Trump Might Not Need an Intelligence Chief
But the rest of the country definitely does.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s reversal on the nomination of Rep. John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence followed a well-trodden path for this president’s more controversial nominees. Trump put forward, via Twitter, a woefully unqualified candidate, apparently without vetting, only to have his lackluster credentials, unapologetic hyperpartisanship, and—in this case—brazen deceitfulness regarding his resume publicly picked apart.
Ratcliffe’s scuttled nomination entails a happy ending, but the process was far from elegant. That’s in large part because at least one new—and especially dangerous—argument surfaced during this truncated nomination battle. Trump, the thinking went, hasn’t bothered to conceal his outright dismissal of U.S. intelligence on key issues: Russia’s attack on American democracy, the Saudi crown prince’s role in the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, North Korea’s unwillingness to denuclearize, and the very real national security implications of climate change, among other issues. So why should it matter whom he wants atop the sprawling bureaucracy?
That line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands the role of the director of national intelligence and the broader U.S. intelligence community.
Far be it from me—someone who cited Trump’s disregard of U.S. intelligence in resigning from the CIA—to make the argument that he gives much, if any, credence to what he hears from intelligence officials. But that doesn’t mean that unbiased, unvarnished intelligence analysis isn’t desperately sought elsewhere in the Trump administration. It’s as necessary as ever, and perhaps even more so in the face of a president who dismisses it.
Indeed, the intelligence community refers to the president as the “First Customer,” but he is by no means the only recipient of intelligence products. Take the President’s Daily Brief, a document overseen and often personally briefed by the director of national intelligence entailing the nation’s most sensitive strategic and tactical intelligence. The document is tailored for the president, in this case reportedly hewing to his preference for brevity and graphics, but is also provided to his broader national security team. Select cabinet members, including the secretary of state, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are among the recipients, as are other key advisors, including the White House counsel and the vice president’s national security advisor.
That’s why the quality of the President’s Daily Brief matters, even if it matters little to the president, and the individual in charge of it has outsized influence. Similarly, the director of national intelligence also serves as the president’s chief intelligence advisor. That means that—while intelligence officials assiduously avoid advocating a particular policy decision—the director regularly speaks to the assessed implications of policy choices on the table. In practice, the director of national intelligence is often among the first speakers during the president’s Situation Room meetings, as the national security advisor tends to turn to the intelligence chief to offer the community’s latest information and analysis to set the stage for the ensuing policy discussion.
In that sense, the director of national intelligence can serve as an implicit, and important, voice of caution, especially in advance of especially combustible foreign-policy moves. More importantly, the director’s analysis—whether shared before the cabinet in the Situation Room or communicated in the written President’s Daily Brief—redounds well beyond the president. That’s why even if the president were to move forward with an ill-advised policy decision, as Trump too often has done, the director of national intelligence’s admonitions can spur their broader team to take steps to mitigate the anticipated fallout. Such warnings could, for example, lead the administration to increase security at U.S. diplomatic outposts or deliver a back-channel message to an adversary warning against retaliation. But such contingency planning requires a director of national intelligence willing to speak truth to power, risking the ire of a president who tends not to appreciate words of caution.
What’s more, while the director of national intelligence is best known for overseeing the nation’s most sensitive secrets, he also routinely briefs Congress in classified hearings and fulfills an important public role. Congress requires that the director of national intelligence testify in open hearing at least annually, speaking to the threats and challenges the United States faces around the world. Previous directors of national intelligence, moreover, have complemented such hearings with media interviews and public speeches. These engagements serve to ensure Americans are familiar with the role and function of the intelligence community, but they also contribute to an informed citizenry, especially on matters of foreign policy and national security.
Were it not for outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’s and several of his colleagues’ willingness to voice politically inconvenient truths publicly, it would have been up to investigative journalists—fueled by potentially dangerous leaks—to fill in the gaps. For example, the American people would be left with a less complete understanding of the threat from Russia and other adversaries in the run-up to the 2020 elections, as Coats detailed in his congressional testimony earlier this year. Neither would they know that Trump last year opted to jettison the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran even though Tehran was abiding by its terms at the time, nor that intelligence analysts found Trump’s Pollyannish talk of Pyongyang’s denuclearization as little more than that. The president reacted angrily to Coats’s testimony—suggesting on Twitter that he and his counterparts needed to “go back to school”—but there was nothing to suggest that Coats, who had faced Trump’s ire previously, changed his tune, either with his boss or with the American people.
We may be out of the woods with Ratcliffe, but, if Trump has taught us anything, it’s that he rarely backs down. That’s why there’s every reason to expect his next director of national intelligence nominee won’t be a consensus pick, especially given Trump’s recent suggestion that he wants someone in the top post who can “rein in” the intelligence community, which in his telling has “run amok.” That’s why when the next nomination comes, the Senate must remember that its advise and consent role will be about more than saving Trump from himself. They’ll be on the line to reject any nominee unwilling to or incapable of fulfilling a role that serves not only the president but also his team, Congress, and the American people.