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Political appointees: more trouble for Trump with the CIA?

Published on 13 February 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

While studying documents on the ‘treaty of friendship’ signed between the State Department and the CIA in 1977, which – by providing assurances that Agency operations would no longer cause nasty surprises to diplomats – was designed to improve relations between CIA station chiefs and the US ambassadors who gave them diplomatic cover, I came across a particularly interesting memo. This revealed that Arthur Hartman, a senior Department of State officer, had told the CIA that, in embassies where the ambassador was a political appointee, station chiefs should not brief this individual on operations, as provided in the State-CIA treaty – but instead the Deputy Chief of Mission, a Foreign Service Officer. Of course, FSOs dislike political appointees, so this opinion is hardly surprising. But there was no suggestion in this document that the CIA officer, Richard Lehman, dismissed it as simply special pleading. Indeed, in light of the Agency’s firmly rooted belief that great care has to be taken over what can be divulged to ambassadors in part because they are not trained to detect expert probing for information by hostile intelligence agencies, it is likely that it would have been even more nervous than the State Department’s professionals about briefing political appointees, who are invariably lacking even in diplomatic experience.

Assuming that nothing much has changed since the 1970s in the unavoidably difficult relationship between ambassadors and CIA station chiefs, it would be amazing should the latter not to be turning white at the thought of trusting sensitive information to many of the people Donald Trump is seeking to make chiefs of mission – and, should they refuse to divulge it, re-kindle the serious trouble between the Agency and Team Trump caused in the transition by the furore over the Russia dossier. The rumour that ambassadorships were being offered to disbelieving talent scouts if they could deliver ‘great’ singers for the President-elect’s inauguration might have been fake news. So might the comical story that Sarah Palin is even now being seriously considered as Ambassador to Canada, as Canadians are fervently praying (if it’s true, Trump might as well follow the idea to its logical conclusion and just send a stuffed moose to Ottawa). But other dangerous candidates are only too serious. Among these is David Friedman – Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer, whose experience has evidently given him no understanding of bankrupt foreign policies – who is close to confirmation as new US Ambassador at Tel Av … sorry … Jerusalem.

G. R. Berridge is Emeritus Professor of International Politics, University of Leicester and Senior Fellow at DiploFoundation. His DiploFoundation course Diplomatic Theory and Practice starts next week.

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