Six months into Joe Biden’s presidency, the intelligence community still can’t quite escape politics.
Biden made his first formal remarks to staff at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday — an address at a moment of quiet but profound change for a workforce that was buffeted by the fierce political winds of the Trump era.
After four years of bitter criticism by former President Donald Trump, who accused the intelligence community of “Nazi”-like practices and said top leaders should “go back to school,” the intelligence community has sought to quietly return to business-as-usual under a decidedly more conventional president.
And Biden, in turn, has vowed to never politicize the intelligence community’s work, installing senior leaders who are seen as far less overtly partisan than either of Trump’s final two national intelligence directors.
“You’ve served the American people no matter which political party holds power in Congress or the White House,” Biden told staff at the ODNI. “It’s so vital, so vital that you are and should be totally free of any political pressure or partisan interference. It’s basic. And I want to be absolutely clear that my administration is getting us back to the basics.”
“I’ll never politicize the work you do. You have my word on that,” he added.
Despite the administration’s efforts to take the politics out of intelligence, the intelligence community has remained in the national spotlight as it investigates one of the most politically charged mysteries of the day: the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. And in the wake of the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, the intelligence community has been increasingly pushed to track and respond to the threat posed by domestic terrorists — perhaps the most politically fraught task imaginable.
The intelligence community also remains a political target on the right, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson accusing the National Security Agency without evidence of “spying” on him. An NSA review of its intercepts did not find any evidence that Carlson’s communications were intercepted by the agency, CNN reported on Saturday. According to a source familiar with the matter, Carlson’s name was picked up in third-party communications and his identity was unmasked, meaning others mentioned him in their communications and US officials sought to understand which American citizen was being talked about.
David Priess, a former CIA officer and intelligence historian and the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets,” said that there is always tension between the intelligence community’s theoretically apolitical mission and the political headwinds of the day. Those tensions may have been higher during the Trump administration, he said, but the intelligence community never escapes them entirely.
“There’s always going to be the issue that intelligence operates in a much larger policy and political environment and yet its mission is to be apolitical,” Priess said. “I don’t think that anything now is unique. There have always been domestic political challenges to the intelligence community.”
Focus on China
Since taking office, senior intelligence leaders have sought to keep the focus on the intelligence community’s reorientation towards the threat from a surging China.
“[A]ll of us in the United States are at a really important moment of transition in the world,” CIA Director Bill Burns told NPR on Thursday. “We’re no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, especially with the rise of China. And as you know very well, there’s a revolution in technology, which is transforming the way we live, work, compete and fight.
“And so CIA, like everyone else in the US government, has to take that into account.”
Cyber security, Biden said on Tuesday, also represents a growing threat.
“We’ve seen how cyber threats, including ransomware attacks increasing are able to cause damage and disruption in the real world,” Biden said. “I can’t guarantee this — and you’re as informed as I am — but I think it’s more likely we’re going to end up, if we end up in a war — a real shooting war — with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence.”
Still, the President appeared to allude on several occasions during his remarks to Trump-era tensions.
He spent a great deal of his opening remarks at the ODNI thanking intelligence professionals, calling out “(t)he analysts, the linguists, the collectors and field officers, scientists, support staff, so many others who are experts, whose careers started … long before my administration and whose service to our nation is going to extend well beyond my presidency.”
Biden and current Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines made clear on the campaign trail and during the Senate confirmation process that the new administration would seek to repair the damaged relationship between the White House and the intelligence community, in particular by keeping politics out of the equation. Haines vowed during her confirmation hearing that “the DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power — even, especially, when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult.”
That approach represents a stark change from how intelligence was handled under Trump, who bristled or flatly denied information that contradicted or undercut his opinions on a given subject, sometimes publicly berating the intelligence community when their assessments different from his own.
Shift in tone under Biden
The shift in tone from the White House is perhaps the most significant change in Biden’s six months in office, Priess said — particularly on the issue of Russian disinformation, a topic that officials learned to avoid raising with Trump.
“Because the vast majority of people in the intelligence community do not work on Russian election interference issues, the majority of people’s work in the intelligence community was not directly touched by that and they could carry on briefing the assistant secretary of state about Africa without necessarily feeling politicized by the fact that the president didn’t want to believe anything in that realm about Russia,” Priess said.
But that dynamic did create “persistent stress on the system,” Priess said, “even a feeling among the wider workforce that, ‘Uh-oh, we pride ourselves on being apolitical … and yet we’re being sucked into it collectively, if not personally.'”
“That feeling by all accounts appears to have gone away,” he said.
Still, the intelligence community will have to navigate a series of thorny issues under Biden.
Republicans have increasingly staked out the position that the Covid-19 pandemic likely originated in a lab in Wuhan — even as intelligence leaders have said publicly they have reached no firm conclusions on how the virus emerged.
Additionally, disinformation online — including the QAnon conspiracy theory — has continued to intersect with domestic politics about freedom of speech on major social media platforms. As the intelligence community under Biden continues to grapple with how it should respond to online misinformation and domestic terrorism, either as separate matters or when they appear connected, some GOP politicians have characterized those efforts as anti-conservative bias.
Biden said during his speech to the ODNI that “we also need to take on the rampant disinformation that’s making it harder and harder for people to access the facts to be able to make decisions.” He specifically called out Russia’s continued actions.
“In today’s (presidential daily brief) you all prepared for me, look at what Russia’s doing already about the 2022 elections in misinformation. It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
Intelligence work “in this area has really been at the third rail for the intelligence community,” Haines said in a recent interview with Yahoo News. “It can be perceived as us pursuing purely domestic [intelligence].”
“The challenge is in clearly articulating, I think, both to the American people and to others, ‘Here’s what we’re doing and here’s what we’re not doing, and this is what we think makes sense, and here’s why,'” she said.