As a novelist and screenwriter—someone who gets paid to entertain with my words—I can almost sympathize with President-elect Donald Trump’s assessment that the daily intelligence briefings the CIA keeps trying to foist on him might seem a bit dry and repetitive at times. Too much policy wonk and too little James Bond, compliments of a team of analysts who do their work immune to the tyranny of page view metrics and click through rates. In a world where Breitbart headlines can create lurid stories out of thin air, the daily brief’s stubborn reliance on facts and expert analysis might seem positively archaic.
But I’m also a former CIA officer. From 2001 to 2011, I’ve worked on many of the issues that appear in those briefings, and I’ve traveled, lived, and worked in some of the places that pop up again and again, including Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, I have worked with many of the people who continue to quite literally risk their lives to obtain the information contained in those reports, whether or not Trump chooses to grant them an audience. And while we’ve heard a number of impassioned, highly persuasive pleas from senior-ranking intelligence and elected officials for Trump to reconsider his current brush-off of the CIA, I have not yet seen anyone address the issue on a more personal, individual level: the perspective of an actual spy on the ground.
The job of a CIA case officer is to spot and recruit “assets,” or people who have access to the information American policy makers need. By agreeing to cooperate with a clandestine representative of the United States government, assets must, by definition, commit an act of betrayal against the individual, the organization, or the nation that entrusted them with the sensitive information the CIA is asking them to give. In order to recruit assets, therefore, CIA officers must first identify what might motivate targets to commit treason against their own country, jeopardizing their livelihoods, their families, and their lives in the process. It is a lot to ask of an individual, and the moment of recruitment is a sobering one.
So given the risks, what motivates someone to become a spy? There’s money, of course; the thrill of being part of something clandestine; a desire to see the world; revenge. There are as many reasons as there are assets. But more often than not, all of the other reasons and justifications pale in comparison to the overriding desire to play a role in making the world safer, freer, and better. To a person, every asset I ever recruited or worked with genuinely believed that, in providing information to the United States government, he or she was doing something that in the long run would help right wrongs, improve circumstances both locally and globally, and possibly avert large-scale tragedies.
As a fiction writer now, I remain keenly attuned to the concept of motivation. Specifically, I fear that Trump’s rejection of both the content and the conclusions offered to him by the intelligence community will have a profound chilling effect on the recruitment of new assets, and the willingness of existing assets to continue to provide information.
Because, why should someone risk his or her life to provide sensitive information that the world now knows will go unread in our highest office? Why should assets continue to provide insight, data, access, or materials, when all of those things can be summarily dismissed in a blithe morning talk show comment? The why determines the what.
Skepticism is one thing. A blatant disregard for human intelligence collected at significant risk to both asset and officer is another. This disregard has consequences beyond Trump’s own dearth of information, because once again, it serves to erode the motivation of those who might provide us with information we desperately need—information that may include details of threats to American lives and infrastructure, for example—small and, yes, sometimes repetitive details that cumulatively inform us of impending terrorist attacks, progress on covert weapons programs, cyberthreats, and countless other plots and dangers faced by our nation every day. But why should either potential assets or foreign intelligence services trust the CIA if our own president does not?
The recruitment of new sources is contingent upon a case officer’s ability to look a well-placed source in the eye and say, truthfully, “This matters. You can make a difference. The information that you provide will be heard and considered at the highest levels.” And yet, any reader of Trump’s Twitter (TWTR) feed would now scoff at that notion. The world knows that, in the incoming administration, facts will be ignored, and reasoned analysis will be rejected.
If Trump continues to publicly scorn the CIA’s briefings and conclusions, assets and cooperative foreign intelligence services will become increasingly disinclined to provide sensitive information. Without confidence that their cooperation will have any kind of positive effect, the risks quickly outweigh the results. On an individual level, the why determines the what, and without the motivation of knowing that their sacrifices will ultimately make a difference, CIA sources may choose, in Trump’s parlance, to walk away from the deal.
J.C. Carleson is a former undercover CIA officer turned author. Her books include Work like a spy: Business tips from a former CIA officer, The Tyrant’s Daughter and Placebo Junkies.