Once again, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) finds itself exactly where intelligence officials never want to be: in the headlines and being talked about on cable news —without the ability speak publicly to defend their work or their professionalism. Instead, IC leaders and professionals are left playing defense against a president who routinely demonstrates his lack of understanding of their craft, his disregard—and even contempt—for their work product, and his mistrust of any IC leader who hasn’t affirmed personal fealty to him with the required enthusiasm.
The abrupt dismissal last week of Joe Maguire as the acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the nonsensical, if perhaps only temporary, appointment of an under-qualified and highly political ambassador to replace him, should not have come as a surprise to observers of President Donald Trump’s relationship with the intelligence and national security community. And while the president seems to intend that Richard Grenell, who’s also serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany, only serve briefly in the acting DNI role, there is no reason to expect that the process of finding an individual for the permanent DNI position will be easy or quick. After all, the Venn diagram that captures the universe of individuals who have both serious national security and intelligence credentials and the requisite degree of blind, unquestioning loyalty to the president and are willing to accept the job is a small one. It might not even exist.
This challenge is what tanked the president’s nomination of Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) in August. Much credit is owed to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), for signaling during the brief “Ratcliffe for DNI” campaign that his committee would not simply rubber stamp any nominee put forward by the Trump administration, even if that nominee were a fellow Republican legislator with the veneer of a national security resume. On the one hand, we, as Americans, can feel reassured about the fortitude shown by SSCI’s majority membership in the face of previous attempts by the president to nominate an unqualified, but politically pliable DNI. On the other hand, the president could nominate someone who might not be able to a survive a Senate confirmation process, but whose nomination starts the clock over for Grenell, allowing him to serve as acting DNI more or less in perpetuity. That leaves us with the daily work of the ODNI being overseen by administration officials—not subject to the advice and consent of the Senate—inserted in the ODNI front office to serve as something akin to political commissars. I suspect that this is an outcome that is just fine with this White House.
It would be just the latest step taken by Trump to politicize the IC, a process he began on Inauguration Day, 2017. Since the beginning of his presidency, the president has made clear his desires and demands for the IC to produce politically acceptable intelligence analysis that aligns in all cases with the policy preferences and predilections of his administration. That approach already leaves us less safe and less secure as a nation than we should be because future policy choices on issues like North Korea, Russia, Iran, China, and Syria will be shaped and informed by the president’s instinctive impulses, not by unbiased, professional intelligence analysis. Put another way, our current set of political leaders and decisionmakers only appear to credit good intelligence work and good intelligence analysis when it gives them the policy answer they have already landed upon. For them, anything else is simply evidence of a Deep State conspiracy to undermine or thwart the president’s agenda.
The growing politicization of the IC would be deeply troubling enough, but I would suggest that the problem actually goes much deeper. The delayed cost – the real, hidden-for-the-moment cost – of the president’s war on intelligence will be measured in terms of the steps backward that we are taking as a nation to pursue genuine intelligence reform, as we did under both the Bush and Obama administrations in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) set the government and the intelligence community on a path that prioritized true reform through genuine integration and coordination of effort among the 16 principle intelligence agencies. That project has not been easy and nobody who has lived it would suggest that the work is done, or even nearly done. But it is my belief that we are far better off today than we were at the time of 9/11, with the benefit of hard lessons learned and years of investment in new capabilities and better tradecraft. That progress is now at risk. If we are not actively moving forward on this agenda, then we are probably slipping backwards.
The fulcrum of this intelligence reform project has been, and remains, the DNI and the ODNI. And from the first days of the Trump administration, it has been clear that the president and most of his key advisers are at best uninformed and ambivalent about intelligence reform and the DNI role, and in some cases actively hostile to the enterprise, looking to roll back the organizational changes and steps toward community integration that we’ve seen since 2004.
So it should come as no surprise that whoever turns out to be the next acting DNI or permanent DNI will not feel under any pressure from the president actually to do what a DNI is charged by law to do: to coordinate and integrate the unique capabilities and contributions of the 16 separate intelligence organizations in order to provide the best community product to the president and senior decisionmakers. Instead, that new DNI’s success will be measured solely by the degree to which he or she has brought the IC to heel for the president. That’s not how Dan Coats or Joe Maguire saw the job, but I suspect their successor will know exactly why he or she has been chosen and will prioritize their work accordingly.
The ultimate success of intelligence reform and the full realization of the vision set forth in the IRTPA is not a given. If a president and his/her team are not actively supporting that agenda in word and deed and via the personnel choices they make, then they are tacitly acquiescing in the undermining of that vision. That is where we seem to be headed with the appointment – temporary or otherwise – of Grenell. Four years of backsliding in this area would be a needlessly self-inflicted wound on our national security. Eight years might be catastrophic.
Every time that President Barack Obama, at the start of a National Security Council meeting, turned to Jim Clapper, his DNI, to provide the IC context for a difficult policy discussion, he affirmed anew the importance of continuing to follow through on our post 9/11 intelligence reform project. Each of the DNIs chosen by President George W. Bush or Obama was a genuine national security professional, dedicated to the idea of intelligence reform and committed to living up to the mandate set forth in the IRTPA legislation. Is it too much to expect Trump to select a DNI based on their experience and competence, not on one’s ideological orientation or degree of personal loyalty to the president? Apparently it is.
As one of my most sage and seasoned IC colleagues used to remind me, intelligence reform is a journey, not a destination. But if the leader we’ve elected to oversee and chart that continued journey doesn’t know where we are at present, doesn’t much care where we are headed, and isn’t interested in looking at anybody’s map if it happened to be designed by national security professionals who worked under Presidents Bush or Obama, then we are in real trouble.
To extend the metaphor even further, we shouldn’t be surprised if we end up lost in the intelligence desert somewhere, sitting on the precipice of some future potentially catastrophic intelligence failure. The inevitable postmortem attendant to that intelligence failure will remind us in hindsight that we did, in fact, have a roadmap to do better for the American people, who should be able to rely upon good intelligence work to keep them safe and secure. Opening ourselves up as a nation to future intelligence failure simply because the Trump administration walked away from the hard but necessary work of post 9/11 intelligence reform — that is potentially the real tragedy of the president’s war on intelligence.