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Trump’s feud with U.S. intelligence will make us all less safe

Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government.

President-elect Donald Trump's resistance to the multi-agency intelligence assessment regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election is unprecedented and dangerous. It will weaken an already overstretched U.S. intelligence community, which will damage national security. This will not only affect the U.S., but also its allies, including Canada.

The issues causing tension between the intelligence community and Mr. Trump go beyond this latest flare-up. Mr. Trump also wants to make major structural changes, notably by weakening the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (a structure put in place after 9/11 to ensure better co-ordination) and decentralizing the CIA.

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This appears driven by Mr. Trump's belief that the intelligence community is excessively politicized – a view that is inaccurate. It appears that Mr. Trump is being guided by retired General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency who was fired by the current head of the ODNI, James Clapper, in 2014 for incompetence. Not only does Mr. Flynn have a poor record, he also has an axe to grind. This is far from an ideal environment in which to push major reforms.

Of course, the intelligence community is not without its friends in Congress, and it is well known as a fierce bureaucratic fighter. If its members feel that their voice is being ignored, they will strike back, including by leaking information to the media that could damage the Trump administration. This would worsen a relationship already off to a poor start: the intelligence community, especially the CIA, will have after Jan. 20 far lower influence in Washington than at any time since 9/11 and perhaps in its history.

Recent events show that Mr. Trump will be unwilling to accept facts and assessments that contradict his worldview, even when presented with overwhelming evidence by the intelligence bureaucracy. This will steadily weaken the mutual trust between intelligence producers and consumers. This is extremely concerning, as a functional relationship and the constructive use of intelligence by senior officials is an essential component of sound policy-making.

Worse, Mr. Trump has gone out of his way to make these disputes personal, putting "intelligence" in scare quotes when tweeting. He has praised Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and the figure behind one of the most damaging intelligence leaks in history who has also likely collaborated with Russian agents in undermining the American democratic process. Even if the two sides can come to an agreement on the Russian-interference issue, rebuilding trust between Mr. Trump and the intelligence community will be extremely challenging.

This has serious consequences for Canada, which receives far more intelligence from the U.S. than it gives. If structural reform of the U.S. intelligence community means there will be less emphasis on partnerships and sharing, Canada could lose out on the information and co-operation that play a crucial role in keeping our country safe. A more challenging scenario would emerge if Mr. Trump keeps his campaign promise to allow the use again of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, the brutal methods used under the George W. Bush administration. This would put the Canadian government in a dreadful position, as shared information could contribute to the torture of individuals, possibly our own citizens. It would also raise the operational, ethical and legal risks that information received from American counterparts may have been obtained under torture.

All this points to a weakened American intelligence community that will at best be less co-ordinated, and at worst cast aside. This will make the U.S. and, therefore, Canada less safe. It also raises the grim question as to what will happen if there is a major terrorist attack in the United States. How will Americans judge Mr. Trump, who openly brags about ignoring intelligence? And more unpredictably, how will he react?

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