama administration, making it significantly harder for the country to build a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which does independent monitoring, had arrived at the same assessment.
Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, listened carefully. He wasn’t impressed. “Good,” he said, according to an agency insider. “But we know they’re cheating anyway—we’re just not seeing it.”
Dean Boyd, director of the agency's Office of Public Affairs, responded in an email with the following statement: “With respect to Iran, the director has been adamant that C.I.A. officers have the time, space and resources to make sound and unbiased assessments that are delivered to policy makers without fear or favor. He has ensured that that the C.I.A. makes rigorously objective assessments on compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The director has placed leadership of the C.I.A.’s Iran-focused efforts in the hands of his deputy and an individual with decades of experience in delivering candid assessments. These two career professionals drive the C.I.A.’s analysis and collection and render sound judgements for U.S. policy leaders on Iran and its malign activities.”
The last couple of years have been difficult for U.S. intelligence agencies. A controversial investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made the F.B.I. an unhappy central player in the 2016 presidential campaign. The winner of that contest, Donald Trump, bashed America’s intelligence services as “a disgrace,” accusing them of using tactics out of Nazi Germany for trying to evaluate salacious allegations about him compiled in the Steele Dossier. Even an attempt to mend fences came across as a slight, when Trump stood in front of a wall dedicated to C.I.A. officers killed in the line of duty and delivered a self-aggrandizing speech.
Hurt feelings, though, are hardly the most significant consequence of Trump’s presidency for the intelligence agencies. It’s the politicization of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.’s work which is having a corrosive effect on everything from the way that reports are evaluated to the brain drain at both shops.
The first big blow at the F.B.I. was the firing, in May, of James Comey. Plenty of rank-and-file agents were dismayed by how Comey inserted himself and the bureau into the 2016 campaign drama, but that disquiet was outweighed by revulsion at Trump’s abrupt dismissal of the director. In August came a fresh stunner: Trump’s pardon of former Arizona sheriff, and convicted criminal, Joe Arpaio. “Pardons and commutations never go down well with law-enforcement folks, whether they are for Chelsea Manning or Scooter Libby,” said former F.B.I. agent Asha Rangappa. “But the Arpaio pardon, coming in this context, was troubling in what it said about the president’s respect for the rule of law.”
Comey’s replacement as director, Christopher Wray, has stabilized the day-to-day atmosphere. But there’s a lingering wariness that the F.B.I.’s work could be blindsided by the White House at any time. “It’s been an exhausting year, and it’s taken a toll,” a former top F.B.I. official says. “There’s a sense of, ‘We’re focused on doing the right thing, but there are these exogenous shocks to the system that we keep being forced to absorb.’ From Comey’s firing on, each of these attacks on norms, these attempts at interference with fact-finding, are really scary to people. Arpaio got a pardon outside the normal process, after it was previewed at a political rally—that is distasteful and terrible. What it signifies for future presidential action, nobody knows. People at the bureau are worried about what happens if [Robert] Mueller is fired.”
The mood is less tense at the C.I.A., where staffers are thankful to be separated from Washington by a river. But things are not exactly cheerful inside Langley. “You spend years learning a language, studying a country, going on the street and developing relationships, because you care about getting real information,” said John Sipher, who worked at the agency for 28 years, many of them in Eastern Europe. “If the administration doesn’t give a shit about real information, that hits at the heart of what you’re trying to do. Part of the thing the Trump people do, which I think they’ve learned from the Russians, is you continually make things confusing. The chaos wears away the sense of what’s true and what’s not true. The politicization of information over time makes you say, ‘What the hell, why am I putting myself in harm’s way when these guys are like this?’”
Ned Price ended his 11-year C.I.A. career in February, announcing his resignation in a blazing Washington Post op-ed. “Upper levels of management are trying to put on a happy face, but there’s a deep sense of unease,” Price said of the mood nearly eight months later. “People inside the agency have not been able to overlook the regular broadsides that the president has directed their way. Most of the time when he references the intelligence community, it is to bash the finding that Russia meddled in our election—a high-confidence finding on the part of the intelligence community. That sends a pretty unmistakable signal. It’s not that they don’t want skepticism of their work. They want skepticism to be predicated on some sort of knowledge, rather then this predisposition to say, ‘This is fake news, and they have this wrong.’ That has really struck a nerve.”
Trump has called the Iran nuclear pact “the worst deal ever,” but the president must tell Congress by October 15 whether he wants to withdraw. The president will most likely try to split the baby, “decertifying” the deal as not in the national interest and pushing for renegotiation, while not challenging the assessment of agency analysts that Iran is in compliance. Trump will never concede that the intelligence community is right about Russian election meddling. When it comes to Iran, though, a backhanded vote of confidence would be progress.