Joe Biden would most likely reverse any Trump cuts to agency’s bloated budget
By Richard Walker
A warning from the Pentagon that it could withdraw its military support for the CIA’s counterterrorism operations, thereby raising the prospect of deep cuts to the agency’s massive budget, may have come too late to be enforced.
The threat of a major change to the Department of Defense (DOD)-CIA relationship has come in the waning days of the Donald Trump presidency, making some wonder whether it was a serious move, or one aimed at complicating life for the incoming Joe Biden administration. The DOD warning followed a flurry of personnel moves by President Trump, as he inserted people into acting jobs in many agencies, including the Pentagon. There was also the announcement that he planned to remove resources from the Army and Air Force to provide funding for the building of more ships for the Navy in the next decade.
The obvious question about such a move is why it was not initiated two or three years ago. One answer is that it might not have received congressional approval, and, by doing so now, his aim is to place his successor in a difficult position. If Mr. Biden vetoes the plan, he risks being accused of short-changing the Navy and weakening the U.S. potential to confront China’s growing sea power.
On the other hand, with the rise of China as a naval superpower, this decision by President Trump may be seen in the long term as a wise one. Equally, his desire to trim the CIA’s sails could also be viewed in the context of his long-held assertion that too much time and money is being spent on counterterror operations, with the result that less focus was directed at dealing with bigger threats, such as China. While the latter point may have substance, it should be noted that Mr. Trump spent a great deal of his presidency praising China’s leader Xi Jinping and his relationship with him. He avoided calling him out for Chinese cyberattacks against the U.S. government and the building of more Chinese military bases in the South China Sea.
Whatever the reasons for these late-in-the-day moves by the Trump White House, they have probably come too late to have any effect on policy since the incoming president can reverse them with executive orders. That is likely to happen in respect of any effort to downgrade the nexus of the Pentagon and the CIA in the fields of counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa and widely across the Middle East.
If the past is anything to go by, any refocus of the CIA’s counterterror strategies would not find favor with Mr. Biden. He and Barack Obama championed the CIA’s use of drone warfare and relied on fickle militias in many conflicts, including Afghanistan. They both encouraged the expansion of the CIA’s own drone program. In his first six months in office, President Obama authorized six times more drone strikes than his predecessor George Bush did during his entire presidency. Mr. Obama preferred the CIA’s counterterror operations to boots on the ground.
The CIA jealously guards its role in what some call the global war on terror, even though many experts find the terminology ridiculous, since it is a war the U.S. can never win. Nevertheless, the CIA’s use of the U.S. military in many of its clandestine ops is vital to its overall claims of success. It is probably confident that, aside from Mr. Biden, it has enough support in the Senate to ensure there are no changes to its role—or its budget.
The CIA budget is like a black book, which has only been opened to public viewing once, thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, in 2013. He revealed that the agency received an annual payout of $14.7 billion from a total intelligence services budget of $52.6 billion, spread across 16 agencies, including the FBI. It is believed that those figures have greatly increased, and that the CIA budget allowance may well have doubled in the past six years.
While the CIA may dodge a financial bullet with Joe Biden in the White House, it may not be able to forestall an ongoing reevaluation of its role in terms of the threat matrix facing America and its allies. Some experts believe that the China threat should be the primary concern of the CIA and not small, clandestine conflicts across the globe, especially now that the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end. On the other hand, there are many on Capitol Hill, and in neocon think tanks, who will continue to forcefully argue that if terrorists are not dealt with abroad, they will focus on attacking the American homeland.
This has been an ongoing debate behind closed doors within the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., but China hawks may win the day as the specter of the Red Chinese dominating the Pacific becomes a reality. In that scenario, CIA clandestine ops aimed at al Qaeda, the
remnants of ISIS, and similar groups may have to take a back seat. The only thing that could change this dynamic would be neocons, with the backing of Israel, who appear anxious to start another war in the Middle East. Such an outcome would not only complicate the work of the next presidency but would have a serious impact on America’s potential for addressing global threats such as China’s growing military might.
Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former New York mainstream news producer who grew tired of seeing his articles censored by his bosses.