Patterico's Pontifications

5/10/2017

Is President Trump Unwittingly Providing A Gold Mine To Our Opponents?

Filed under: General — Dana @ 4:15 pm

[guest post by Dana]

After the announcement that FBI Director James Comey was fired, President Trump took to Twitter and blasted Sen. Chuck Schumer for suggesting a possible a cover up was happening and that Comey’s termination reinforced the need for a special prosecutor:

Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, “I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.” Then acts so indignant.

Then, in the early hours this morning, the president went on a full-throttle Twitter rant:

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The timing of Comey’s termination and the president’s very public reaction to those criticizing him for it, is coincidentally timely with respect to an interesting article written by Tom Nichols, a former consultant to the CIA and former Sovietologist. I first read his comments in a long Twitter thread several days before the Comey event when Sally Yates was testifying before a Senate panel. That Nichols chose to take his Twitter thread and develop it into an insightful post is beneficial to anyone concerned about potential conflicts or dangers that could arise from a sitting president revealing his immediate reactions to events taking place in real time. Also, if you are like me and have been concerned about seemingly off-the-cuff tweets by the president, Nichols offers a unique perspective into the unintended, and potentially far-reaching consequences that might occur from indulging such impulses. Nichols’s premise is that by free-wheeling tweeting, President Trump is unwittingly providing a gold mine of valuable information to foreign intelligence officials. Not policy, mind you, but something else entirely. To a layperson like me, this doesn’t appear to be a prudent course for the nation he leads, nor one that is in the best interest of our national security.

Are President Trump’s tweets dangerous to our national security? I posed this question on Twitter, and immediately was deluged by the usual flood of partisan answers. The president’s supporters think it’s wonderful that Trump bypasses the media filter and speaks his mind directly to the voters. The president’s detractors think he’s revealing a neurotic personality and that his aides should take his phone away from him.

I approached the question differently. As I watched Trump fulminate against hearings in the Senate—during which former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she warned the White House about fallen National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s Russian connections—it occurred to me that I was getting a real-time look at how the president of the United States reacts to stress.

More important, it also occurred to me that I was not the only one getting a raw feed of the president’s thoughts and emotions. I realized that any foreign intelligence analyst worth his or her salt was almost certainly taking copious notes.

As well they should. Trump’s tweets, from an intelligence standpoint, are a gold mine. Not because they contain classified information or reveal important aspects of U.S. policy, but because they are a direct and continuous stream of information about the president himself. Classified information is important, but an ongoing look inside the president’s head is, in many ways, more valuable than any transitory secrets.

Nichols bases his observations on his past professional experiences as he informs readers why the revelations of the president are a boon to those we might prefer not have such insights:

Leadership analysis is a difficult subject. In both academic studies and intelligence work, it is an art more than a science. But it is crucially important in foreign policy, especially during crises: the psyche of national leaders, their emotional reactions and cognitive maps, the idiom of their reactions, all become paramount in the search for information when states are at the brink of conflict.

Every nation in the world does this kind of analysis. I was for many years a practicing Kremlinologist, a Russian-speaking analyst who studied the Soviet leadership, read Soviet media, and carefully peeled back every statement and picture I could find to get as firm a handle as I could on the views and possible actions of the people pointing a massive nuclear arsenal at us.

I did this as a scholar, including in books analyzing Soviet politics, as well as in work I did as a consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency and other defense-related organizations. I also read such files, and have seen how they are constructed, as part of helping prepare briefings for a U.S. senator when I worked on Capitol Hill during the first Gulf War.

From this perspective, President Trump’s tweets reveal a great deal about the man. They show patterns of even the smallest details of his routine: when he wakes, what he watches, who he trusts in the media. They reveal even more about his emotions: they show how he speaks when he’s angry, who he thinks his audiences are, and what kind of issues take priority in his cognitive processes.

All of these could be helpful to an opponent in a number of circumstances, including trying to decide when communications from the United States are coming directly from the president or from a group of advisers.

Nichols illustrates this point with the issue of specific communications from the Kremlin to the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis, and communications sent from the U.S. to the Kremlin during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

However, far be it for Nichols to tell a sitting president how to behave. Instead, he leaves readers with this caution:

I should note that I make no judgment here about the content of the president’s tweets. Sometimes they seem to contradict his own policies, but perhaps that is part of some plan that is opaque to me. What concerns me more specifically is that his tweets—which he might not be taking all that seriously—are becoming part of a psychological profile of the U.S. president being built in both friendly and enemy capitals that may not serve American interests well, not least because they could be misinterpreted and lead to disastrous miscalculations.

I am especially concerned that foreign intelligence services, over-analyzing what might be throwaway comments, believe they now have a clear picture of the president’s cognitive map. Right or wrong, this removes the uncertainty about a president’s actions that is necessary not only to an American leader’s freedom of action, but to the maintenance of stable deterrence with our opponents.

Ultimately, I suspect that Trump supporters will still cheer on a president who has allegedly bypassed a biased media to speak directly to them, and those less supportive of this president will now have their already expressed concerns validated.

On a side note: I am utterly uninterested in anyone’s boring, repetitive claim that this post is nothing more than a NeverTrump whine or that it is anti-Trump hysteria. Save your breath. Stop throwing out childish accusations, and instead, demonstrate to readers why Nichols’s concerns are misplaced. After all, you may be in agreement with John McCain: “Sometimes it’s important to watch what the President does rather than what he says.”

Read the whole article.

(Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.)

–Dana


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