WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Incoming White House national security adviser John Bolton’s history of clashes with U.S. intelligence agencies suggests how he might handle North Korea and Iran, two of the thorniest challenges he and U.S. President Donald Trump face.
Bolton takes over on April 9 from retiring Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster. Based on his public statements, he shares Trump’s dislike of the Iran nuclear deal and often-bellicose stance toward North Korea.
However, his pronouncements on both issues are at odds with the assessments of U.S. intelligence agencies.
In a 2017 article in the conservative National Review, Bolton accused Iran of “significant violations” of the 2015 nuclear accord curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, however, told Congress in February that Tehran has been in compliance with the deal, which is working as designed.
Bolton has characterized North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as a threat best eliminated by a pre-emptive military strike. U.S. intelligence analysts have warned that such a strike would trigger a North Korean counterattack that would kill tens of thousands of South Koreans, American troops and civilians, and others as far away as Japan.
As a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, Bolton exaggerated what the U.S. government knew about weapons programs in Iraq, Cuba and Syria, and retaliated against analysts who differed with him, according to intelligence officials involved in the events.
“The question is, is he (Bolton) going to be like that, and start with the answer and shoehorn the intelligence to fit,” or take a more balanced view, said a former CIA official with more than 30 years’ experience.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reflected many intelligence veterans’ wariness at Bolton’s appointment.
Bolton declined comment via a spokesman. A CIA spokeswoman also declined comment.
Bolton, 69, is known as a dedicated hawk who marries bureaucratic savvy with belligerent rhetoric.
The decisions the White House confronts on North Korea and Iran require, officials say, complicated judgments based on imperfect information about the status of secret weapons programs, conditions that Bolton’s critics say he has seized on in the past to promote his own agenda.
‘NOT REFLECTED BY INTELLIGENCE’
During President George W. Bush’s first term in office, Bolton was the State Department’s top official on weapons proliferation.
In a May 2002 speech, he declared that Cuba had “at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,” and was sharing the technology with other countries.
Greg Theilmann, a top State Department intelligence official at the time, recounted how Bolton tried to retaliate against one of Theilmann’s analysts for disputing that conclusion.
“Bolton wanted to make charges about Cuban biological warfare capabilities which were not reflected by the intelligence,” Theilmann said in a telephone interview.
Bolton tried to have analyst Christian Westermann reassigned for challenging him, but he and Carl Ford, the head of the State Department’s intelligence bureau, refused, Theilmann said.
In his 2007 memoir, “Surrender is Not an Option,” Bolton wrote that the language on Cuba’s bioweapons programs had been approved by U.S. intelligence agencies. Westermann, he wrote, “was attempting to impose his own policy views,” which intelligence analysts are not supposed to do.
Fulton Armstrong, who was the intelligence community’s top Cuba expert, said Bolton and several of his associates in government also tried to have him removed over the biological weapons issue.
Bolton “showed every despicable trait of an obsessed policy person who, when frustrated in his attempts to cook the intelligence, lashed out at the person delivering the news,” Armstrong said.
Bolton crossed swords with U.S. spy agencies again in July 2003, when the CIA and other agencies objected to testimony he planned to give describing Syria’s development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as a threat to Middle East stability.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by John Walcott and James Dalgleish