A shaky detente between Donald Trump and the intelligence agencies he will soon control has broken down, as Mr Trump wrongly accused US intelligence of leaking an unverified, salacious document to damage his nascent presidency.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Trump said that “who knows, but maybe the intelligence agencies” were responsible for the document, which he said would be “a tremendous blot on their record”.
Earlier, Mr Trump likened the intelligence agencies to “Nazi Germany”, in a tweet, saying they “never should have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ to the public. One last shot at me”.
Intelligence veterans reacted with shock to the renewed and intensified attack, with one saying Mr Trump had exhibited "open, irrational and hysterical hostility" to the community on the eve of Thursday's confirmation hearing for Mr Trump's nominee for CIA director, Mike Pompeo. Another suggested conscientious intelligence officials may have to contemplate resignation.
The intelligence agencies neither compiled nor leaked the unverified dossier. It and several of the claims it contained have circulated for months within newsrooms, including the Guardian’s, which resisted their publication until adequate verification could be unearthed.
James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, said he told Mr Trump on Wednesday evening the intelligence community had not been responsible for the leaking of the documents.
“I emphasised that this document is not a US intelligence community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC,” Mr Clapper said in a statement.
Before CNN reported last night that aspects of the dossier, acquired by the FBI in December from the Arizona Republican senator John McCain, were briefed to Barack Obama and Mr Trump, no news organisation had published the accusations, which purport to reveal compromising information Russia possesses on Mr Trump.
Mr Trump has denied them and NBC later reported that the material was prepared for the Trump briefing, but not discussed.
Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee and a consistent critic of spycraft excesses, told the Guardian it was "profoundly dangerous" for Mr Trump to continue his feud with the agencies.
“The president is responsible for vital decisions about national security, including decisions about whether to go to war, which depend on the broad collection activities and reasoned analysis of the intelligence community. A scenario in which the president dismisses the intelligence community, or worse, accuses it of treachery, is profoundly dangerous,” Mr Wyden said.
Vicki Divoll, a former attorney for the CIA and the Senate intelligence panel, saw little chance for a rapprochement between the intelligence agencies and Mr Trump.
"After disparaging and demeaning the hardworking officers of the intelligence community, then grudgingly accepting their conclusions about Russian election hacking, Mr Trump is now hurling the worst epithet out there – comparisons to Nazi Germany – against them, without basis and on the eve of taking office," Ms Divoll said.
“We are at our peril to be entering an era in which there is such open, irrational and hysterical hostility by a president against a community of 17 agencies whose mandate is to keep us safe.”
Mr Trump's outburst was a departure from the moderated tone he had taken on the intelligence agencies since Friday, when he met with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, FBI director James Comey, NSA director Mike Rogers and CIA director John Brennan to discuss their joint conclusion that Russia had intervened extensively in the 2016 election to benefit Mr Trump.
The president-elect had previously referred to an intelligence "witch-hunt" and threw the CIA's fatefully erroneous 2002 assessment that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction back in the agency's face. Mr Clapper and Mr Rogers had warned of plummeting morale within the intelligence community ahead of Mr Trump's presidency.
After the meeting, Mr Trump spoke of his “tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community”.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Mr Trump simultaneously accepted and diminished the intelligence assessment that Russia was responsible for the Democratic National Committee hack, saying “I think it was Russia” and later adding the caveat: “You know what? It could be others also.”
On Sunday, aide Reince Priebus insisted that Mr Trump “is not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular hacking campaign”.
One retired intelligence official, who declined to be named, said he was in a "wait and see" mode with Mr Trump, as Mr Pompeo and Mr Trump's nominee for director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, seemed like "reasonable choices" for their positions.
Mr Trump’s rhetoric “hasn’t helped morale” within the agencies, but the ex-official questioned its theatricality and said former colleagues’ reactions to Mr Trump were “mixed” and were not panicked.
“Nobody’s planning on quitting or jumping from the seventh floor of the building,” the retired official said.
But Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer, said resignations were a rational response to Mr Trump, as the intelligence agencies face "existential crisis" prompted by the imminent prospect of serving "someone for whom the truth is irrelevant".
Mr Carle said: “One is forced either to serve a man disdainful of the community’s mission, and of facts in general, as essentially a toady, or provide intelligence to the parts of the government that may actually know how to use it in the national interest, such as the military or other organs of the government, or resign. The choice is that stark.
“This crisis cannot be covered over with a politician’s, or an egotist’s, bromides and lies.”