Over the course of our careers in the intelligence community — years that spanned Republican and Democratic administrations — we regularly briefed presidents on intelligence issues. Regardless of how often we did so, walking into the Oval Office or the White House Situation Room was a serious and solemn experience. Our job was to explain our analysis of the situation in as objective a way as possible so that the president could make the best decision possible to protect the United States, our allies and our interests.
We had the easy job. We only had to present intelligence, which was almost by definition imperfect in countless ways, and advise. The harder job — making the ultimate choice — was, of course, the president’s. And the big decisions, the ones that could have lasting effects on people across the globe, were far from easy. In fact, most often, they forced the president to tackle uncertainty in ways few of us can imagine.
It is with this background that we find the Trump administration’s response to reports of Russian bounty programs targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan so deeply disturbing. Although the administration’s statements are anything but clear, the sum total seems to be that the president was not briefed because the reports were “unverified,” or lacked intelligence community "consensus” or — in the president’s own words — were a “hoax.” At the same time, national security adviser Robert O’Brien has said that the National Security Council had convened at least one meeting to prepare “options” for the president. And finally, the administration has stated that it plans no immediate action in response to the reports. In our view, this makes no sense.
First, intelligence on critical issues is almost always unclear. In fact, if we had applied the administration’s apparent standard for certainty before we briefed a president, we could have renamed the Daily Brief the Annual Brief given how infrequently we would meet that lofty, unreasonable bar. As one of us used to say when asked to judge the CIA’s work, “We never get asked questions that would provide the clarity or certainty of a 9 or 10.”
Second, it was often the very uncertainty of the intelligence — dissenting views from various agencies, difficult questions regarding reliability and the challenge of collecting additional intelligence — that demanded presidential attention. In our experience, the intelligence community had a sacred responsibility to alert policymakers to potentially significant intelligence both because they had the ultimate responsibility to act and would need time to think through options, and because decisions about how to gain a clearer intelligence picture often themselves posed difficult choices.
Consider, for example, the raid that brought justice to Osama bin Laden. Although many now speculate that this was an easy call by President Barack Obama, it was not. Obama was faced with uncertain and conflicting intelligence and was forced to decide based on imperfect — and sometimes competing — acts. Rather than eschewing a decision, the president embraced this uncertainty, stood up to his responsibility and decided, knowing the risks associated with doing so.
We saw President George W. Bush and other presidents before him tackle the same types of uncertainty because they knew — as Harry Truman so clearly expressed — where the buck stopped. Not all intelligence was perfect, and some — as we painfully recognize — was wrong. Nonetheless, these men knew they didn’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for complicated decisions to become easy ones.
Third, the White House argument that it was preparing options, but had not yet decided to act, fails to recognize that the president has already acted — just not in a way that protects U.S. interests. The president’s conclusion that these reports are yet another “hoax” — drawing a perfect parallel to his view of the bipartisan-recognized Russian interference in our elections in 2016 — provides Russia and Vladimir Putin an unmistakable win and severely undermines our own intelligence community. If the president is serious about knowing the truth, then dismissing ongoing intelligence collection and analysis should be his last instinct. And if discouraging further Russian misbehavior were his priority, the warning would obviously be aimed at Moscow rather than the U.S. intelligence community and the media.
President Trump’s call for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven — while the intelligence community struggles with uncertain intelligence, and the National Security Council (we hope) struggles with the proper response to the prospect of Russia targeting U.S. troops — is yet another sign that the commander in chief isn’t fulfilling his responsibilities. Worse, his actions directly counter U.S. and our allies’ interests and bolster Putin’s campaign for a resurgent Russia.
Indeed, from Moscow, the president’s invitation — roundly rejected by our strongest allies — undoubtedly provided yet another assurance that various types of Russian meddling were low on the president’s list of worries.
To be clear: None of what is occurring represents what commanders in chief have done in the past, and all of what is occurring gives us little comfort that U.S. interests — in the form of the precious lives of those defending us abroad — are being protected. The Oval Office is a place where difficult decisions will always be premised on imperfect information. We know well that if the commander in chief deflects or rejects intelligence that challenges his skewed worldview, the threat to our armed forces will be stronger and our nation will be weaker.