It would be no surprise if there was a clinking of glasses at “The Aquarium,” the sobriquet for GRU Headquarters, in Moscow this past week upon learning that the President of the United States intends to nominate Congressman John Ratcliffe, a relative novice in intelligence matters, to be the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Ratcliffe’s confirmation would virtually insure that, regardless of the work of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the administration’s feeble response to the GRU-orchestrated Russian interference aimed at the 2016 U.S. presidential election will serve as the template for U.S. inaction in the face of the renewed efforts that the Russians already are directing towards influencing the 2020 presidential election.
Ratcliffe spent 15 years in the private practice of law before President George W. Bush appointed him to be the Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas in 2004. In this position, it appears that Ratcliffe’s chief accomplishment was, as described in Ratcliffe’s House of Representatives biography, “arrest[ing] 300 illegal aliens in a single day.” Truth be told, it was 280 alleged illegal aliens, and Ratcliffe was not actually present at the Texas poultry plant where they were arrested, but, perhaps, this is quibbling. Otherwise, Ratcliffe’s qualifications for running the nation’s Intelligence Community consist of three terms as a Congressman, a 12-month stint as acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, and four terms as mayor of Heath, Texas (population: 7,000). The unfortunate fact that six months of service on the House Intelligence Committee and some time in the Justice Department actually make Ratcliffe better qualified for his potential new job than many others populating important positions in the Trump administration is more reflective of Trump’s appalling inability to pick key personnel than it is an endorsement of Ratcliffe. After all, as Ratcliffe’s updated Wikipedia biography acknowledges, “Ratcliffe has little experience in national security or national intelligence.” A more tepid endorsement is hard to imagine, and this assessment was echoed by former Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell, who, along with Michael Vickers, a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, wrote in the Washington Post that “Ratcliffe has some national security experience from his service in Congress and in the U.S. attorney’s office; but, he would come to the (DNI) job with by far the least experience in foreign policy and intelligence of any DNI in two decades.”
The National Security Act of 1947, as amended by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, provides that the DNI is the head of the Intelligence Community and designates the DNI as the principal intelligence advisor to the president. To that end, Congress provided the DNI with a number of authorities and duties, including to:
- Ensure that timely and objective national intelligence is provided to the president, the heads of departments and agencies of the executive branch, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior military commanders, and the Congress.
- Establish objectives and priorities for collection, analysis, production, and dissemination of national intelligence.
- Ensure maximum availability of and access to intelligence information within the Intelligence Community.
- Develop and ensure the execution of an annual budget for the National Intelligence Program based on budget proposals provided by IC component organizations.
- Oversee coordination of relationships with the intelligence or security services of foreign governments and international organizations.
- Ensure the most accurate analysis of intelligence is derived from all sources to support national security needs.
- Develop personnel policies and programs to enhance the capacity for joint operations and to facilitate staffing of community management functions.
These are weighty responsibilities, and Ratcliffe’s thin resume stands in stark contrast to the prior occupants of the DNI position that was first created following the September 11 attacks.
The Previous DNIs
The men who have occupied the role of DNI so far have been among the most experienced intelligence leaders and diplomats in the country. After the office was established as part of the post-9/11 reconfiguration of the U.S. national security apparatus, George W. Bush tapped an experienced hand to fill it: John Negroponte. He had served as an ambassador in four countries, including Iraq; been U.N. ambassador; and had worked at the National Security Council. His successor, Mike McConnell, was a Navy three-star admiral and a former director of the National Security Agency. Barack Obama’s first DNI was another admiral, Dennis Blair, who had led the U.S. Pacific Command, and served as associate director of the CIA for military support.
James Clapper, Obama’s second pick as DNI, was arguably the most experienced intelligence officer in the entire country—a career Air Force intelligence officer who had served for four decades, risen to the rank of lieutenant general, and personally headed two of the nation’s most critical intelligence agencies: the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Clapper had also served as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, where he oversaw three of the Pentagon-affiliated intelligence agencies: DIA, NGA, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which runs the nation’s spy satellites.
Although Dan Coats, the outgoing DNI who Ratcliffe may replace, had no field intelligence background, he served in the Army during the Vietnam War, spent nearly 30 years in Congress in both the House and the Senate—including a stint on the Senate Intelligence Committee—and also filled the post of U.S. ambassador to Germany.
In contrast to his predecessors, Ratcliffe’s principal qualification seems to be his willingness to vigorously defend the president as most prominently displayed by his fierce interrogation of Robert Mueller during Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on July 24, 2019. Just hours before the president announced his nomination to replace Coats, Ratcliffe declared a political victory for the president, and defeat for the Democrats, who, he said, “overplayed their hand.” “It was just a train wreck of a week for the Democrats, and it was a great week for Donald Trump because of that,” Ratcliffe said on July 28 on the Fox News program “Sunday Morning Futures,” opining that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff were “starting to look more like Laurel and Hardy” for continuing to investigate the president. This is not the sort of measured, nonpartisan, apolitical expression that historically has characterized those charged with conducting the nation’s intelligence operations and communicating intelligence product to national policymakers—most importantly, the President of the United States.
The End of an Apolitical Position?
Facing painful truths is at the very core of collecting and analyzing intelligence, and then presenting the often-difficult choices and options dictated by that analysis. Now 14 years old, the mission of the Office of the DNI remains to ensure that the unvarnished truth gets to the president. The DNI’s responsibilities include giving the president his daily intelligence briefing, and in those reports, as well as in his testimony to Congress, Coats has delivered the collective view of the Intelligence Community that North Korea was unlikely to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, that Iran no longer has a nuclear weapons program, that ISIS was still an active terrorist organization, and that top Russian officials interfered in the 2016 election—all of which contradicted Trump’s own, largely ipse dixit, views. The cognitive dissonance between the Intelligence Community and the president’s “gut” has been painful to watch, never more so than during that joint appearance with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018 when Trump publicly threw the U.S. Intelligence Community under the bus, and, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, publicly sided with assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that contradicted the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that the Russians had deliberately interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Surprisingly to some, Coats, as DNI, proved refreshingly independent and resilient in his determination to present this president with the truth about the world—refusing to bend to Trump’s taunts that the Intelligence Community “should go back to school.”
Now with Coats’s departure and the announcement of Ratcliffe’s nomination, there are serious reasons to question whether the DNI position can retain that critical independence and resist the obsequious personal loyalty that has come to represent the single overriding qualification for service in the Trump administration. That demand for personal fealty has precipitated a virtual revolving door of senior executive personnel producing the most embarrassing collection of relatives, grifters, incompetents, and sycophants to have been assembled in a single administration in living memory from the corrupt and criminal Michael Flynn, to the amateurish swindlers Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, to the grandiose ideologue Stephens—Bannon and Miller—a short list that doesn’t even include the multiple officials accused of domestic abuse. Or, the president’s feckless son in law.
Certainly, Ratcliffe’s performance last week in taking a page directly from the president’s playbook by attempting to undermine Mueller and the Special Counsel investigation through portrayal of the probe as driven by various external conspiracies offered little to inspire confidence that the new DNI nominee is one who will speak the unvarnished truth to this president. Ratcliffe’s insistence that the Russian election interference included fabricating an apocryphal Trump conspiracy by providing false information through sources to Christopher Steele reeked of deliberate diversion, blind loyalty, and a dangerously tendentious misreading of the Mueller report.
The Intelligence Community will fight hard against any threat to its culture of avoiding open partisanship because that culture of impartially following and reporting the facts wherever they lead underlies its credibility with all the consumers of its product—and with the Congress that pays its bills. As Senator Mark Warner, the ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, observed, “The mission of the intelligence community is to speak truth to power. As DNI, Daniel Coats stayed true to that mission.” Indeed, Dan Coats, whose departure as DNI has paved the way for Trump to pick Ratcliffe, appeared to live by that code. He repeatedly discussed intelligence assessments in public that were at odds with Trump’s worldview, and he remained focused on the issue of Russian election interference despite Trump’s obvious displeasure. Conversely, the brief public record of Ratcliffe’s views on Russian election interference disturbingly focus less on the actual Russian interference and more on discrediting the Special Counsel’s investigation of that interference. While this surely appeals to Trump, we can be equally certain that he is not the only president gratified by such diversion. Somewhere, Vladimir Putin is also smiling.
Ratcliffe’s Prospects for Confirmation and Impartiality
Given Ratcliffe’s sparse record on intelligence issues, and his indisputably partisan utterances on the Mueller investigation, the Senate must insist on a rigorous vetting. Nominees for DNI must be confirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee and then by the full Senate, and the Senate Intelligence Committee tends to operate in a more bipartisan fashion than many congressional panels these days. Indeed, reactions from Republicans to Trump’s selection of Ratcliffe have been tepid. Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who reportedly warned Trump not to nominate Radcliffe, waited a day before congratulating Ratcliffe. In a statement that fell noticeably short of actually endorsing the nominee, Burr pointedly praised the deputy DNI, Susan Gordon, a former CIA official who is widely respected throughout the government and the Intelligence Community. It is unclear whether Ratcliffe will keep Gordon in her current position, and the president has not said whether he will name her as acting director until a permanent DNI is confirmed. However, Democrats have offered that a failure to appoint Gordon as acting DNI will prompt serious concerns, and Burr’s reference to Gordon in his official statement on Ratcliffe’s nomination may have been a message that, even for Republicans, Ratcliffe’s confirmation is linked to naming Gordon as acting DNI and, perhaps further, that if Ratcliffe is confirmed he must offer her the opportunity to continue as deputy DNI.
Even with Gordon at his elbow, there are plenty of reasons to question Ratcliffe’s suitability for the top position in U.S. intelligence. As Morrell and Vickers, two intelligence veterans, have observed: a successful DNI needs to be the president’s primary intelligence adviser—not in a cheerleading capacity, but in the role of a straight-talking éminence grise who will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This requires a willingness to defend the objectivity and independence of the Intelligence Community even when the information flowing from that objectivity and independence is unwanted or uncomfortable. A successful DNI must also have the confidence of the Congress (particularly those members serving on the Intelligence committees) as well as the other principals of the national security structure, particularly the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Advisor.
Aside from these important features of professional judgment, approach, and cooperation, the DNI’s oversight of an Intelligence Community that embraces 17 separate organizations with a budget of more than $63 billion and staffing of more than 100,000 people also bespeaks the need for someone with significant management experience—experience that appears nowhere on Ratcliffe’s exiguous national security resumé.
In this fractious time of partisan politics, there is another concern. Given the, let me be charitable, “uncertainty” of Ratcliffe’s qualifications and the stridency with which he has attacked the Mueller Report, one cannot overlook that the DNI has access to all classified information generated by the Intelligence Community. Now, consider that Attorney General William Barr appears ready to begin his “investigation of the investigators”—a probe that will ostensibly assess the political biases of both the FBI counterintelligence investigation conducted during the 2016 election campaign and the perceived prejudices of the Special Counsel investigation itself. In another departure from past practice and from reason, Trump has given Barr, in his role as Attorney General, the unprecedented authority to declassify Intelligence Community product as he sees fit in conducting this “investigation.” Given Ratcliffe’s publicly expressed disdain for these same FBI and Special Counsel investigations, it is no stretch to imagine that, if confirmed, Ratcliffe, who is possessed of neither loyalty to the Intelligence Community nor institutional appreciation for the protection of intelligence sources and methods, will be a natural enabler in cherry-picking material—or, more to the point, in finding material worth cherry-picking—that Barr might find useful in pursuing what, by all appearances, seems less likely to be an “investigation” than a scavenger hunt in search of support for a preordained conclusion.
These are fraught times, both domestically and, more importantly with respect to the position of Director of National Intelligence, internationally. There is plenty that the Senate should insist upon learning about the qualifications, viewpoints, and priorities of John Ratcliffe before considering his confirmation as the nation’s sixth Director of National Intelligence.