Americans know all about spies. That started on October 5, 1962, with the release of the first James Bond film – and twenty-four of those would follow. Sean Connery had a long run as Bond. David Niven has one shot, as a retired James Bond. George Lazenby had one shot, but he had the charisma of brick. Roger Moore had a long run as a lighthearted Bond. Timothy Dalton had a good run after him, and then Pierce Brosnan did just fine for ten years as his own kind of Bond. Daniel Craig is James Bond now, a dark and nasty James Bond. Somewhere in there “M” – Bond’s boss, the head of MI6, Britain’s CIA – became a woman. Somewhere in there “Q” – the quartermaster with all the gizmos – turned out to be John Cleese from the Monty Python Show. It didn’t matter. This was a different world, a world of smart and worldly sophisticated and stylish people who knew how to live, and knew everything. No one could be as cool as James Bond. Daniel Craig made James Bond cold, not cool, and fans are still trying to adjust to that. America knows all about spies. They’re cool.
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry didn’t think so. That’s why Get Smart premiered on American television on September 18, 1965 – their spoof of it all with Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, and the luscious Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, and lots of obvious jokes. That ran for five seasons. Somewhere in there Johnny Rivers was singing Secret Agent Man – so it was all spies, all the time, spies of one sort or another.
It was all nonsense. There have always been secret agents – spies – but on May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down our U2 over Sverdlovsk – right there in the Soviet Union. Central Intelligence Agency pilot Francis Gary Powers survived and was tried as a spy, and convicted. Seven years later we got him back in a prisoner swap, but he had been a spy.
This is what spies really did. They took pictures. In 1962 it was U2 photos that showed those Soviet nuclear missiles on the ground in Cuba, not secret agents hiding in the bushes. Then, when the highly specialized spy planes would no longer do – they could be shot down after all – it was spy satellites. No one could shoot those down and the Keyhole Series took great pictures – but there’s also signals intelligence. That’s what the NSA is all about. They have their own satellites and much more. Anything transmitted electronically anywhere can be intercepted. The only problem is sorting it all out. That’s what most spies do now – they sort it all out. Human intelligence – agents on the ground – is a minor matter. Forget James Bond.
Think of Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and targeting officer. Her new book is The Targeter: My Life in the CIA – all about how we really catch the bad guys through signals intelligence – and now she’s a bit worried. Forget the NSA satellites that listen to everything and forward the good stuff to the CIA. There’s a new twist in signals intelligence, and that would be Twitter:
Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency. Usually, intelligence officers’ efforts to collect information on world leaders are methodical, painstaking and often covert. CIA operatives have risked their lives to learn about foreign leaders so the United States could devise strategies to counter our adversaries. With Trump, though, secret operations are not necessary to understand what’s on his mind: The president’s unfiltered thoughts are available night and day, broadcast to his 32.7 million Twitter followers immediately and without much obvious mediation by diplomats, strategists or handlers.
That is incredibly useful:
Intelligence agencies try to answer these main questions when looking at a rival head of state: Who is he as a person? What type of leader is he? How does that compare to what he strives to be or presents himself as? What can we expect from him? And how can we use this insight to our advantage?
At the CIA, I tracked and analyzed terrorists and other U.S. enemies, including North Korea. But we never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now – to get a real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind. If we had, it would have given us significant advantages in our dealings with them.
They now know their man:
Trump’s tweets offer plenty of material for analysis. His frequent strong statements in reaction to news coverage or events make it appear as if he lacks impulse control. In building a profile of Trump, an analyst would offer suggestions on how foreign nations could instigate stress or deescalate situations, depending on what type of influence they may want to have over the president.
That has become obvious:
While Trump was new to national politics when he started his presidential campaign in 2015, he wasn’t new to Twitter. A review of his old tweets would reveal how well flattery can work to get his attention and admiration…
If I were an intelligence analyst for Saudi Arabia, for instance, I might suggest that the authoritarian government there should compel newspapers to write articles friendly to Trump (and, in fact, Saudi papers published articles praising first lady Melania Trump’s fashion choices during the president’s visit there last month). And I would certainly suggest that Saudi officials flatter him in person – perhaps arranging, as the Saudis did during his visit, to post billboards featuring Trump’s words and his image.
And there’s this:
As president, Trump has continued to show himself to be quick to anger if he feels personally attacked. And he’s eager to take credit when he thinks he’s been influential. His tweet this month appearing to welcome the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a classic example: Trump declared that the standoff arose because he had demanded that Gulf States stop funding radical ideology. (It did not.)
Trump’s tweets also clearly reveal how sensitive he is about the investigation into Russia’s involvement in last year’s campaign, especially any suggestion that it diminishes his victory.
He did tweet this – “Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?”
An adversary could devise a plan to exploit that sensitivity: To appeal to Trump personally, they would intentionally disparage the investigators and the investigation. Russian officials and leaders have been doing this consistently – though, of course, that also lines up with their interests more broadly. Russian President Vladimir Putin (a former intelligence chief and longtime spy) has been mocking the investigation since it got started and even sarcastically offered James Comey political asylum this month.
But wait, there’s more:
What Trump doesn’t say can be very revealing too. For instance, the lapse of time between when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan (12:30 p.m. on June 16, in Washington) and when the president tweeted about the incident (10:08 a.m. the next day) was nearly 23 hours. The tragedy marked the U.S. Navy’s most significant loss of life aboard a vessel since terrorists bombed the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
Typically, a president would quickly make public remarks about a significant military loss. With Trump, intelligence analysts would note the inconsistency compared with previous administrations and search for similar patterns. Is Trump so hands-off that he waited for his secretary of defense to speak? Did something else capture his attention during those hours that he found to be a higher priority? Between the crash and his first public statement about it, Trump tweeted a video of his remarks on a new Cuba policy, a picture of himself signing the Cuba memorandum and a reference to his campaign promise about Cuba; he also retweeted Sean Hannity, a Fox News personality, promoting an upcoming show on the “Deep State’s allies in the media” working to undermine Trump.
That too us useful – this guy is scattered – and there’s this:
The president’s frequent contradiction of his own aides also provides useful intelligence for foreign analysts. Last month, Trump tweeted that it was “not possible” for administration officials to be perfectly accurate in describing what his White House is doing. Why not? Is the White House not coordinating messaging? Has Trump defined his own course of action, regardless of what his Cabinet or staff has been told? Policy and public diplomacy typically require interagency coordination, but Trump forces the U.S. government to react to his whims instead – which makes his Twitter feed that much more important to analyze and understand.
And there’s this:
Analysts can glean information about Trump’s sleep patterns from the time of day or night when he tweets, showing which topics keep him up, his stress level and his state of mind. Twitter also often reveals what Trump is watching on TV and when, as well as what websites he turns to for news and analysis. Knowing this can be useful for foreign governments when they are planning media events or deciding where to try to seek coverage of their version of world events.
And there’s this:
Even deleted tweets would be of interest. Trump mostly appears to delete tweets because of spelling errors, later replacing them with a correction. For an intelligence analyst, this would confirm that Trump’s Twitter feed really is a raw insight into his thought process, without much input from aides.
Analysts would also be likely to use technology to perform content analysis on the president’s tweets in the aggregate. Intelligence agencies can employ a more robust version than the open-source projects that news organizations have used, because they can marry Trump’s tweets with information they collect through intercepts and other means. Software could look for patterns in speech or word categories representing confidence related to policy, whether Trump is considering opposing points of view and if he harbors uncertainty toward any subject. Computers can perform metadata analysis to build timelines and compare Trump’s Twitter feed with his known public schedule, creating a database of when and where he tweets and what else he’s doing at the time. Anything that provides a digital footprint adds context to the analysis.
Who needs James Bond or spy planes or spy satellites or secret electronic intercepts when they have all this? It’s easy enough to know this man. He has no idea what he is actually revealing. He’s made life easy for every foreign intelligence agency in the world, friend and foe alike.
But it’s more than that. David Rothkopf has his own book – The Great Questions of Tomorrow – and he’s a visiting professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and he has a story to tell:
Last week, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I moderated a panel on U.S. national security in the Trump era. On the panel, former CIA director David H. Petraeus offered the most robust defense of President Trump’s foreign policy that I have heard. Central to his premise were two facts. First, he argued that Trump’s national security team was the strongest he had ever seen. Next, he argued that whereas President Barack Obama was indecisive to the point of paralysis, such as in the case of Syria, Trump is decisive.
Toward the end of the conversation, we turned to Trump’s erratic behavior and I noted that for the first time in three decades in the world of foreign policy, I was getting regular questions about the mental health of the president.
I asked Petraeus, a man I respect, if he thought the president was fit to serve. His response was, “It’s immaterial.” He argued that because the team around Trump was so good, they could offset whatever deficits he might have.
I was floored. It was a stunningly weak defense.
Rothkopf is worried too:
That is where we are now. The president’s tweeting hysterically at the media is just an element of this. So too is his malignant and ever-visible narcissism. The president has demonstrated himself to have zero impulse control and a tendency to damage vital international relationships with ill-considered outbursts, to trust very few of the people in his own government, and to reportedly rant and shout at staff and even at the television sets he obsessively watches.
Whether he is actually clinically ill is a matter for psychiatric professionals to consider. But when you take the above behaviors and combine them with his resistance to doing the work needed to be president, to sitting down for briefings, to reading background materials, to familiarizing himself with details enough to manage his staff, there is clearly a problem. Compound it with his deliberate reluctance to fill key positions in government and his wild flip-flopping on critical issues from relations with China to trade, and you come to a conclusion that it may be that Trump’s fitness to serve as president is our nation’s core national security issue.
Those are strong words, but perhaps justified:
Not only does the president diminish the office with his pettiness; he also shows disregard for constitutional principles including free speech, freedom of religion and separation of powers, and he operates as though he were above ethics laws. Daily he shows he lacks the character, discipline, intellect, judgment or respect for the office to be president of the United States. In normal times, this would be worrying. But look at the news. North Korea is moving closer to having the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States. A confrontation is coming that will be a test of character pitting North Korea’s unhinged leader, Kim Jong Un, against our leader.
But wait, there’s more:
Later this week, he will sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, Germany, during the Group of 20 meeting. Quite apart from the political optics of rewarding a man who attacked the United States with to help get Trump elected with such a meeting, the summit reveals why it is so dangerous to have an erratic president. Much of U.S. foreign policy comes down to personal diplomacy conducted by the president and his actions in the wake of such meetings. If a dedicated enemy of the United States and opportunist such as Putin determines to take advantage of Trump’s narcissism, ignorance, paranoia, business interests or brewing scandals, he will do just that. If he sees Trump’s behavior as a tacit endorsement of his own thuggishness, he will seize the opportunity.
Could Trump enter the meeting with good advice from the team that Petraeus and others admire so much? Yes. But they can’t undo Trump’s record, nor can they, we have learned, always shape the behavior of a man who has shown repeated propensity for ignoring the advice of his best allies. That is one reason, according to reports, that European officials are deeply concerned about the outcomes of the meeting that will take place in Hamburg this week.
We’re in trouble:
The United States has had a wide variety of presidents; we have as often been victimized by their errors of judgment as we have benefited from their leadership. But the stark reality is that objective analysis reveals that we have never before seen a president so unfit for office. Even President Richard Nixon at his moments of darkest paranoia was a professional public servant who understood the office and the stakes associated with it. One might, on this Independence Day week, have to go back to King George III to find a head of state who so threatened America. But there is no precedent for one whose character is so obviously ill-suited to the presidency.
That has consequences. The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip and Carol Morello explore those:
President Trump promised voters that he would strike “a great deal” with Russia and its autocratic president, Vladimir Putin. He has repeatedly labeled an investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election as “a hoax,” and he even bragged to Russian officials about firing the FBI director leading the probe.
Now nearly six months into his presidency, Trump is set to finally meet Putin at a summit this week in Hamburg after a stop here in Warsaw – severely constrained and facing few good options that would leave him politically unscathed.
If Trump attempts to loosen sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine or its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Congress could defy him by pursuing even stronger penalties. And if he offers platitudes for Putin without addressing Russia’s election meddling, it will renew questions about whether Trump accepts the findings of his own intelligence officials that Russia intended to disrupt the democratic process on his behalf.
Those tweets have come back to haunt him:
“The president is boxed in,” said Nicholas Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. “Why would you give Putin any kind of concession at the first meeting? What has he done to deserve that?”
He added, “If you try to curry favor, offer concessions, pull back on the pressure, he’ll take advantage. He’ll see weakness in a vacuum.”
Putin has read all the tweets. His people have considered what they show. They know the man:
Already, Moscow is clamoring for the Trump administration to return two Russian compounds in the United States that were seized by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian meddling in the election. And the Trump administration signaled in May that it would be open to returning the properties.
Yet in the Senate, there is a rare near-unanimity in favor of tough sanctions against Russia. Last month, the Senate voted 97 to 2 for a bill that would put new sanctions in place for Russia’s election meddling and would constrain Trump’s ability to lift existing penalties. The White House was forced to step up its lobbying of Republicans in the House to slow the progress of a similar measure.
Putin is laughing, because he’s already won:
Among the foreign policy experts who support Trump’s push for improved relations with Russia, there is growing frustration that the current political climate and Trump’s actions have made that goal all but impossible.
“It has been extraordinarily difficult for Trump, even if he had the means to do so, to do what is in the vital national interest, that is, improve relations with Russia,” said Jack Matlock, who was ambassador to the Soviet Union under President Ronald Reagan. “Treating them as if they are enemies is absolutely absurd, and yet it permeates much of the attitude in Congress.”
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has been moving on multiple fronts to soften the U.S. stance on Russia.
Trump wants Russia’s cooperation on a number of issues, including the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Russia’s use of North Korean laborers whose pay goes directly to the regime in Pyongyang, despite its nuclear weapons program.
Despite Trump’s consistent overtures to Putin, however, U.S.-Russia relations have not improved since he took office.
Putin has strongly denied any interference in the 2016 election and has accused U.S. politicians of Cold War-era hysteria. Meanwhile, Russia’s continued support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of his own citizens in the country’s civil war has further engendered distrust among U.S. political leaders.
Paul Saunders, who directs the U.S.-Russia program at the Center for the National Interest, said the level of mutual distrust and hostility is as bad as it was during the height of the Cold War.
“Without progress on Ukraine, I don’t see how one would ease sanctions,” he said. “And it’s not like Russia is going to send Special Forces to Damascus to arrest Assad and deliver him to The Hague or to President Trump.”
That means Rothkopf may be right, that there is no precedent for this man whose character is so obviously ill-suited to the presidency:
Trump, who has been criticized for his overly warm posture toward Putin, has not indicated how he will approach the meeting this week.
In recent months, Trump has done little to hide his frustration that his effort to pivot toward Russia has been hampered by congressional and FBI investigations, which he views as a “witch hunt” being carried out by his political enemies.
At an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in May, Trump complained to the Russians about the ongoing probes into his campaign, suggesting that his firing of the FBI director, James B. Comey, would ease the political pressure on his administration.
“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump told the men, according to the New York Times. “That’s taken off.”
Since that meeting, Trump’s Russia-related troubles have only gotten worse. Shortly after Trump met with the Russian officials, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed to take over the Russia investigation and is now investigating whether Trump sought to obstruct the case by firing Comey, officials have told The Washington Post.
In light of the continued pressure from both parties, White House aides have sought to play down expectations for this first engagement between the two world leaders. But they have offered few clues about what will be on Trump’s agenda, including whether he plans to raise the issue of Russia’s election interference.
That leaves this:
“There’s no specific agenda,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said last week when asked whether Trump planned to confront Putin. “It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
That’s asking for trouble:
There is a risk that Trump could choose to freelance in the meeting, diverting from the more balanced objectives that his advisers have laid out for the bilateral relationship. If Trump prioritizes his desire to build camaraderie with Putin as he has with other world leaders, it may put him at a stark disadvantage with a former KGB operative known for his unflagging focus on Russia’s primacy.
“He has a tendency to ad-lib in these kinds of things,” said former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. “He’s overly focused on ‘having a good meeting.’ He wants to be liked, and he wants to say things are successful.”
That’s what the tweets show. They provide raw insight into his thought processes, without input from aides. In fact, there’s no filter at all. This is the kind of stuff spies would die to find out, and the kind of stuff spies have died to find out – but there’s no need for that now. He’s made life easy for every foreign intelligence agency in the world, and made life quite easy for Vladimir Putin. Who needs the Russian equivalent of James Bond when you have this guy’s tweets?
On the other hand, who needed James Bond in the first place?