In a clash between the intelligence community and the White House, the president has the advantage

Gideon Rachman writes: The clash between the president-elect and America’s powerful “intelligence community” has led many wiseacres to suggest that Mr Trump is making a dangerous error. It is said they could easily destabilise the new president. The idea that the spooks are more powerful than the president himself sounds worldly. But it is almost certainly wrong. If there is a struggle between the White House and the intelligence agencies, Mr Trump is clearly in the more powerful position.

The legal, political and bureaucratic prohibitions placed on the intelligence agencies spying on Americans — let alone the president — are formidable. It is true that the spooks are powerful and well-resourced actors in the Washington system. But their main skill is gaining the ear of the president in struggles with other government agencies. When the president is the problem, it is less clear what the spies can do.

In any battle between the spies and the White House itself, the intelligence community’s only real resort is to brief or leak against the president. But there are no guarantees that this will be effective.

In 2004, CIA officials were widely accused of briefing against the administration of George W Bush, reflecting the agency’s discontent with the handling of the Iraq war. The Wall Street Journal even ran an editorial headlined “The CIA’s insurgency” and accusing “senior rungs of the agency” of “clearly trying to defeat President Bush and elect John Kerry”. But if regime change was indeed the intention, the CIA failed. Mr Bush was re-elected.

The whole controversy highlights a divergence in the international and domestic images of the US intelligence agencies. For the global left, the CIA has always been regarded as a sinister rightwing organisation supporting a reactionary world order. But in Washington the CIA is often regarded with suspicion by conservatives who believe it to have a liberal bias. The agency is, after all, full of people with advanced degrees and knowledge of foreign languages, who tend to raise tiresome factual objections to the right’s worldview. [Continue reading…]

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