The enemy of intelligence is surprise. It’s worst, of course, when an actual enemy springs a surprise on a nation’s intelligence service, like, say Pearl Harbor, or the Russian manipulations of America’s sacred Presidential election of 2016. But these things happen, and national intelligence directors have to go to the office and try to pick up the pieces.
Because the consequences are less dire, it’s more embarrassing than devastating when a Director of National Intelligence is caught by surprise by actions from the head of his own team, the President.
See poor US DNI Dan Coats gobsmacked in public, on video, when he learns his boss, Donald Trump, has booked a second summit with Vladimir Putin, this time at the White House. “That’s going to be special,” he says with a laugh.
Hear Dan Coats’ obvious frustration that, days after the event, he still knows almost nothing about what Trump and Putin said during their private meeting during the recent summit in Helsinki. Who knows what surprises may be revealed? But Dan Coats knows that, to him as President Trump’s appointed Director of National Intelligence, every surprise is like a stab in the heart.
Will he take his wounded self into seclusion? That’s more or less what Defense Secretary James Mattis did while Trump was alternately insulting and abusing NATO and then signing onto its major policy statements. He stayed away.
And I’m guessing nothing Trump did at the NATO meeting really surprised Gen. Mattis.
Everyone was surprised by Trump’s gratuitous subversion of Teresa May, but to Mattis (and probably to Coats) — that’s not his problem, it belongs to the State Department.
But it must have hit Mattis like a tire iron in the back of the head, the Montenegro blurt, which questions the value of one of the Pentagon’s weight-bearing walls: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO.
“Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” asked the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. A legitimate question, with an obvious right answer: “That’s the value of NATO, Tucker, its collective strength has for 50 years, prevented attacks on member states, big and small. It’s purpose is to keep your kid at home.”
But that’s not what the president replied: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question,” he empathized with a guy whose kids are as likely to serve in battle as his own.
Then came the surprise.
“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” the President added. “They’re very aggressive people,” he continued, “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in world war three.”
Oooooo, we don’t want that; we don’t want world war three, and the implication was clear, if that’s the price, Americans having to fight to defend Montenegro (or as Carlson later amplified: “Estonia? Slovakia?”) — maybe we don’t want NATO.
Trump had already said, maybe he’d pull the US out of NATO if all the members didn’t fulfill their pledge of 2% of Gross Domestic Product for defense spending. But that was an argument about money, and about an issue that won’t be settled for 6 years, perhaps when a different President might not follow through on Trump’s threat.
Montenegro is different. It’s not about money, and it isn’t just a guy threatening to punch you in 2024. The implication in the President’s remarks to Tucker Carlson is that the US questions the value of the organization itself, and calls into question America’s commitment to collective defense.
Surprise! Dan Coats managed to laugh about the second Trump-Putin summit. Think Jim Mattis has been laughing about Montenegro?
David Jackson has been a reporter for more than three decades, and now covers the White House for USA TODAY. He enjoys politics, books, movies, and college football — not necessarily in that order. He is also, he notes on Twitter, a “Winthrop Eagle and Northwestern Wildcat; traveler; lover of history and biography (which are really the same thing).”