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IntelligenceTrump versus the intelligence agencies – we’ve seen it all before

By Dan Lomas

Published 21 March 2017

Donald Trump’s remarkable attacks on his own intelligence community may seem shocking to the casual observer – but they are not without precedent. History is littered with the debris of this delicate and all too often abusive relationship. Whether it is dirty tricks to undermine a “Bolshevik” Harold Wilson or “Ivy League liberals” smearing Richard Nixon, it is clear that the spies do not always love their leaders. Whether claims of dirty tricks are true remains open to question, but they upset the delicate intelligence-policymaker relationship. Past examples from Britain, the United States, and Israel show that even the suggestion that intelligence agencies are trying to undermine the government cause significant problems. History does not bode well for President Trump. Expect more problems in the future.

Conflict between the intelligence services and policymakers is hardly new // Source: theconversation.com

Donald Trump’s remarkable attacks on his own intelligence community may seem shocking to the casual observer – but they are not without precedent. History is littered with the debris of this delicate and all too often abusive relationship. Whether it’s dirty tricks to undermine a “Bolshevik” Harold Wilson or “Ivy League liberals” smearing Richard Nixon, it is clear that the spies do not always love their leaders.

At the heart of the story is the role of intelligence in democracies. In theory, intelligence agencies are meant to be objective, free from political bias and to speak truth to power. They perform two tasks: providing intelligence assessments to shape policy and implementing government decisions.

Uri Bar-Joseph said the relationship should actually be seen as an “obstacle race” in which both sides – intelligence officials and policymakers – show their frustration.

For their part, policymakers need to listen to advice – whether good or bad. But often they do not like the message being reported by their intelligence officials, criticizing them or – worst of all – cutting them out altogether. Party political differences can also create problems and the potential for unauthorized leaks and smears.

The British experience
Britain has been no stranger to alleged dirty tricks. In 1920, leaks of top secret intercepts by senior intelligence and military figures, headed by the chief of the imperial general staff, Sir Henry Wilson, wrecked government attempts to strike a controversial trade deal with Bolshevik Russia.

Four years later – in the now infamous “Zinoviev Letter Affair” – intelligence officials, wrongly believing Britain’s first Labor government was sympathetic to Russia, leaked a fake letter into the national press during the October 1924 election. The letter – purported to be from Grigori Zinoviev, president of the internal communist organization – called on British communists to mobilize “sympathetic forces” in the Labor Party to support an Anglo-Soviet treaty. It was said to have triggered the fall of the Labor government.

But one of the most famous intelligence plots must be the alleged attempt to undermine Harold Wilson. Oddly, it was Wilson himself who gave force to the story. In May 1976, after leaving Downing Street, the former PM told BBC journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour that he was not sure “what was happening, fully, in security.”