Trump’s New Director of National Intelligence Doesn’t Understand His Job
John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist without intelligence experience, sees his job as helping the president and undermining the intelligence community.
John Ratcliffe, a loyalist of U.S. President Donald Trump and former U.S. representative from Texas with little experience in national security, was sworn in on May 26 as the sixth director of national intelligence (DNI). As the head of the United States’ 17 intelligence agencies and the principal intelligence advisor to the president, the DNI is a profoundly important position. At his confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Ratcliffe promised his “commitment to deliver timely, accurate, and objective intelligence and to speak truth to power.” But since taking up his office, Ratcliffe has acted more like a White House press secretary protecting Trump’s political interests than a provider of objective intelligence that serves U.S. national security. At a time when the U.S. intelligence community is already facing tremendous pressure and politicization under Trump, undermining its ability to protect the United States, Ratcliffe’s misinterpretation of his critical role should alarm all Americans.
During his first five weeks as DNI, Ratcliffe issued four press releases in his own name, a highly unusual pace for a role traditionally more focused on providing internal counsel on issues of intelligence and national security than making high-profile public statements. In late May, Ratcliffe issued a statement explaining why he declassified transcripts concerning former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI. In justifying the release, which Ratcliffe claimed was done in the interest of transparency, he conveniently omitted that it supported a politically motivated investigation led by Republican Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley designed to reinforce Trump’s baseless claim that Flynn was somehow mistreated by the FBI.
In mid-June, Ratcliffe issued a statement in support of the Trump administration’s lawsuit seeking to prevent former National Security Advisor John Bolton from publishing a book that revealed shocking behavior by Trump, including asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election on Trump’s behalf.
Less than two weeks later, Ratcliffe released a statement backing up the White House’s claim that neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence was ever briefed on intelligence indicating that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan—a statement whose truth appears to hinge on the definition of “briefed.” And two days later, Ratcliffe issued another statement helpful to the White House, this time decrying the purported leaks of classified information regarding those Russian bounty payments. Conveniently, Ratcliffe has not responded to multiple reports that the Russian bounty information was included in the president’s daily brief, a summary of the most important intelligence that the vice president and other senior policymakers also receive. The DNI manages the daily brief.
Beyond his public statements in support of Trump, other recent actions by Ratcliffe also suggest that politics are driving his work as DNI. In late June, he commissioned an intelligence assessment that reportedly confirmed the Russian bounties to kill U.S. personnel but stressed information gaps and varying levels of confidence among intelligence agencies—attack lines that were then used by the White House to justify inaction against Russia.
The politicization of the DNI’s role could not come at a worse time. Ratcliffe assumed leadership of the U.S. intelligence community at a time when its relationship with the White House was already under severe strain due to Trump’s incessant attacks. Morale within the intelligence agencies has been low and declining. Several leaders within the Office of the DNI have been fired or pushed out by the White House, including an acting DNI, the inspector general of the intelligence community, and the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Political operatives close to Trump and his Republican supporters on Capitol Hill have been placed in important positions within the Office of the DNI.
Across the entire intelligence community, the fear of upsetting the president has cowed leaders from speaking publicly about threats facing the nation. This puts the United States at an inflection point: Without principled leadership by the DNI, continued attacks by Trump on the intelligence community’s independence, objectivity, and staff may well cause lasting damage to the institutional safeguards and norms that for decades have allowed the intelligence community to provide unvarnished assessments in support of U.S. national security without fear of retribution. Ratcliffe’s behavior thus far suggests that he is more focused on defending Trump and putting further pressure on the intelligence community—the opposite of what’s needed for U.S. intelligence to function effectively and safeguard the nation.
If Ratcliffe is indeed committed to speaking truth to power, as he vowed during his confirmation hearing, there are several steps he should take to demonstrate this commitment. First, he should agree to hold public hearings before Congress soon on the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, which the Office of the DNI abruptly canceled in February, reportedly over concerns that the assessment would upset Trump. Traditionally, these briefings have provided Congress and the American public with a candid assessment of the full range of threats facing the United States—including pandemics, cyberthreats, Russia, and North Korea. Notably, reports indicate that this year’s canceled briefing would have warned in February that the United States was unprepared for a pandemic. That’s just one of many reasons that these hearings are particularly important to hold regularly and shouldn’t be canceled.
Second, even if Ratcliffe refuses to reschedule the Worldwide Threats hearing, he should publicly update Congress and the American public on the status of foreign efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. In late 2019, U.S. intelligence chiefs now headed by Ratcliffe publicly warned that “Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions,” potentially using “a variety of means, including social media campaigns, directing disinformation operations or conducting disruptive or destructive cyber-attacks on state and local infrastructure.” Since then, DNI officials have offered contradictory statements on efforts by foreign adversaries to intervene in the election: One senior official stated in February that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump, while in March another official claimed a lack of evidence that Russia was interfering in the election. As we now know, at this time in 2016, Russia was far along in its campaign to help elect Trump. It is vital, then, that Ratcliffe soon provide an impartial, public threat assessment. After all, one of the best defenses against covert influence is educating the public on the nature of the threat and the tactics deployed so they can separate fact from fiction and make informed decisions.
Finally, Ratcliffe could demonstrate his claimed commitment to transparency by submitting to Congress an unclassified report on who was responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident, as required by law. In February, former acting DNI Richard Grenell sent a letter to Congress claiming his office could not provide any information on Khashoggi’s death without endangering sources and revealing intelligence-gathering methods. But several lawmakers have disputed this claim, asserting that there is a large body of unclassified material that could be made public without jeopardizing national security. The choice to say nothing appears driven not by any need to protect sensitive sources but by the desire not to embarrass Trump’s Saudi supporters.
The concern is not that a DNI is issuing public statements—all past DNIs have occasionally done this. The issue is the astonishing amount of public relations work with an apparent political motivation to help Trump, even if it means undermining and tarnishing the reputation of the intelligence community that Ratcliffe now heads. This is deeply troubling. The Office of the DNI’s public website lists as its core values: excellence, courage, respect, and integrity. Time will tell if Ratcliffe is serious about upholding these values, but the first several weeks of his tenure do not bode well.