I read with interest this report that Trump may end the Pentagon’s cooperation with the CIA in the latter’s covert operations.
Last week, news broke that Trump’s acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, sent a letter to the CIA notifying the agency that the Pentagon would review the terms of its military support to CIA operations. News reports suggested that the Pentagon was planning to strip the CIA of its support for counterterrorism missions around the world almost immediately. Drones, elite soldiers, fuel, and medical evacuation of casualties, for example, would disappear almost overnight.
Miller’s letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel informed her that the Pentagon would update a classified 2005 memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of Defense Department support to CIA missions.
[Donald Trump] campaigned in 2016 on pulling out U.S. troops from the wars which began after 9/11 and later, as president, declared victory over the Islamic State. In 2018, the Pentagon, led by Defense Secretary James Mattis, published a new national defense strategy as a blueprint for a new era. Counterterrorism was no longer the country’s “primary concern.” The new strategy called long-term strategic competition with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran the top priorities.
Trump reportedly tried several times to pull troops out of Afghanistan but was said to have been blocked or slow-rolled by the national security establishment. After he lost the November election, Trump fired Esper because he was said to have resisted the move. As a result, Miller replaced Esper and quickly went about announcing that troops were indeed coming home. As almost an afterthought, Miller and the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, also pushed to update the 2005 sharing agreement to fall in line with the change in national security policy, several defense officials told The Intercept.
As with so many Trump moves, even when he does the right thing, he may be doing it for the wrong reasons.
CIA counterterrorism veterans believe the review stems from Trump making a last-minute effort to punish the CIA for various offenses, but mostly because the agency concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help him become president. A retired senior intelligence official told The Intercept that a senior congressional aide on an intelligence committee asked the White House last week to explain Miller’s letter to the CIA. The retired official said the aide was told, “It’s because the president’s followers believe the agency played a role” in Trump’s election loss last month.
A lame-duck president agitating for a useful bureaucratic change as a parting shot at the deep state is the same delusional logic that came with much of Trump’s four years: occasionally doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons.
But the permanent war machine is unlikely to have its role reduced without a fight.
By forcing the incoming administration to respond to the review shortly after taking power, Trump’s team provides Biden with an opportunity to quickly take stock of 20 years of lethal operations, both in direct view and secret — and make a decision to end an unwinnable war.
Somewhat predictably, the part of the national security state that sees a threat to its future missions or budget is portraying dire consequences. “It’s the head of the snake, going ‘Turn!’” a former senior military officer told The Intercept. “The tail never likes it.”
I am not hopeful that Biden will enforce this reduction in the role of the CIA. Democratic presidents have often been some of the most supportive of both overt and covert military actions.