Are President Trump’s tweets dangerous to our national security? I posed this question on Twitter, and immediately was deluged by the usual flood of partisan answers. The president’s supporters think it’s wonderful that Trump bypasses the media filter and speaks his mind directly to the voters. The president’s detractors think he’s revealing a neurotic personality and that his aides should take his phone away from him.
I approached the question differently. As I watched Trump fulminate against hearings in the Senate—during which former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she warned the White House about fallen National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s Russian connections—it occurred to me that I was getting a real-time look at how the president of the United States reacts to stress.
More important, it also occurred to me that I was not the only one getting a raw feed of the president’s thoughts and emotions. I realized that any foreign intelligence analyst worth his or her salt was almost certainly taking copious notes.
As well they should. Trump’s tweets, from an intelligence standpoint, are a gold mine. Not because they contain classified information or reveal important aspects of U.S. policy, but because they are a direct and continuous stream of information about the president himself. Classified information is important, but an ongoing look inside the president’s head is, in many ways, more valuable than any transitory secrets.
A Cognitive Map of a Foreign Leader
Leadership analysis is a difficult subject. In both academic studies and intelligence work, it is an art more than a science. But it is crucially important in foreign policy, especially during crises: the psyche of national leaders, their emotional reactions and cognitive maps, the idiom of their reactions, all become paramount in the search for information when states are at the brink of conflict.
Every nation in the world does this kind of analysis. I was for many years a practicing Kremlinologist, a Russian-speaking analyst who studied the Soviet leadership, read Soviet media, and carefully peeled back every statement and picture I could find to get as firm a handle as I could on the views and possible actions of the people pointing a massive nuclear arsenal at us.
I did this as a scholar, including in books analyzing Soviet politics, as well as in work I did as a consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency and other defense-related organizations. I also read such files, and have seen how they are constructed, as part of helping prepare briefings for a U.S. senator when I worked on Capitol Hill during the first Gulf War.
From this perspective, President Trump’s tweets reveal a great deal about the man. They show patterns of even the smallest details of his routine: when he wakes, what he watches, who he trusts in the media. They reveal even more about his emotions: they show how he speaks when he’s angry, who he thinks his audiences are, and what kind of issues take priority in his cognitive processes.
All of these could be helpful to an opponent in a number of circumstances, including trying to decide when communications from the United States are coming directly from the president or from a group of advisers.
How This Affected Previous International Crises
This has actually happened in the past. During the Cuban missile crisis, for example, the Americans received two letters from the Kremlin, both sent in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s name. But the letters were very different: one was far more confrontational than the other. Which was written by the real Khrushchev?
In the end, the Americans ignored the more challenging letter and accepted the terms of the more conciliatory message. But what if the intelligence community had decided they knew enough of Khrushchev’s manner to decide wrongly about the provenance of the information they were seeing? Or worse, what if by watching his stream of thoughts they mistakenly assumed they could push him toward a particular solution by manipulating his emotions?
Likewise, during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Kremlin threatened to send troops into the Middle East, prompting Americans to go to a higher state of nuclear alert to deter any such move. America’s messages to Moscow were mostly constructed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a committee of foreign policy principals, because President Nixon was depressed, drinking heavily, and morose over the deepening Watergate disaster. He was in no condition to talk to the Politburo. His aides, without public discussion, also kept a watchful eye over the nuclear codes.
The Soviets might well have threatened intervention as a way of trying to take advantage of what they already guessed was Nixon’s weakened condition. But the communications from the White House betrayed no change in the commander in chief or his authority to carry out his implied threat. American communications, firm and unyielding, did not hint at the turmoil behind the scenes in the Oval Office.
The Soviets backed down, and the crisis passed without further escalation. One can only imagine the result had Nixon gotten it into his head to bypass everyone around him and send a direct message to Soviet leaders.
It Doesn’t Matter If Foreigners Interpret Accurately
Instantaneous contact between leaders is not always a good idea, and nothing except voice communication is more instantaneous (at least in the president’s case) than Twitter. The famed “hot line” set up after the Cuban crisis was a teletype, and for good reason: in the heat of the moment, it is better to have messages dictated and written, with time to read them, rather than have the president of the United States and the chairman of the Soviet Politburo shouting angry insults at each other.
I should note that I make no judgment here about the content of the president’s tweets. Sometimes they seem to contradict his own policies, but perhaps that is part of some plan that is opaque to me. What concerns me more specifically is that his tweets—which he might not be taking all that seriously—are becoming part of a psychological profile of the U.S. president being built in both friendly and enemy capitals that may not serve American interests well, not least because they could be misinterpreted and lead to disastrous miscalculations.
I am especially concerned that foreign intelligence services, over-analyzing what might be throwaway comments, believe they now have a clear picture of the president’s cognitive map. Right or wrong, this removes the uncertainty about a president’s actions that is necessary not only to an American leader’s freedom of action, but to the maintenance of stable deterrence with our opponents.
In any case, I have no intention of telling the president of the United States how to converse with his own people. He won election in part by short-circuiting the normal modes of political communication. But I want to suggest to my fellow citizens that their interest in the president’s tweets is misplaced. His fans love them, his enemies hate them, but perhaps we might all find some common ground in discouraging them as a form of strategic communication.
The problem of social media is going to bedevil every president, because it is a powerful tool and few politicians will be able to resist it. But the American people should be aware that every time the president tweets, we are not the only ones reading.