There has been a great deal of commentary on President Trump’s telephone exchange with President Zelensky of Ukraine. The focus was on getting the latter to investigate actions in which former Vice President Biden (and possibly others) might have been involved. The fact is that keeping track of what previous office holders are doing internationally has long been a task of U.S. security services. It is something most nations do – if they have the ability and interest. They just don’t normally do it president to president.
To begin with, the initial question to be asked in a matter of this type is whether the ambassador to the host country should be told about the operation. That depends on the political volatility of the issue. In most instances this ranking diplomat is purposely kept out of the loop for his/her own diplomatic protection. The entire exercise really depends on what sort of assets are available who can definitively report on high officials’s activities. Often liaison with the host security service is utilized if the host nation is friendly to U.S. interests. However, this method obviously is not as secure as one would wish. For the most part a trusted indigenous agent would be the best, if that agent has access to the needed information.
Of course, other foreign entities, governmental and even commercial, often have their own sources and methods which they might be willing to share. They might even volunteer the needed “take.” In any case, the job of getting information on prominent American citizens – and those with whom they are cooperating – is a delicate but always a legitimate target for a security service. The one thing that is not done is to involve a home country political personality and certainly not a major current office holder. The latter circumstance is just a basic “no-no” in intelligence activities. The whole reason a nation has clandestine services is to gather and counter information of importance that does or might have security import.
Here is where the current problem of a chief executive dealing with their opposite number comes into play. This current circumstance is not the first time such private conversations have been construed as having domestic import. Perhaps the most famous and best known were the private talks at the 1943 Tehran Conference between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin that excluded Winston Churchill. This too was a situation where both leaders considered themselves their own nation’s top intelligence officer. There are many other instances, but such unilateral action certainly puts their own intel and security services at a disadvantage – and of course can cause domestic political concerns.
A simple guide for this often-complicated situation is to not have a CEO of a country act unilaterally. Whatever the matter is it most likely can be handled by appropriate, often covert, intermediaries. It is true, however, that leaders of countries often feel that personal contact with their opposite number – especially when there has been a previous antagonistic relationship – is a useful way to begin a new tact. However, in general, such high-level meetings are scripted beforehand to ensure there are no misunderstandings. The problem arises when one or both leaders have gregarious personalities. At that point misunderstandings and characterizations easily can be engendered. An arrangement, or even a simple suggestive comment, can be better made by trained and experienced intelligence personalities who operate in a context of well thought out and even planned contacts.
Ultimately, all high-level exchanges become known to others, even if it’s only shared with so-called “trusted” aides. This is the highway to publication! The best way to pursue sensitive foreign issues is through the aforementioned secretive, trained and experienced personnel. Though covert intelligence operators usually fill that bill, in some exceptional instances unusually capable diplomats do the job. The latter situation applies when the diplomat has an exceptional relationship with the target chief executive.
In the end, there is nothing that can or should replace the special intermediary. History has proven this, and if it was good enough for George Washington, it’s good enough for those who followed him!