It is fair to say that the intelligence services, both British and American, played a significant role in the most difficult period of my professional life, at the end of which I departed Downing Street. Though it was their work that formed the basis of the document that Tony Blair presented to parliament on Iraq's WMD, it was to me that the flak from what became known as "the dodgy dossier" (for the record an entirely different paper) was largely directed.
And when, post the fall of Saddam, the search for the WMD proved barren, it was TB and his political team in the firing line, not the spooks. Even today, 14 years on, most days – today, for sure, once this piece gets posted – lonely souls on social media will fire out the "war criminal… blood on hands… get thee to The Hague" insults – my way, rather than towards anyone from MI5, MI6 or GCHQ.
I say this neither as a complaint, nor to suggest that in the blame game we took too much and the intelligence services too little. Rather, it is by way of emphasis that when friends suggest I have cause to feel critical of the intelligence services, I insist I am not. I remain a huge admirer of the work they do. More relevantly to the world of today, it is to point out a very different approach by Donald Trump who, without any apparent reason to dismiss, deride or denigrate them, seems so determined to do so. I find it both weird and disturbing.
It is weird because once he is president, he becomes one of, possibly the, most significant foreign policy figure on the planet and he is going to have to rely on the intelligence services for much of the information and analysis on which decisions have to be based. (I am assuming, perhaps fancifully, that he intends to try to make rational decisions.) There is nothing wrong with him being sceptical, challenging assumptions, drilling down, asking questions and demanding more detail.
But at a minimum there has to be a cordial and trusting relationship founded on respect for the professionalism of the services, recognition of the courage of many who work for them, and an absolute commitment to their right to set out things as they see them, without fearing that the messenger will be shot by a political master. They will already be fearing this as probable rather than possible.
The problem with Trump is the narcissism which is the core of his character. It has been a feature of his life as a businessman, a celebrity and human being. It appears to blind him to the possibility that he might be wrong. It prevents him from thinking that others might know more about something than he does. It means that he views all events and circumstances for how they impact upon him personally.
This kind of rampant egomania is bad enough in a business tycoon. But in a President of the most powerful democracy on Earth it is disturbing to the point of being dangerous.
Though Trump is an extreme example of the narcissistic leader, he is not the first businessman to have this particular disease. I worked for former Mirror owner Robert Maxwell, who was similarly afflicted. Whatever was happening in the world he considered himself to be a central figure. As when he flew out of Ethiopia, where he had taken a team of reporters and photographers on a "famine mercy mission" in the mid-80s, with a note for us left at the Addis Ababa Hilton saying, "My work here is done. I have returned to England to resolve the miners' strike."
This kind of rampant egomania is bad enough in a business tycoon. But in a president of the most powerful democracy on Earth, it is disturbing to the point of being dangerous.
There was an interesting little example of his approach in the aftermath of the recent Berlin lorry terror attack. Before there was any certainty about the nature of the incident, Trump was out saying it showed why he was right to take a tough line against Islamic extremism. Many pointed out that it was too early to know for sure it was a terrorist attack. By the time it was confirmed as such, evidently the main point to make was that he was right all along.
Rise of social media in politics
This is the same tweeter-in-chief whose twitterfinger typed "thanks Donald" – no joke – when a positive consumer confidence report was published. The one that last week tweeted his complaint about the picture of him chosen for the front cover of a book about the election. Just two days ago, clearly with nothing better to do what with an inauguration to plan, a government team to build and in a few days a country to run, he was busy tweeting about the relative success of his and Arnold Schwarzenegger's debuts as host of Celebrity Apprentice. Arnie was "swamped" by "the ratings machine DJT", he told a grateful world. It reminds me of my kids. When they were seven.
Because of his narcissistic flaw, Trump… is right and the combined forces of the US intelligence community are wrong.
Trump brings to mind the wonderful Muhammad Ali quote, "I am the greatest golfer in the world – it's just that I have never played golf." But Ali was a sportsman and entertainer, not a president similarly addicted to trash-talking his opponents. He also had a humour and a humanity not recently discernible in Trump.
Because of his narcissistic flaw, Trump sets out as president no doubt determined to prove that when it comes to the question of Russia influencing the US election, he is right and the combined forces of the US intelligence community are wrong. It makes for a deeply unstable foundation to an important relationship.
The reason he is reluctant to accept the official CIA version about Russian efforts to interfere in the election to his benefit is that when the issue was first raised in the campaign, he said it was nonsense, and used it as just another stick with which to beat "Crooked Hillary". So if he said it was nonsense then, it must still be nonsense now.
Even when presented with the evidence, as one assumes he has been at the recent meeting with intelligence chiefs, he shifts goalposts to say that as there was no evidence of the Russians interfering with counting machines, the issue should be forgotten and the sore losers should get over it. Nobody ever suggested there was interference with counting machines, only that Russia hacked into Democrat HQ and used what they found to damage Hillary Clinton as part of a wider plan to destabilise US democracy.
Ties with Russia
Meanwhile, in Moscow, President Putin sits sipping his morning coffee, reading his overnight briefing papers, and can barely believe his luck. Not only has the man he thinks he can do deals with to Russia's benefit beaten the women he has hated ever since she rightly pointed out the distinctly undemocratic nature of his elections. But also the new US president will start in office with the goal of a resetting of the relationship between the two powers, Putin further hugely established as a major global figure, Trump instinctively hostile to more sanctions and seemingly with more respect for the view of a suspected sexual offender and hater of most things American – WikiLeaks exile Julian Assange – than he has for the work of the CIA.
Can you imagine, in any other era, the nationwide anger and revulsion that Russian interference in US elections would have provoked? Yet here we are, with the successor to Reagan, Clinton, two Bushes and Obama siding with the Putin/Assange version of events rather than his own country's top intelligence experts. It is so un-American it is mindblowing. If I was a conspiracy theorist I would start to wonder whether Trump may be scared that the Russians also hacked him but haven't begun the leaking process. Yet.
In his eyes, those who scrutinise him are not scrutinising. They are lying. Those who criticise are not critics. They are liars.
Equally un-American, given the commitment to free speech in the Americans' beloved Constitution, is his approach to the media. In his eyes, those who scrutinise him are not scrutinising. They are lying. Those who criticise are not critics. They are liars. Those who call him out over past lies are not researchers. They are liars.
So it was a media lie, he tweeted, that he didn't support the intelligence services. Indeed he was "a fan" of intelligence, he insisted. A fan. Like they are a baseball team or a rock band. They don't need his fandom. They need his active support and understanding of what they do, and why. And he needs to understand they are not there to prove him right or be a new toy for him to play with. They are there to help keep America secure and strong, a task which has implications for the rest of us too.
Scary times. Scary guy. Welcome to Trumpland.