The Death of Truth to Power

Intelligence services do their job by staying out of politics. Donald Trump’s new intelligence chief could end all that.

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell attends a new year's reception of the German President on January 14, 2019 in Berlin.
US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell attends a new year's reception of the German President on January 14, 2019 in Berlin. BERND VON JUTRCZENKA/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Conventional wisdom holds that President Donald Trump this week named the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, to the post of acting director of national intelligence. In this case, the conventional wisdom happens to be accurate—at least technically. The White House confirmed the designation in a formal statement on Thursday.

What that phrasing fails to capture, however, is that Trump does not actually want Grenell, who must vacate the role by mid-next month unless Trump nominates a permanent replacement, to serve as a traditional director of national intelligence. Neither does he want that out of Grenell’s successor. In fact, Trump has made clear what has long been apparent: He has no desire for a conventional director of national intelligence. Instead, he wants a loyalist prepared to protect and prize the president’s own interests, even when they are inconsistent with America’s broader national security interests.

That is precisely why he turned to Grenell, an unorthodox and, more to the point, dangerous interim choice to helm the 17 departments and agencies that make up the intelligence community. Even more disturbingly, we should not expect Trump’s ultimate nominee for the role to be any more conventional—or any less dangerous.

In fairness, and as background, there is not exactly a traditional director of national intelligence mold; after all, only five individuals, all men, have assumed that position in a Senate-confirmed capacity. And each has adopted a different approach to the job, owing, at least in part, to the fact that the 2004 legislation creating the post laid out the director’s responsibilities in rather broad terms. According to that statute, the director of national intelligence should serve as the head of the intelligence community, act as the president’s principal intelligence advisor, and “oversee and direct the implementation” of intelligence activities across the community’s civilian components. This official, therefore, enjoys a high degree of latitude in carrying out the role.

When it comes to the most effective directors of national intelligence, intelligence veterans often look to the example of President Barack Obama’s second intelligence chief, retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper, who rejected the idea of an intelligence figurehead—or “hood ornament” as he derisively referred to a purely ceremonial approach to the role—while also resisting the urge to take operational control of the individual departments and agencies under him. (His predecessor, Dennis Blair, was dismissed after repeatedly clashing with—and losing to—CIA Director Leon Panetta.) Clapper routinely briefed the president and his senior team on strategic and tactical intelligence, including at the start of most senior policy discussions, while also leading the effort to prioritize intelligence targets and allocate scarce resources between and among the intelligence agencies. The intelligence arena is one of trade-offs, and Clapper won plaudits from policymakers and from much of his own workforce for effectively leading the effort to determine the threats and potential opportunities that merited intelligence collection—whether through overhead surveillance, technical monitoring, or other means. Trump’s first director of national intelligence, former Sen. Dan Coats, largely hewed to this model, but he endured criticism for swerving more in the direction of the figurehead that Clapper eschewed.

With Grenell and any permanent nominee to the role, however, the playing field will be entirely different; their success or failure in the role, at least in Trump’s eyes, will no longer be a question of too tactical versus too titular. In this administration, that binary has become all too quaint. Rather, Trump seems to have a fundamentally different notion of what he wants out of the director of national intelligence. Indeed, if Trump had wanted a traditional director, he had one—Sue Gordon—waiting in the wings when he dismissed Coats last year. Gordon at the time was a nearly 40-year intelligence veteran serving as Coats’s principal deputy. Not only did Trump not nominate her to succeed her former boss, he also pointedly refused to appoint her as acting director of national intelligence, swerving instead to select Joseph Maguire, the then-director of the National Counterterrorism Center. (Gordon got the hint and promptly submitted her resignation.)

Trump previewed his new paradigm for a director of national intelligence last year when he announced his intent to nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe to the post. The Ratcliffe pick was decidedly unconventional in that the congressman was new to the world of intelligence and was better known as a fierce and partisan Trump defender. But so, too, was Trump’s justification for selecting Ratcliffe. He told reporters: “We need somebody strong that can rein it in. Because, as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They have run amok.” Ratcliffe, who was found to have embellished his national security credentials, was soon out of the running, but Trump’s conception of what would make an effective director of national intelligence took hold.

Any hope that the Ratcliffe nod was an aberration died when an intelligence community whistleblower spawned what culminated in Trump’s impeachment. Trump had long complained that his intelligence chiefs were not sufficiently loyal to him on matters of foreign policy; he chastised them both publicly and privately early last year after they effectively conceded in public congressional testimony that Trump’s approaches to key challenges, including North Korea and Iran, were not grounded in sound intelligence. The emergence of the whistleblower complaint on Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine, however, almost certainly underscored his belief that the perceived insubordination—what intelligence officials would call “speaking truth to power”—extended to Trump’s own actions. If Trump was inclined to install a fierce loyalist before the Ukraine scandal exploded onto the front pages, his impeachment surely only reinforced that determination.

A final data point may help to explain what Trump wants out of Grenell and any permanent successor. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Trump was infuriated to learn that intelligence officials briefed congressional overseers this month on Russian efforts to advance Trump’s reelection prospects. Trump reportedly berated Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, in an episode that some speculated led to Maguire’s dismissal and Grenell’s appointment. If the report is accurate, there is little question regarding the propriety of the decision to brief lawmakers on the intelligence. In fact, the intelligence community has for nearly four decades been required by law to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” of matters relevant to its oversight. That Trump took umbrage at the decision underscores that he seeks a director of national intelligence who will protect his personal interests, even when those collide with the law.

Enter Grenell. What he lacks in intelligence experience—he effectively has none—Grenell makes up for in fierce partisanship and devotion to Trump. On issue after issue, even those well beyond his purview as U.S. ambassador to Germany, he has proved himself to be an ardent proponent of Trump’s interests and an equally aggressive antagonist to those standing in the way. Much to the chagrin of his German hosts, he has berated them, including over Twitter, for their continued support of the Iran deal, lagging defense spending, and immigration policies, just as he has cheered on Europe’s broader conservative movement. Just prior to the 2016 election, moreover, Grenell wrote an op-ed downplaying reports of Russian interference, calling them “unproven.” He did so notwithstanding an intelligence community statement, released just days before his op-ed, describing a high confidence assessment of Russia’s culpability. In short, he has proved himself to be just the sort of fighter Trump has always wanted in his corner.

Trump’s narrow interests may be sated by this pick and presumably by whomever he taps to succeed Grenell, but what does that mean for Americans more broadly? Nothing good, and that is especially true given the timing.

First, the director of national intelligence is positioned to play a key role in coordinating many U.S. election security efforts, both offensive and defensive, while also ensuring that the executive and legislative branches remain apprised of U.S. adversaries’ efforts and government countermeasures. According to the New York Times report, it was precisely that function that engendered Trump’s ire and culminated in the apparent termination of Maguire as the acting director of national intelligence, suggesting that a Trump loyalist like Grenell might neglect his statutory obligations to keep Congress informed of threats to the United States’ democracy.

Similarly, if precedent holds, the director of national intelligence also will be responsible for providing the eventual Democratic nominee with access to intelligence briefings. These briefings have tended to be strategic overviews, with a focus on global hot spots, so that both party nominees vying for the role of commander in chief have a sense of the challenges that await. By installing a pugilistic partisan to this role, however, Trump has, at the very least, corrupted the appearance of fairness and in all likelihood has ensured that the eventual Democratic nominee will be kept at a disadvantage—both during the campaign and, should Trump lose reelection in November, as the next president prepares to take office. While the former politicizes intelligence in a way that corrupts the supposed apolitical nature of the U.S. intelligence community, the latter could hold profound national security implications if the incoming president is not prepared to take on what awaits on Jan. 20, 2021.

Finally, there is little reason for optimism that Grenell or a successor of his ilk would feel any compunction to keep the American people apprised of foreign threats to their democracy. Election security measures can help to harden a voting system, just as social media networks can remain vigilant in detecting and removing content associated with a foreign government’s covert influence operation. Ultimately, however, there is no broader and more effective antidote to this type of interference than public attribution, or naming and shaming, of those engaged in these attacks. That is precisely why the director of national intelligence in 2016 drafted and released a statement pinning the hacking and leaking of emails on Moscow. In 2020, nevertheless, there is little reason for optimism that Grenell or his successor will take a similar approach. Grenell’s naked partisanship and fierce loyalty to the president suggest he might follow in his predecessor’s footsteps only if exposing a foreign influence campaign held perceived political benefits for Trump—if, for instance, Beijing threw its weight behind the Democratic nominee.

The CIA’s headquarters carries an inscription that captures the ethos of the broader intelligence community: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Indeed, the notion of “truth to power” is an animating principle for the workforce, just as it has been for previous directors of national intelligence who have sat atop it. In fact, it often has fallen to the director of national intelligence—as the intelligence official with regular access to the highest echelons of government—to deliver those tough messages. Now, however, intelligence professionals who wish to carry out that tradition appear to have another obstacle in their way: the acting director of national intelligence himself.

Ned Price directs policy and communications at National Security Action and teaches at Georgetown University.  He was a senior CIA analyst and served in the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and as a National Security Council spokesperson. Twitter: @nedprice

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