<b>Spy’s eye:</b> Trump’s issues with Intelligence
The spat between the Intelligence agencies of the US and its democratically elected President Donald Trump is not only bizarre but also for that reason, an extraordinary case study for evaluating the mandate that should determine the relationship between the National Intelligence and the Political Executive in a democratic dispensation.
Ideally speaking, the national security set up anchored on Intelligence, exercises the sovereign function of detecting and tracking any threat to national security –external or internal –with the aim of neutralising it in time. At the same time, however, it does this on the authority of the elected Political Executive that is the ultimate repository of all sovereignty in a democracy. National Intelligence cannot be competitively patriotic in relation to the Political Executive unless it is driven to a point where it had to confront the elected leadership on the latter's credentials as the guardian of national security.
How does one take a judgement call from outside on the ongoing 'conflict' between FBI –which in US performs the counter-intelligence function against threats to national security- and Donald Trump, that kept on escalating even after the latter had been designated as the President-elect? The discordance between the two sprang up when the agency let it be known to the entire world that Putin's Russia had 'interfered' with the electoral system of US with the motive of helping the Republican campaign. FBI allowed the political furore to develop around the issue to a level where it was suggested that those in charge of Trump campaign might be in a clandestine collusion with Russian ambassador and other representatives of Russia in US. The underlying presumption was that the Republican leadership would be vulnerable to undesirable Russian influence in future. It then took only a little stretching by sections of media to elevate the Russian 'interference' in the US election to an 'espionage' operation that, at least indirectly, could be said to have cast aspersions on the Republican candidate himself. In US the chiefs of Intelligence agencies are political appointees and they would be on test, in a crucial moment for the regime such as the Presidential election- for their objectivity.
Two aspects of professional import do arise from this entire episode of Russian 'interference' in the US election. The first relates to the fact that the electoral process in a democratic country is an 'open' public event that can be watched by the entire world. If this happens in a country, which is also the only Super Power of the day, it is not surprising that other major powers- friendly or not so friendly- would have a stake in the outcome of an election that could possibly lead to a regime change. In the recent US Presidential election, Russian interest in monitoring the campaign was no doubt aggressive and reportedly involved prying into the party information available at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters through the deniable route of 'hacking'. The act would be an 'unfriendly' one in terms of international relations and would invite repercussions but would it be the same as 'espionage' which by definition is an attempt to get unauthorised access to State secrets protected through security classification? The onus of protecting information lies with the owner and Donald Trump, happy with the thought that what Russians did only cut to his advantage, was, during his campaign, quick to blame it all on the incompetence of the Hillary camp in securing their communications. The suggestion of 'espionage' could stick only if American Intelligence was able to establish that Russians had laid the groundwork for creating 'agents' in the new Presidency, for the future.
In any case this would all be in the area of confidentiality for FBI till such time as the agency reached a definite outcome. And this brings in the second point of professional import in the debate on the continuing discord. The universal practice of Intelligence set ups is not to let any counter- intelligence endeavours become public unless they had been taken to an end point. In classical counter-espionage operations 'suspicion' is not the same as guilt. If a premature disclosure about the 'foreign' contact of the Trump campaign carried the odour of 'subversion', it would certainly have the effect of jeopardising the image of integrity and patriotism of its Presidential nominee. The oversight role of Congressional bodies should not be the reason for Intelligence agencies not sticking to the professional basics of confidentiality. The monitoring authorities understand the professional restraints that Intelligence followed in its pursuit of an enquiry.
Trump in his first meeting with President Putin secured an easy denial from the latter on the issue of 'interference' with the US election and emphasised the need to move forward on the path of mutual cooperation. The Trump-FBI controversy cannot be totally segregated from the issue of foreign policy that US adopted towards Russia as a successor of USSR of the days of Cold War. In these three decades since the dismemberment of USSR as the Super Power leading the Communist world, serious distrust marked the appr oach of the American foreign policy establishment towards Putin. President Obama had imposed sanctions on Russia on the issue of Ukraine. However, Donald Trump, it seems, looks upon Russia as a European power with which US could do business provided the two countries had no direct clash on economy and global security.
It is possible that in the backdrop of a growing Chinese aggressiveness both on geo-political and economic fronts and the emergence of Sino-Pak alliance as a strategic pivot for China, the convergence between Trump and Putin is inching forward on the common threat of Islamic terror. This is fine from India's point of view. India has developed a strong strategic partnership with US, Israel and Japan and so long as we have the freedom to bilaterally deal with Russia to the mutual benefit of both sides, there is no issue for us as far as the state of relationship of Donald Trump with Russia was concerned.
(The writer is a former director, IB)
DC Pathak