A US intelligence officer operating in a dangerous part of the world prepared this week for Donald Trump’s presidency by making a pact with a colleague: they resolved to disobey any order to commit torture.
The two officers’ pledge reflects a wider debate within the national security bureaucracy, as some officials – concerned by Trump’s authoritarian inclinations – debate whether to quit in protest at his electoral victory or to remain at their post in the hope of checking impulses they consider dangerous.
During his election campaign, the president-elect mooted a string of controversial measures, any one of which would signify a major shift in US policy: reviving the use of torture, targeting the families of terrorism suspects, mass deportations, a ban on Muslims entering the US, expanding domestic surveillance, the indefinite detention of American terror suspects, bombing “the shit” out of the Islamic State.
Officials in the US military, intelligence services, diplomatic corps and federal law enforcement have told the Guardian that Trump’s suggestions represent such a departure from the norms of American governance that they are contemplating internal resistance or a career change.
One source said he was “fearful” of Trump in a way he has never been of an American national security figure, out of concern that Trump does not understand the “tertiary consequences” of decision-making on a global stage.
Speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, all the officials interviewed by the Guardian cautioned that they spoke only for themselves.
Some said their anxiety over Trump was not shared by co-workers, particularly younger ones, who appreciate what one called Trump’s “bluntness”.
Other officials said they believed that the realities of office would force Trump to moderate his positions, or expressed confidence that the national security bureaucracy was sufficiently resilient to check presidential overreach.
While Congress passed a law in 2015 designed to prevent a return to CIA torture, human rights activists have long observed that torture was illegal before 9/11.
But several wondered if they would be able to serve in a Trump administration –particularly if instructed to transgress moral or legal boundaries meant to protect civil rights and liberties.
The public faces of national policy are the cabinet secretaries, agency chiefs and their immediate deputies. Below them are the political appointees who comprise the senior ranks of government.
Their choices are made for them during inauguration and the transition of power: they leave to make room for the picks made by the election’s victor.
But those tasked with implementing policy are in no such position.
Critical to the functions of the government’s most life-or-death enterprises, they are formally apolitical and provide expertise and continuity across administrations.
Several of those who spoke to the Guardian described themselves as reeling from an electoral outcome they did not anticipate and the imminent arrival of a president they considered manifestly unqualified.
“For those who expected Hillary to win, it’s shock and awe, so to speak,” one US official said.