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Juliette Kayyem: Trump drama overshadows and undermines intelligence community

The timing could not be worse with terror threat at one of its highest levels, she says

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, host of the national security podcast “The SCIF” and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

What happens when the Department of Homeland Security extends a terror advisory and no one pays attention? Late Monday, in the midst of a 24-hour news cycle that included the bombshell about President Donald Trump’s purported handling of classified information, the department warned of the dangers posed by homegrown terrorists.

But the relative lack of interest in the warning, a sort of “nothing to see here” response, is a reflection of the drama’s surrounding the Trump White House. The President’s consistent actions threaten to undermine our confidence in the entire national and homeland security apparatus.

Juliette Kayyem
PHOTO: Copyright 2015 Douglas M. Wei
Juliette Kayyem

Trump has a tendency to end statements with “believe me.” We would be safer if, in the context of our intelligence agents, he could say with authority, “Believe them.”

“We face one of the most serious terror threat environments since the 9/11 attacks as foreign terrorist organizations continue to exploit the Internet to inspire, enable, or direct individuals already here in the homeland to commit terrorist acts,” said the bulletin, issued through the National Terrorism Advisory System. As a result, further actions are being taken to help local authorities prevent and prepare for a potential attack.

Knowing the alert system intimately, I do not doubt the veracity and care that went into this announcement. A comprehensive review process is involved to ensure that politics and haste do not guide or politicize how intelligence analysis is shared with the American public.

This present advisory is an extension of what we already know: that the threat of ISIS-inspired terror exists here in the homeland. From news accounts, there is also growing and imminent concern about whether laptops are being weaponized to be detonated on a plane and whether the present laptop ban will be extended to more countries.

In other words, the threat is real. The intelligence is disconcerting. We face serious risks with potential consequences for the safety and security of our nation. The dedicated working men and women in our intelligence and national security apparatus spend (and risk) their lives to provide objective data that can be assessed by political and policy leaders to help guide their actions. And the hardest challenge for those in the apparatus is to provide guidance and clarity to the American public so that they will have confidence in what their government is telling them and be prepared for the risks we face.

Trump has trivialized, at best, that entire effort. Whether what he said in the Oval Office with the Russians and the disclosure of “code word” intelligence regarding ISIS was legal is beside the point. His blurting, in the best light possible, was careless.

And while the new advisory was issued Monday night, Tuesday’s disclosures regarding a memo written by former FBI Director James Comey describing a meeting where Trump, again in the best light possible, allegedly stated his hopes to Comey that he would end the ongoing investigation of former national security adviser Mike Flynn, provided yet more proof of a presidency unwilling to abide by the standards that guide our security apparatus. Whether it is obstruction of justice is for lawyers to decide. But the verdict is in – he denigrated those who work tirelessly to protect the nation from foreign threats, mainly Russia.

Where all this White House controversy ends no one can say. But as we watch Washington burning, we should be concerned that another threat is looming over the horizon. And the present behavior of the President implies more than just recklessness or lack of respect of boundaries or norms. He personalizes intelligence: “You are with me or against me.”

This disregard for the notion of objective “intelligence” – a disregard that actually began when he questioned and mocked the intelligence community during the transition and used his first visit to the CIA as a political rally – is dangerous because it threatens to undermine the American public’s confidence in the very apparatus that the President flouts.

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Our homeland and national security apparatus serve the nation and the American public. They are not in service to Trump’s base, his mood or his potential legal difficulties ahead.

With all the drama surrounding this White House, the Department of Homeland Security’s terror alert was a direct reminder that Trump has yet to face a crisis in the homeland from a dangerous enemy. Some attack will, more likely than not, happen during his presidency and that is the moment when we will want public confidence in our homeland apparatus – even if the President does not. Believe them.