Former CIA analyst Nada Bakos claims to be worried that President Trump’s tweets are a gold mine for foreign spies. Writing in the Washington Post, she explains:
Usually, intelligence officers’ efforts to collect information on world leaders are methodical, painstaking and often covert. CIA operatives have risked their lives to learn about foreign leaders so the United States could devise strategies to counter our adversaries. With Trump, though, secret operations are not necessary to understand what’s on his mind: The president’s unfiltered thoughts are available night and day, broadcast to his 32.7 million Twitter followers immediately and without much obvious mediation by diplomats, strategists or handlers. . . .
At the CIA, I tracked and analyzed terrorists and other U.S. enemies, including North Korea. But we never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now — to get a real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind. If we had, it would have given us significant advantages in our dealings with them. . . .
If I were an intelligence analyst for Saudi Arabia, for instance, I might suggest that the authoritarian government there should compel newspapers to write articles friendly to Trump (and, in fact, Saudi papers published articles praising first lady Melania Trump’s fashion choices during the president’s visit there last month). And I would certainly suggest that Saudi officials flatter him in person — perhaps arranging, as the Saudis did during his visit, to post billboards featuring Trump’s words and his image.
You mean to tell me that Trump has a huge ego and likes to be flattered? Blimey! If only Trump didn’t tweet, we would all think he’s a self-effacing guy who relishes criticism.
The flaw in Bakos’ article is, of course, that the U.S. isn’t North Korea or Saudi Arabia. We’re an open society and our presidential candidates are open books. The world has more than a year and a half to observe these candidates in all sorts of settings before they can become president. Anyone paying attention to the campaign already knew about Donald Trump’s personality quirks when he assumed office, just as we knew of Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s.
Presidential candidates also write books. Sometimes, as with the last two, they write them long before they enter politics. There was much to be learned from both works.
In Barack Obama’s case, foreign intelligence analysts could have discerned plenty about his psychological make-up from Dreams From My Father. Indeed, the mere fact that he wrote an autobiography at such a young age spoke volumes. Obama’s book aside, foreign analysts could have discerned the man’s unbridled ego and self-confidence by looking at the ersatz Greek columns at the Democratic convention or listening to his riff the rise of oceans slowing.
But let’s return to President Trump. In addition to his quirks, Bakos expresses concern that foreign intelligence analysts will use his tweets to figure out his unfiltered thought process on policy matters.
However, this will be useful only if Trump’s unfiltered policy views withstand the filtering that is likely to occur when he thinks more about a matter and/or receives advice from aides and cabinet members. Because it’s very difficult to tell how these forces will play out, there is, if anything, less certainty about what Trump will do regarding a given matter than there was about Obama would do.
With Obama, there was no mystery. He would appease, give in to, or react passively towards our enemies — e.g., Russia, Iran, Syria, and Cuba — and browbeat our friends — especially Israel. With Trump, tweets and all, there is uncertainty.
Trump has tweeted about North Korea, but it’s anyone’s guess how far he’s prepared to go to prevent the Norks from advancing their nuclear program. Similarly, does anyone know what Trump is planning to do in Syria as ISIS crumbles?
That’s how Trump wants it to be. Throughout the campaign, he declined to reveal his strategy for handling various foreign hot-spots, claiming that he didn’t want our adversaries to know what he would do. This may well, in part, have been a dodge, but it is also a sensible approach.
Viewed in this light, Trump’s tweets might, at least in some cases, be intended to confuse our adversaries — to create uncertainty. For example, Trump recently tweeted:
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!
A Washington Post column about this tweet was called “Trump’s tweet on China and North Korea: What did he mean?” What, indeed?
With Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the North Koreans and the Chinese knew exactly what to expect in response to the former’s nuclear program: talk, perhaps some concessions, and no real action. With Trump, they aren’t sure. I think that’s an improvement.
Do I wish Trump would tweet less? Yes. Sometimes his tweets are a distraction; sometimes they create minor difficulties for him. But do his tweets help our adversaries? Bakos’ argument that they do strikes me as silly.