WASHINGTON — The White House faces a dilemma of its own making in convincing others that Iran was behind the attacks on two oil tankers last week.
After publicly trashing U.S intelligence on North Korea, Russia, Venezuela and many other areas, President Donald Trump is now asking allies and others to believe the intelligence it says links Iran to recent attacks against oil tankers.
Those are the same allies and friends that Trump has bashed with frequency since taking office.
To further the challenge, the request to believe comes in a part of the word where the last big U.S. intelligence flop — the slam-dunk on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — occurred.
“As questions about U.S. intelligence regarding Iran abound, Trump is seeing the fruits of his labor,” Samantha Vinograd, who served on the National Security Council, wrote in a Sunday CNN op-ed. “After all, if Trump doesn’t trust his own intelligence community or the media, why should we?”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Sunday that “the intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence” and that “the world will come to see much of it.”
Only the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia have strongly said they believe Iran is guilty for last week’s attacks on two oil tankers off the coast of Iran, based on a grainy video that purports to show Iranians subsequently removing a mine from the hull of one of the ships.
“The Trump administration has obvious and severe credibility problems due to its record and hawkishness toward Iran,” Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director of Defense Priorities, told TMN. “But no administration deserves unreserved trust. Congress should publicly evaluate any evidence pointing at Iran, so that policy choices are made in accordance with our constitutional system, not one person’s whims.”
Separating the administration’s political motivations from the intelligence may be one route the White House can use to ensure any credible intelligence is acknowledged as true, said Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at RAND.
“The intelligence community itself is pretty resistant to be politicized…and has credibility,” Williams told TMN in an interview. “And they have their own channels of communication with our allies.”
Williams said that if the U.S. intelligence community came to the conclusion that Iran is responsible for the attacks “and they can convey that, I think there would be a recognition they would not be spinning the information for the administration’s purposes.
“I think their assessment would have a lot of credit with our partners,” she said. Williams had served on the National Intelligence Council, where she was the deputy national intelligence officer for Iran and the acting national intelligence officer for Iran.
That then could present allies with another problem: what to do, she said. If culpability can not be proven, that avoids any need for action, she said.
Pompeo is to meet with Central Command commanders at command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday afternoon, a U.S. official confirmed to TMN. NBC News reported the visit was “previously scheduled and not arranged as a result of the attacks last week on the two tankers.”
“The American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world,” Pompeo said Sunday on Fox News.
Many analysts who worked under Republican and Democratic administrations are not assured.
“What is truly sad is that I don’t fully trust my own Secretary of State on this,” Kelly Magsamen, who worked at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations before moving to the Pentagon, said on Twitter. “And I say that as someone who spent years as the Iran Director at the NSC so I know what bad things Iran is capable of and willing to do.”
The early battering of U.S. intelligence operations first by candidate-Trump and then President Trump caused more than one analyst to suggest Trump’s “trash talk (of) the intelligence community” would come back to haunt him.
“At some point during his presidency, Trump is going to want to act on intelligence he receives,” Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012, wrote in January 2017 on the Brookings Institution’s website. “And what will happen when he tries to justify to the nation that he is deploying troops or firing missiles on the basis of information brought to him by agencies he has so thoroughly denigrated?”
Thirty months later, that answer may be forthcoming.