Donald Trump’s Intelligence Briefings and Ellsberg’s Limits of Knowledge

The spooks and their congressional mouthpieces have again leaked details about Donald Trump not accepting their briefings often enough.

 

President-elect Donald Trump is receiving an average of one presidential intelligence briefing a week, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter, far fewer than most of his recent predecessors.

Although they are not required to, presidents-elect have in the past generally welcomed the opportunity to receive the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the most highly classified and closely held document in the government, on a regular basis.

It was not immediately clear why Trump has decided not to receive the intelligence briefings available to President Barack Obama more frequently, or whether that has made any difference in his presidential preparations.

An official on the transition team said on Thursday that Trump has been receiving national security briefings, including “routine” PDBs and other special briefings, but declined to specify their content or frequency, saying these matters were classified.

Trump has asked for at least one briefing, and possibly more, from intelligence agencies on specific subjects, one of the officials said. The source declined to identify what subjects interested the president-elect, but said that so far they have not included Russia or Iran.

[snip]

(Corrects to say Iran, not France, in fifth paragraph)

Of course, all this is supposed to generate pressure on Trump to do more briefings. Which would have the effect of briefers getting their face time with Trump instead of the people that Trump is presumably learning about these topics from — Mike Flynn, as well as lobbyists like Bob Dole, who set up Trump’s call with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen.

The repeated effort to pressure Trump into accepting briefings from the spooks reminded me of an anecdote Dan Ellsberg has told about what he briefed Henry Kissinger when he first entered government. Ellsberg told Kissinger that being briefed into compartments would, at first, be intoxicating. It would later lead him to disdain anyone not privy to the most secret information. But ultimately, Ellsberg warned Kissinger, “You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world.”

“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”

I’m not actually saying that it’s a good thing that Trump is resisting the spooks, though I do think they use classification to set up precisely this kind of seeming monopoly on information. I do, however, wonder whether Trump has driven this choice, or whether his advisors have.

It seems there’s a fight for the brain of Trump, even while he seems to be preparing to delegate all this stuff to his advisors.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

23 replies
  1. Anon says:

    During the course of the election Trump demonstrated that he is very very quick to pivot to new policies, new actions, and new ideas based upon what people around him say. When you add to that his stated unwillingness to read it seems like immediate and frequent face time with him is the most valuable kind of access you can have. Which means that Rince Prebius is truly in a position of pure power.

    • rg says:

      Anon

      This “stated unwillingness to read” sets off alarm bells for me and anyone who has experience dealing with children with attention management and subsequent learning difficulties. I suspect we may be going to have a national “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario in which the press will be divided between those, as in last time, will pretend that the clothes are just fine (as long as the lucrative access holds up), and  those that intend to curry favor by vilifying  his every utterance.  And yes, being dependent upon oral briefings does make face time critical.

      Peterr

      The issue here isn’t about brains (or lack of them) but of  a possible pattern of avoidance of unmanageable tasks.  In fact smart people can develop coping patterns, such as delegation to assistants, to mask their performance deficits. Otherwise I concur with your analysis.

      • Peterr says:

        “Unmanageable tasks” is an interesting phrase. Read one way, these are tasks that no one could possibly handle. Read another way, these are tasks that the person ostensibly responsible for handling has no capability (or desire) for undertaking.

        Put me down for the latter, rather than the former.

        Think of it this way: if Trump views the job of president as “unmanageable”, then whatever coping patterns he develops to delegate responsibilities that are rightly his are nothing more than cover for his unsuitability for the office to which he has been elected.

        • bloopie2 says:

          So if you think these tasks are manageable, please tell us which recent Presidents have managed (well) these foreign policy tasks?    Do you think that a US president can manage the Middle East?

          • Peterr says:

            I was picking up the language used by rg to talk about how Trump will cope (or not) with the tasks of being president — like receiving briefings on subjects he does not understand. I was not referring to managing the Middle East or anything like that.

            Trump has never held a job where he had absolute control of his schedule, absolute control of his hiring and firing decisions, and absolute control of his company’s priorities and activities. Now he is in a job where he is hemmed in by Congress, the media, and legal/constitutional requirements. He can’t even hire his Secretary of State without it having to be approved by someone else – horrors!

            Being CEO of Trump Inc has not prepared him for being president, no matter what Trump’s speeches say. I think this reality is pressing in on him as this transition proceeds.

  2. Peterr says:

    I think you are giving Trump far too much credit, if you think that his refusal to accept briefings is some kind of effort to remain open to learning from others. Ellsberg’s words are quite powerful, but I think they have little if anything to do with Trump’s non-briefings.

    Occam’s Razor would say that Trump believes himself to be the smartest person in the room, especially if the room is in the DC metro area. He is smarter than the generals, smarter than the media, and a helluva lot smarter than all the oh-so-brilliant politicians he beat in the course of the election. Given that, says Trump, what’s the big deal with putting the DNI et al. off for a week or so?

    It seems there’s a fight for the brain of Trump . . .

    This presumes brains not in evidence.

    I would agree with you if you said there’s fight for the attention of Trump or the ego of Trump or the approval of Trump. But brains? Sorry, but except for Trump’s unwarranted and oft-repeated assertion that wealth=brains, there’s no indication whatsoever that Trump’s refusal to accept an intelligence briefing has anything to do with trying not to be intoxicated by the world of intelligence clearances.

    Indeed, the pattern of his senior nominations would suggest the exact opposite. He has nominated Wall Street billionaires and millionaires, as a way of signaling that these folks are all his lessers. He has nominated multiple generals, both to send the same signal of superiority to the Pentagon (and, by extension, the IC) and to lift up generals who support his bizarre vision of the world (Hi, Gen. Flynn!). He has nominated people who are anti-science, anti-government, and anti-nonwhite.

    There is nothing — NOTHING! — that suggests that he is making some principled stand against the IC. Instead, he’s acting like a spoiled child, proclaiming that “I’m better than you are! Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah!” They have to beg and grovel to gain access to his august presence, while he can spun them with a word.

    And he’s having a lot of fun spurning them.

    He was mocked by them for the better part of a year, and now he’s getting his payback.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Nice catch about the brain. I agree that Mr. Trump has probably always considered his brain the smartest in any room it was in.  That’s a function of his ego, not his intellect, and limiting himself to entering rooms in which his was the most powerful voice.  Mr. Trump surely intends to repeat the behavior as he marches into DC in triumph, having duly paid the mob to attend for its bread and circuses.  No doubt Mr. Trump will give Mr. Ellsberg’s advice as much attention as did Mr. Kissinger.

    • emptywheel says:

      Oh, I don’t think he’s being open-minded, at all.

      I actually think some of the people who are running him — Bannon and Flynn — know this. If you make sure only paid lobbyists and/or the chosen gatekeepers have access you can control what gets stamped with a POTUS signature.

  3. Jim White says:

    This is probably crazy, but what are the chances this is really the other way around? What if the IC simply refuses to brief Trump?

    For example, if they are still actively pursuing the myriad possible connections between Trump (including several members of his team) and Russian or other foreign influences, they would be reasonably reluctant to share a full PDB with him.

    Alternatively, they might simply see him as too immature to handle our biggest secrets and refuse to share them until (or unless) he is actually sworn into office.

    Under either scenario, reversing the table on him with their public story and saying he’s the one refusing briefings would be a smart play. And very much in line with their MO.

    • Peterr says:

      I find this highly unlikely.

      Imagine what would happen on Jan 21, when (not if) the Trump IC leaders discover that the Trump transition team was (a) lied to or (b) kept in the dark? Heads would roll like you wouldn’t believe, and whoever was left would find themselves the least-believed people in DC. “OK, but what aren’t you telling me THIS time?”

      And the IC people know this.

      They may not be thrilled with their new boss, but they aren’t stupid. Some may resign and leave, but those who wish to remain are not going to cut their throats by doing something like what you describe.

      • Jim White says:

        No, I’m saying that maybe they are telling him, straight up, they won’t brief and then putting out that he’s the one skipping briefings. I don’t think they respect (or fear) anyone who “controls” the IC any more. Keep in mind that these are the same folks who got caught spying on the Senate committee with direct oversight of them. Their response was to blatantly lie about it and then take every possible step to block any further investigation, assuming interest would eventually dwindle.

  4. Karl Kolchack says:

    There is a ton of truth to this post–after all, how did “those in the know,” not realize that taking down Ghadafi would turn Libya into a failed state, or that if pressured Putin would move against Ukraine to maintain control of Crimea, or that supporting the Syrian “rebels” would cause the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, or that invading Iraq would be an unmitigated disaster, or that 9/11 was imminent, or that the Soviet Union would cease to exist, or that the Berlin Wall was about to fall?

    The recent history of U.S. policymakers is that they get it wrong, not occasionally, but constantly.  If only I had any faith in Trump, I would love to believe that he understands that the IC is trying to snow him into supporting the same aggressive and counterproductive foreign policies of every president since the end of the Cold War.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any confidence in him.

  5. joejoejoe says:

    I don’t see Trump responding to events in the world so much as authoring fanfic about the world using US power. In the Trump story, Trump casts himself as the hero receiving cheers publicly. If privately this story makes Trump money, all the better.  I don’t even think he realizes the monetary value of being President. If he is making policy based on trying to open a nice hotel in Taiwan, he’s the equivalent of Dr. Evil being unfrozen and asking for $1 million dollars. States act on some ideological version of national interest. I don’t see Trump acting from any center of interest outside of his own narcissism. If you believe you are the smartest and most awesome, who needs an external briefing of any sort?

  6. martin says:

    How many times did you hear Trump say…”I’m the ONLY one that can do this.”? That pretty much tells me the answer.

  7. bloopie2 says:

    Maybe Trump is telling people that he believes that foreign intelligence and all that it entails is overrated.  For example, answer me these two questions:  Does a Prez get daily briefings on domestic stuff?  And is it critical that he get this foreign info daily, first thing in the morning? If “no” to both, then that supports the belief of many (including many “liberals”, come on, admit it) that we should be less involved with interfering in foreign affairs and more involved with helping our own people.  Honestly, don’t most Americans want that?  Am I naïve to think that’s a good thing?

    • Spring Texan says:

      liked your comments — I do think the “daily intel briefing” is a way to co-opt the president into that foreign affairs/empire focus

  8. meadows says:

    Is it a general belief here that the neocons control foreign policy and that policy is implemented in no small way by the IC? This full press russo-phobic media blitz is all part of the Deep State that runs the show, right? Obama’s rhetoric pre-election dissipated into an empty suit of pretense and posturing. Was it going along to get along? If so, only an obnoxious non people-pleasing president elect is going to resist being subsumed by the “experts”.

  9. Conniption Fitz says:

    It is obvious Trump has had his own sources of intel and good ones at that, before he began his campaign.   This is vital in business and more so in politics.

    It is also looking as though Trump was recruited by a rather large connected to intel/military/law enforcement support community than being a concerned volunteer.

  10. bloopie2 says:

     
    There seem to be are some pretty close-minded people on this blog—Nothing Trump Can Do Is Right!  I mean, the daily intelligence briefing business has several acceptable reasons.  Here, he’s said today “If nothing changes day to day, what’s the point?  Let me know when something changes.  And if there is a big deal going down, obviously we’ll be there as much as is needed.”  What’s wrong with that?
     

  11. Charles Faulkner says:

    “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”.

    What, exactly, is your point in citing Ellsberg’s quote in this context? Seems to me, it gives the most favorable possible point of view to what appears to be the President-elect’s dereliction of duty with regard to keeping the country free from harm. No, you’re not “actually saying that it’s a good thing” that Trump isn’t attending the briefings. You’re just giving him the benefit of the doubt where he deserves none.

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