President Donald Trump is proving to be an easy read for foreign intelligence services gauging how his mind works.
The steady stream of tweets flowing from Trump’s phone and the leak this week of candid conversations he’s had with two foreign leaders throw open a window on Trump’s views of the world, his moods and sensitivities.
“The president's tweets are an absolute gold mine of personal, detailed information on his personality and his emotional state,” former CIA director Michael Hayden said.
Friday was not atypical for Trump, who had tweeted five times by mid-morning, and re-tweeted six messages written by others, giving an indication of what was on his mind, his likes and dislikes. Trump has 35.1 million followers on Twitter.
Getting a read on Trump through his public remarks and tweets is only one way foreign governments assess his temperament. More powerful nations also spy on him directly, seeking to eavesdrop on his conversations, and read his texts, former intelligence officials said.
“Every country in the world has Donald Trump marked for collection,” said Malcolm Nance, a retired codebreaker from the National Security Agency, the nation’s premier data collection branch.
Trump prides himself on his unpredictability, and in a little more than six months in office, he has upended relations with traditional allies in Europe, piqued Australia, and found only a handful of foreign leaders who have openly embraced him, including the leaders of Poland, Saudi Arabia, Japan and China. Much of the world has been busy trying to read Trump.
“The White House and the U.S. president have always been priority targets for intelligence gathering by both hostile and allied security services," said Stephen B. Slick, a former CIA operations officer who now directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
"The chaotic personnel and policymaking practices of the the current administration will only reinforce that focus," Slick said.
French President Emmanuel Macron feted Trump in Paris last month. France is a U.S. ally on counterterrorism efforts, but Nance said he has no doubt that Macron seeks intelligence on the U.S. leader and would thwart him if he learned through French intelligence of pending U.S. action that Macron opposed.
“If Macron should wake up one morning and get information that Donald Trump has a secret plan to nuke North Korea … he would drop that dime on national television,” Nance said.
U.S. allies in the Baltics are “mortally terrified that Donald Trump is going to turn their nations over to Russia,” Nance added, and as hosts of allied listening posts that gather signals they may find it in their interests “to tell the world” if they don’t like how the tea leaves read.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under pressure from a president who has raged on Twitter over Sessions’ “VERY weak position” on leakers, said at a news conference Friday that the number of leaks has “exploded,” and that his department would triple leak investigations.
“No one is entitled to surreptitiously fight their battles in the media by revealing sensitive government information," Sessions said.
“The leaking problem is incredible. It’s just unprecedented,” said a retired CIA officer who spent more than three decades at the agency. “Everybody’s got their knives out.”
It would be tempting to believe that senior intelligence officials opposed to Trump may be leaking secret information to the Washington Post and New York Times, which have been in a tit-for-tat battle with exclusives based on intelligence sources, with the latest salvo on Thursday, when the Post published transcripts of Trump’s telephone conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
Indeed, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told Vanity Fair for its September edition that some of the leaks have made reporting “remarkably easy.”
But Hayden and others cautioned against assuming the provenance of leaks.
“I have consistently been emphasizing that the leak of intelligence information does not necessarily mean that the leaker is from the intelligence community,” Hayden said in an email.
“SigInt is available to lots of people,” said another retired CIA officer, referring to signals intelligence, or raw intelligence feeds. “Lots of people could receive it as part of their daily intel intake.”
Those people may work elsewhere in the executive branch or on Capitol Hill – or in intelligence facilities abroad operated in conjunction with allied nations.
The vast majority of U.S. intelligence officers are loath to break their sworn oath not to spill secrets, but a limited number at the very top of agencies may find themselves in an untenable position, said a third retired CIA officer.
“Intelligence officers, national security officers are facing an existential crisis,” said Glenn Carle, who served 25 years in the CIA’s clandestine services before retiring in 2007.
“How do you fulfill your oath to preserve and protect the Constitution but in so doing you have information that the chief executive is compromised?” Carle asked. “What does one do? The solution for some people is that this information must be known.”
The other retired CIA officer said the risks of such leaking are high, including the likelihood of serving a lengthy jail term, so anyone considering it would use extreme caution.
“If you’ve got that level of concern, it’s like Burt Lancaster in Seven Days in May, you’ve only got one chance to fire, so you’ve got to make sure it hits,” the former officer said.
Nance said he believes Trump has wrongly dismissed the threats that foreign intelligence operations play in tracking him.
“He, his family and his friends are just clearly the most wired people in the world. So they are simple, simple signals intelligence targets,” Nance said. “Easy. I could do it if I had a membership to that golf club.”
Trump was to leave Friday for a 17-day stay as his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.