Nearly 15 years ago, I informed my skeptical father that I was pursuing a job with the Central Intelligence Agency. Among his many concerns was that others would never believe I had resigned from the agency when I sought my next job. “Once CIA, always CIA,” he said.
But that didn’t give me pause. This wouldn’t be just my first real job, I thought then; it would be my career.
That changed when I formally resigned last week. Despite working proudly for Republican and Democratic presidents, I reluctantly concluded that I cannot in good faith serve this administration as an intelligence professional.
This was not a decision I made lightly. I sought out the CIA as a college student, convinced that it was the ideal place to serve my country and put an otherwise abstract international-relations degree to use. I wasn’t disappointed.
The CIA taught me new skills and exposed me to new cultures and countries. More important, it instilled in me a sense of mission and purpose. As an analyst, I became an expert in terrorist groups and traveled the world to help deter and disrupt attacks. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama took the CIA’s input seriously.
There was no greater reward than having my analysis presented to the president and seeing it shape events. Intelligence informing policy — this is how the system is supposed to work. I saw that up close for the past three years at the White House, where I worked on loan from the CIA until last month.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate suggested that he intended to take a different approach. I watched in disbelief when, during the third presidential debate, Trump casually cast doubt on the high-confidence conclusion of our 17 intelligence agencies, released that month, that Russia was behind the hacking and release of election-related emails.
On the campaign trail and even as president-elect, Trump routinely referred to the flawed 2002 assessment of Iraq’s weapons programs as proof that the CIA couldn’t be trusted, even though the intelligence community had long ago held itself to account for those mistakes, and Trump himself supported the invasion of Iraq.
Trump’s actions in office have been even more disturbing. His visit to CIA headquarters on his first full day in office, an overture designed to repair relations, was undone by his ego and bluster. Standing in front of a memorial to the CIA’s fallen officers, he seemed to be addressing the cameras and reporters in the room, rather than the agency personnel, bragging about his inauguration crowd the previous day.
Whether delusional or deceitful, these were not the remarks many of my former colleagues and I wanted to hear from our new commander in chief. I couldn’t help but reflect on the stark contrast between the bombast of the new president and the quiet dedication of a mentor — a courageous, dedicated professional — who is memorialized on that wall. I know others at the CIA felt similarly.
The final straw came late last month, when the White House issued a directive reorganizing the National Security Council, on whose staff I served from 2014 until earlier this year. Missing from the NSC’s principals committee were the CIA director and the director of national intelligence. Added to the roster: the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who cut his teeth as a media champion of white nationalism.
The public outcry led the administration to reverse course and name the CIA director an NSC principal, but the White House’s inclination was clear. It has little need for intelligence professionals who, in speaking truth to power, might challenge the so-called “America First” orthodoxy that sees Russia as an ally and Australia as a punching bag. That’s why the president’s trusted White House advisers, not career professionals, reportedly have final say over what intelligence reaches his desk.
To be clear, my decision had nothing to do with politics, and I would have been proud to again work under a Republican administration open to intelligence analysis. I served with conviction under President George W. Bush, some of whose policies I also found troubling, and I took part in programs that the Obama administration criticized and ended.
As intelligence professionals, we’re taught to tune out politics. The river separating CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., from Washington might as well be a political moat. But this administration has flipped that dynamic on its head: The politicians are the ones tuning out the intelligence professionals.
The CIA will continue to serve important functions, including undertaking covert action and sharing information with close allies and partners around the globe. If this administration is serious about building trust with the intelligence community, however, it will require more than rallies at CIA headquarters or press statements.
What intelligence professionals want most is to know that the fruits of their labor — sometimes at the risk of life or limb — are accorded due deference in the policymaking process.
Until that happens, President Trump and his team are doing another disservice to these dedicated men and women and the nation they proudly, if quietly, serve.
Edward Price worked at the CIA from 2006 until this month, most recently as the spokesman for the National Security Council.