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Any intelligence in Trump's hands is prone to manipulation

An inspector general's report claims the Trump administration altered an intelligence report so Trump wouldn't look bad.
Photo illustration:  Images of Vladimir Putin between Chad Wolf and Donald Trump over torn pieces of paper.
The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security says DHS diluted and delayed a 2020 intelligence report of Russia’s plans to cast doubts on candidate Joe Biden’s health.MSNBC / Getty Images

A recent Office of Inspector General report from the Department of Homeland Security reads like a Charles Dickens novel in that it helps us to see the ghosts of Trump's past, present and future, each one bringing bad tidings.

A recent report helps us see the ghosts of Trump past, present and future, each one bringing bad tidings.

An April 26 report finding that former President Donald Trump’s DHS diluted and delayed a 2020 intelligence report that told of Russia’s plans to aid Trump’s re-election with propaganda casting doubts on candidate Joe Biden’s health is more than just official confirmation of what has already been alleged by a whistleblower. Its added value is that it provides a window into what the intelligence community was like under Trump, what it might have been like if he’d been re-elected and how it would likely operate in the event of a future Trump regime.

Prompted in part by that high-level whistleblower’s assertions, the OIG investigated whether then acting Secretary Chad Wolf and his leadership team properly handled the drafting, approval and dissemination of a report revealing that Russia’s government had a propaganda strategy to denigrate candidate Biden’s health. The report found that their treatment of the intelligence and analysis report was anything but proper under the standards of the intelligence community.

“We found that DHS did not adequately follow its internal processes and comply with applicable policy standards and requirements when editing and disseminating an I&A [information and analysis] intelligence product regarding Russian interference with the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.”

The OIG identified three significant problems. First, it cited DHS for altering the scope of its intelligence reporting for reasons that “appear to be based in part on political considerations.” Second, the OIG concluded that Wolf “participated in the review process multiple times despite lacking any formal role in reviewing product.” Third, it determined that “delays and deviations put I&A at risk of creating a perception of politicization.”

No kidding.

Essentially, certain higher-ups at DHS treated as toxic the intelligence reporting that Russia was going to support Trump’s re-election by using its social media propaganda machine to malign Biden’s mental health. According to the OIG findings, career intelligence analysts were told the revelations of Russian help must be “held” because, as the whistleblower told OIG, Wolf said it “made the President look bad.” A DHS executive’s notes reflect that Wolf stated in a meeting that the report "will hurt POTUS – kill it per his authorities.”

Suddenly, the OIG found, the report on Russia’s intentions was transformed into a draft with dubious claims that it was Trump’s campaign that was being targeted, specifically, that Iran and China were trying to support Biden by questioning Trump’s health. The OIG found that this alteration “was misleading and inconsistent with intelligence information.”

The original report, first conceptualized in the spring of 2020, wasn’t fully disseminated until six months later on October 15, 2020, 18 days away from the election — not with a bang but with a whimper. That’s because the report ultimately watered down the solid intelligence that Russia would help Trump by targeting Biden, by inserting the notion — not fully vetted -- that Iran and China might help Biden by targeting Trump.

The OIG’s report confirmed what we already knew: Trump disdained and distrusted the intelligence community, even when it meant siding with our adversaries, and he appointed a string of unqualified, but loyal "acting" officials so they could protect his interests but avoid the scrutiny that comes with the Senate confirmation process. As an acting secretary at DHS for more than a year, Chad Wolf was a poster child of an unaccountable lackey. That’s how the OIG report gives us insight into the ghost of the Trump administration’s past. But it offers a picture of what a Trump present might have looked like had he won the election, and foretells what a future Trump administration would look like – particularly regarding Russia, the U.S. intelligence community and the battle for Ukraine.

The report confirms what we already knew: Trump disdained and distrusted the intelligence community, even when it meant siding with our adversaries.

Under President Biden, we’ve seen the opposite of intelligence suppression. In fact, there’s been an unprecedented public disclosure of intelligence as a strategy against Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, and in support of a democratic Ukraine. Biden’s reliance on U.S. intelligence has allowed Ukraine and the world to better understand the peril posed by Putin. And, in the interest of freedom and democracy, Biden has promised even more American intelligence sharing with Ukraine moving forward.

The OIG report prompts us to imagine what a present Trump administration might do to defend — or not defend — Ukraine against Russia. Despite the alleged war crimes perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine, Trump continues to brag of his enduring bond with Putin. If he were still president, would we see the kind of skillful and strategic intelligence collection and disclosures Biden is executing in support of Ukraine? That's unlikely. Might we instead see Trump share with Putin intelligence about Ukraine’s plans and vulnerabilities? We can’t discount that possibility. He’s disclosed highly classified intelligence to the Russians, at the expense of an ally, before.

In the OIG report, we also see the ghost of a Trump future, that is, a second term of even more sinister sycophants primed to pervert the intelligence process for political purposes. The OIG report contains one seemingly simple recommendation: “Improve the review and dissemination process for election related intelligence products.” The report reflects that the Biden administration concurs with this recommendation, and it has 30 days to implement it.

Would a new Trump administration honor such improvements to the intelligence process? Would they even read the OIG findings? More than likely, we’d be faced with an even greater contrast between the Biden and the Trump approaches to intelligence. A contrast that is reminiscent of yet another Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.” Because for our intelligence community, depending on who’s running the Oval Office, it can be “the best of times” or “the worst of times.” It can be “the season of Light” or “the season of Darkness.”