Educating Trump with Intelligence: Questions are as Important as Answers

December 21, 2016 Topic: Intelligence Russia Terrorism Presidency Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Educating Trump with Intelligence: Questions are as Important as Answers


“I don't have to be told—you know, I'm, like, a smart person. I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” 

That’s how President-elect Trump explained in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News his intention not to receive daily intelligence briefings as president.  He evidently has a major misconception about the content of such briefings.  Obviously it would be a waste of the president’s, and everyone else’s, time if the briefings consisted of the same thing in the same words every single day.  But they don’t.  Trump has largely declined the opportunities for intelligence briefings that most every other president-elect has taken advantage of, so the “same thing, same words” misconception evidently is a preconceived notion that he somehow arrived at, rather than anything based on experience.


Part of Trump’s explanation is that he delegates to subordinates the role of receiving briefings.  He told Wallace that “my generals”—an interesting formulation—are receiving briefings, as is Mike Pence.  Perhaps the flow of not just information but decision-making in the Trump White House will lead the intelligence agencies to conclude that Prime Minister Pence is the customer most worth meeting with anyway.  But the most important bucks will still have to stop at the president’s desk.

Although keeping the president up-to-date on current developments is certainly a central aspect of intelligence briefings to the president, it is by no means the only important function they serve.  Another one concerns what they communicate to the intelligence agencies about the president’s concerns, objectives, questions, and knowledge gaps.  What the agencies learn from those interactions constitutes valuable guidance in keeping their work relevant to the needs of the president and his administration.

An additional important function is to sensitize the president and his senior subordinates to looming problems (or opportunities) that are not on their plate right now but are likely to be on their plate a week, a month, or a year from now.  A major task expected of the intelligence agencies—but usually recognized explicitly only in the wake of some failure or disaster—is to anticipate threats before almost anyone else does.  The agencies are not expected to sit back and wait for policymakers to ask them questions.  When questions do get asked, formulating a response gets high priority, but most of the work done by intelligence agencies is self-initiated.  It is work needed to identify troublesome trends and potential problems overseas and to highlight them before the president or other senior consumers are sufficiently aware of them even to start asking questions.

Another part of Trump’s comments to Wallace suggested a failure to understand this function.  His words are jumbled, but he seemed to be saying that at certain times amid “very fluid situations” he would be willing to hear what the intelligence officers say about what has changed.  There are two problems with this approach.  One is that troublesome trends and looming problems are often not a matter of what has changed today from yesterday.  Some of the biggest problems that will be on the policymakers’ plates next month or next year, and that they had better be prepared to deal with, are more a matter of gradually emerging threats.  The other problem is that the president is never going to ask for a non-regular briefing if he hasn’t first been made aware of the significance of the topic to be briefed.

An example of a subject in which what the president most needs to understand is the nature of an emerging long-term threat rather than what has changed from yesterday or last week is international terrorism.  The president isn’t the one who will be directing the response to a specific, real-time terrorist plot—a principle misunderstood in much of the commentary about an intelligence briefing that President George W. Bush received in the month before 9/11.  Rather, he must set bigger and broader counterterrorist policies that will last for months and years.

Somewhat ironically, the recent story about Russian hacking and interference in the election that has given Trump the presidency is another example.  This is a very important subject, where the president needs all the edification he can get from the intelligence agencies about Russian motives and objectives.  That’s what is most important to understand—not what has “changed” lately and what the Russians are doing with their latest hack.

The sort of broad understanding that dialogue with the intelligence agencies assists is all the more important with this president, who otherwise gets his information from “the shows” and doesn’t find time to read books.

And it is the questions that the intelligence output raises in the minds of the president and other policymakers, at least as much as the answers that intelligence agencies give to questions asked of them, that nurtures the understanding.  A frightening thing about Donald Trump as president is not just how much he doesn’t know, but how he doesn’t seem to know how much he doesn’t know.