Report

Can Trump’s Pick for Intel Chief Tell the President What He Needs to Hear?

Critics say John Ratcliffe may be too political to be believed as the next director of national intelligence.

U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe speaks during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington on June 28, 2018.
U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe speaks during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington on June 28, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was an increasing rarity in the orbit of U.S. President Donald Trump. As the principal intelligence advisor to a president who has repeatedly called into question the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community, Coats maintained his independence and provided sober intelligence analysis on North Korea, Iran, and Syria that sometimes ran counter to the worldview of the president. 

Sunday’s announcement, via presidential tweet, that Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Trump-aligned conservative lawmaker with limited intelligence experience, has been tapped to replace Coats when he steps down next month has ignited fears that it could politicize the role of the nation’s top intelligence official and an office that is still finding its feet under Trump.

Experts and former members of the intelligence community fear that Ratcliffe’s appointment could also further undermine U.S. foreign-policy credibility at a time when Washington is seen as making a questionable case against adversaries such as Iran.

I’m sure there is a good bit of angst among the rank and file that the president has nominated someone more for his personal loyalty than his experience or willingness to ‘tell truth to power,’” said James Clapper, who served as the director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017. 

Trump’s decision to nominate Ratcliffe, who is regarded as one of the most conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill, has drawn the ire of former members of the intelligence community who question the Republican lawmaker’s intelligence chops and fear the president has selected an advisor who will tell him what he wants to hear. 

“It’s extremely dangerous when intelligence gets politicized, and that’s when mistakes get made often with really significant implications,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. Kendall-Taylor said a director of national intelligence needs to deliver unbiased intelligence to the president on the issue of Russian interference, and there was concern that Ratcliffe could not live up to the standard set by Coats.

Described as one of the most thankless jobs in Washington—second only to the presidency—the position of the director of national intelligence was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to coordinate the work of the sprawling U.S. intelligence apparatus.

Opened in 2005, the office in its early years progressed in fits and starts but was plagued by turf wars, particularly with the CIA, one of the largest and most influential of the United States’ 17 intelligence agencies. Because the director of national intelligence doesn’t directly run a large intelligence agency himself but is seen as a coordinator and nominal head, experts say the position of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has depended significantly on the experience and nature of the director, and it wasn’t until Clapper, a career intelligence officer, took over in 2010 that its role began to stabilize. Coats’s leadership style was in many ways a continuation of Clapper’s approach, said Michael Miner, a scholar of the history of the office who teaches intelligence at Harvard University.

“He didn’t try to compete with the different secretaries, and the different agency heads, but he sought to really lead them through consensus as the head coach of a team, and didn’t try to make it his way or the highway,” Miner said. 

The director of national intelligence is appointed by the president, and each director has varied in terms of his political leanings—Coats, like Ratcliffe, was a Republican lawmaker—and level of intelligence experience, said Cortney Weinbaum, a senior management scientist with the Rand Corp. who specializes in intelligence. 

Ratcliffe’s nomination came just days after he delivered one of the most caustic lines of questioning during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. While Ratcliffe met with the president five days prior to the hearing to discuss the job, it may have been his grilling of Mueller that sealed the deal, according to the New York Times

“It’s clear that Rep. Ratcliffe was selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to President Trump with his demagogic questioning of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement on Sunday. Ratcliffe accused the former special counsel of trampling the principle of innocent until proven guilty by outlining questionable behavior but not concluding whether or not the president may have broken the law. 

Trump’s choice to replace Coats is “consistent with the tenor of his security nominations of the past two years—more political and more sycophantic,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former chief of staff to the director of the CIA and now the director of the Hayden Center at George Mason University. “That being said, the president has the right to pick his person. It’s now up to Ratcliffe to show us if he will approach the job in a professional non-partisan manner and up to Senators Burr and Warner to show us if the Senate Intelligence Committee can hold a thorough, fair, and bipartisan hearing,” Pfeiffer said. 

The director of national intelligence is the president’s primary intelligence advisor and provides a top-secret briefing each morning. If Ratcliffe is as trusted by Trump as is perceived, this may not be a bad thing, noted Weinbaum of the Rand Corp: “You want your president to trust his most senior intelligence officer. You just do.” 

While there are numerous examples of Trump overlooking and undermining the conclusions of his intelligence community, he is not the first to do so, said Weinbaum. 

“If we have a president who’s going to cherry pick what he wants to read, to some extent that’s not different to any other leader throughout history. Maybe the degree to which it’s happening now is much more severe,” she said. 

Even if Ratcliffe has a strong relationship with his boss, he will still have to secure the buy-in of the U.S. intelligence community he is expected to lead. “If he fails at that job, securing the community’s support and speaking truth to power, then we run the risk of reverting to a stove-piped intelligence apparatus that furthers political priorities over apolitical advisement and allows its agencies to act as fiefdoms without a steward overseeing them,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project. “It’s immensely difficult to secure buy-in from the entire community when you’re simply a narrow political operator.”

Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed reporting to this story. 

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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