When Psychological Operations Fail

The conflict between President-Elect Donald Trump and the Western intelligence community is a struggle over the right conduct of international relations.

It has become existential because it takes place between two incommensurate versions of reality. The dominant element in the intelligence community (which has trained much of the media to accept its version of 'reality') faces an alternative but equally cogent reality that has the political support of growing numbers of voters, possibly a majority if you take into account Leftists who share populist criticisms of the deep state.

The deep state is used to guiding and outlasting elected politicians. Elected politicians have tweaked policy in one direction or the other but they have hitherto always accepted the broad thrust of the the Atlanticism outlined by Winston Churchill in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri. The role of British intelligence, even if indirect, is no surprise from this perspective. Much is at stake for the Crown in its own struggles with Russia, over Europe and with UKIP. Trump offers a fundamental challenge based on a very restricted vision of the national interest and on the primacy of doing business.

A series of unfortunate events has brought things to a head as the intelligence community has begun to realise that its reality is going to be challenged head-on from January 20th. Its first instinct was to try to persuade the President-Elect to change tack based on the cynical precedent that, once elected, all Presidents adapt to 'reality'. That failed. The ante was upped with reports that claimed Russian hacking of the election and then again with the circulation of a report that should normally have forced an incoming President to kneel at the feet of its providers. He didn't.

The first (official) report said little more than that Russia sought to influence American voters, much as the US had tried to influence foreign nationals in democracies when it suited them. RT was pilloried for doing only what CNN, the BBC, Al-Arabiya and Press TV and countless others do, only more blatantly - with spreading the values of their paymasters. There was, however, no 'smoking gun' that showed that the Russian Government had hacked the DNC. Wikileaks denied it. In the end, voters were forced to choose who to trust - the CIA or Wikileaks? Trump trusted Wikileaks.

The second (unofficial) report was simply raw intelligence from unverified and possibly unreliable sources that might have had its value as the basis for further investigation but should never have been released to the public. If it had been reviewed and edited by a competent analyst perhaps but it was the property instead of a psychological operations unit linked to partisan elements connected to the Obama Administration. It was clearly exposed to Trump as some kind of warning while at the same time it was leaked to his political enemies in Congress to weaken him there.

As with all such operations, who planned what and on what terms is unclear. It is likely to remain so but what strikes us is that the assault on Trump's view of the world failed because the operations were wholly predicated on Trump behaving like any other career politician. Now we can see the institutional system stepping back, licking its wounds, engaging in damage limitation and offering us ambiguities about what really happened and why. All they have done is turn Trump into a tiger who may see this particular part of the deep state as a greater enemy of America than Moscow.