Leaving the DNI Leaderless is Reckless and Dangerous

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed sweeping legislation that was designed to strengthen and reform the U.S. Intelligence Community to prevent another catastrophic attack on the United States. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2004, established the vitally important positions of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Principal Deputy DNI, both of whom were charged with, among other things, enhancing information sharing and overseeing and coordinating the activities of the Intelligence Community. Despite the critically important role of the DNI, this week marks the third straight month that the top two positions in the Office of the DNI have been leaderless – another victim in President Donald Trump’s penchant to run the government with acting officials. While this strategy is unwise generally, it’s outright dangerous in the case of the Intelligence Community.

In recent weeks, the Office of the DNI appears to have recognized the risk of having acting officials in place for an extended period of time, following the resignations of the former DNI, Dan Coats, and his deputy, Sue Gordon, on Aug. 15. There are certain authorities and responsibilities that cannot be delegated to acting officials or further delegated beyond the top two positions. This may be why, in late October, the Office of the DNI announced with little fanfare a seemingly small, routine administrative action by establishing a new position of principal executive. According to the DNI, the position is responsible for “performing the duties and responsibilities of the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence until the position is filled by a Presidential Appointee and confirmed by the Senate.” In layman’s terms, it’s an acting position that serves as a back-up for performing the duties of the second highest-ranking official in the Office of the DNI. In normal times, appointing an acting official to serve as the deputy DNI would be a largely trivial matter, assuming, of course, that the DNI position itself wasn’t already filled by an acting official. These are hardly normal times. Trump’s penchant for filling Cabinet posts with “acting officials” has become a hallmark of his presidency. As he said earlier this year, “I like ‘acting.’ It gives me more flexibility.” Say what you want about the political merits of this tactic. But one thing is unmistakably clear – leaving the Office of the DNI leaderless presents unmitigated risk and endangers U.S. national security.

Given the need for the administration to appoint, and the Senate to confirm, the top two DNI posts, both are likely to be vacant for some time unless the administration prioritizes these appointments and acts with the sense of urgency that these positions deserve. I won’t ascribe motives to the president’s delay in backfilling these roles. Pundits can form their own conclusions. To be fair, the administration tried but failed to appoint a Trump loyalist to the DNI role in August, although the lack of follow through raises questions about the seriousness of this effort and whether the White House truly appreciates or values the importance of the role. Setting aside the president’s motives and views of the DNI, at a time when America faces serious national security threats – from Iran and North Korea, to terrorism and ongoing election interference – failing to staff the leadership of our Intelligence Community is a high-risk proposition for any administration.

That’s because the role of the DNI, as well as the principal deputy DNI, is vital to our national security. Today, the DNI plays a crucial role in all aspects of the national intelligence program. Among other things, the DNI is responsible for serving as the principal advisor to the president and the National Security Council for intelligence matters; overseeing and directing implementation of the national intelligence strategy; integrating the priorities and resources of the 17 intelligence elements; overseeing the collection, analysis, and dissemination of national intelligence information; providing guidance for tasking national collection assets; making final determinations on the declassification of certain intelligence; and formulating the national intelligence budget. In short, the DNI’s duties and authorities are vast and central to the successful operation of the Intelligence Community.

By all accounts, the current acting DNI, Joseph Maguire, is an outstanding and well-respected leader who has so far held his ground in disputes with the White House. And the ODNI is staffed by many capable career professionals who have guided the organization through periods of transition in the past. But these officials lack the authority, accountability, and influence that come with being a Senate-confirmed leader of the DNI. And acting officials are less likely to resist improper or undue political influence from the president or members of his administration for fear of being removed if they don’t tow the administration line. As a case in point, former acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was reportedly viewed within the administration as someone who would go along with whatever the president wanted, and later cancelled an inspector general’s investigation into a White House request to hide the USS John McCain during the president’s state visit to Japan earlier this year. Indeed, it’s the unwritten responsibilities of the DNI and the deputy DNI – to speak truth to power, and to ensure the accuracy of intelligence information presented to the Congress and the public – that heightens the importance of appointing and confirming credible, qualified officials to lead the Office of the DNI at a time when the current occupant of the White House routinely ignores or mischaracterizes intelligence assessments. Moreover, failing to staff the leadership of the DNI sends a signal to the broader Intelligence Community workforce that their mission is unworthy of the strategic management and leadership it deserves, and needs, at a time when the role of the Intelligence Community has never been more important to preserving our security.

As others have noted, installing acting officials to lead Cabinet agencies is generally bad governance and bad for national security. In the case of the Intelligence Community, leaving the top two positions vacant is not only bad and unwise, it’s risky and dangerous. Should an actual foreign policy or national security crisis emerge, we need leadership at the helm of the Intelligence Community. The administration is playing on borrowed time. 

About the Author(s)

Brett Holmgren

Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs on the National Security Council; previously served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and a CIA counterterrorism analyst.