For the safety and wellbeing of the republic, it is urgent that intelligence professionals, those who keep our leaders informed about the doings of other nations, remain independent. They must be free to report unwelcome news to the president and other top officials. They must be invested to contradict the powerful with facts. The truth, not flattery, must guide them.
I know what it is like to be the bearer of unwelcome news. As head of the covert National Security Agency (NSA) operation in Saigon in April 1975, I repeatedly warned the U.S. ambassador, the president, and other top officials that the North Vietnamese had surrounded us and were preparing to attack the city. But the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, was able to persuade top U.S. officials that the North Vietnamese had no intention of launching an assault against the city despite the overwhelming evidence I reported, based on the intercept of North Vietnamese radio communications, that the onslaught was imminent. When the attack came—and I escaped under fire—Washington was taken by surprise.
That was 45 years ago. Now we are faced with a grimly similar situation. President Trump has removed impartial experts from key intelligence posts and put loyal minions in their place. Unwilling to allow any criticisms of the Russians, for example, Trump presumably hears nothing untoward about a country that has, among other things, offered a bounty for Americans killed in Afghanistan.
The situation is particularly dangerous right now. With the government in upheaval over the storming of the Capitol on 6 January and Trump in his last days in office, this is an ideal time for an enemy to strike. Our government would have great difficulty pulling itself together quickly to detect preparations for a hostile probe and to respond.
When, later this month, Joe Biden is inaugurated as president, he will, I’m sure, clean house and see to it that intelligence officials are professional and independent. Biden has been at the top of the federal government for too long to be fooled into allowing yes-men to lead our intelligence effort.
But what might happen in the meantime, before Biden takes office or before he has time to weed out gofers? Thanks to Trump, the nation is in grave peril of being taken by surprise.