Donald Trump – scaring the spies out into the cold

President Donald is going to be a headache for the intelligence community. He can't keep his own secrets safe, so how can they trust him?

The spies will be feeling a chill after a month of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

That includes New Zealand’s spies, now in surprisingly familiar territory as concern about Trump’s behaviour spreads across the intelligence community.

Trump’s erratic behaviour will have changed much of how the intelligence community operates, for those working in human intelligence and those in electronic eavesdropping.

The change will also be driven by the ease with which evidence of Trump’s behaviour is leaked from the White House.

There were concerns enough after the emergence of the dossier which alleged to summarise his relationship with Russia. Now, his own national security adviser Michael Flynn has been forced to resign due to confirmation – from the intelligence services' phone tapping – that he had been talking to Russia's ambassador to the US about American sanctions. Further, The New York Times is reporting that members of Trump's campaign team had been in regular contact with Russian intelligence agents.

The suggestion Russia might have a hold over Trump was said to have prompted US intelligence staff to tell Israel it should avoid sharing sensitive information with the incoming President’s aides.

There was concern about the threat of exposure through Russia having “levers of pressure”.

Now there is going to be added concern at the temperamental style of governance Trump seems to be adopting and the examples of that which are being leaked.

For the intelligence community, this adds up to an environment which is less reliable and less stable than it has been for generations.

The possibility that lines of communication are at risk will make human intelligence sources nervous.

These are the eyes on the ground – the people whose goodwill, greed, self-compromise or some other reason has turned them into assets that produce information for the US and its closest intelligence-sharing allies, such as New Zealand.

They will become less willing. The White House leaks show the person at the top of the food chain – Trump – is unable to protect his own information to save himself from embarrassment. That’s not going to give any comfort to an intelligence source.

The chilling of information will extend to the furthest reaches of the information chain. Those sources in communities across the globe, government staff of non-friendly and friendly nations, NGO staff who see things and pass it on – all will wonder how secure they are as the source.

There will also be questions about what their information will be used for. Trump’s bluster against North Korea, cosiness with Russia and brinkmanship with China will terrify regular contributors.

Those questions will also be asked by the holders of the information – the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The product they provide to the President on a daily basis requires calm and careful assessment – the contributions which go to the White House are now going to be measured in an entirely different way.

The intelligence community itself becomes defensive. Its assets now work for a president prone, it seems, to acting on a whim. It will perceive a need to protect the institution, the information it holds and the sources which provide it.

It will also become empowered. The alternate reality being constructed in Washington is vulnerable to intelligence and how it is used. The difficulties of Mike Flynn are proof of the power of the agencies.

Both national and internationally, the intelligence agencies have an overarching intent which is shaped by presidential terms but longer-lived. The Five Eyes grouping (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States) will feel a need to ensure the information collected and held is used to further that long-term plan. That’s not guaranteed with some of the erratic behaviour coming out of the White House.

There will be an exertion of diplomacy to paper over the careful withdrawal of shared intelligence. It’s not as blunt as an edict but those distributing intelligence among friends will be extra-judicious at what they choose to share.

Our spies have been here before. When our political leaders took New Zealand into nuclear-free territory, it led to a diplomatic and military rift with the United States.

We maintained close links but it was cold at times. The US felt further away than it had done. It wasn’t warm, not like the Great Get-Together these past eight years.
During the cold times, an exertion of diplomacy by intelligence chiefs maintained bonds.

At the centre of this imminent chill is Trump’s White House. It has been reported Trump often skips the morning intelligence briefing, delegating the task to an aide who puts together a one-page bullet-point summary.

So that’s where we are at – a president who has created an environment which will provide lesser quality intelligence than that which his predecessors relied on but also a president not to bothered about not having it.