Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) was confirmed last Thursday as President Donald Trump’s top intelligence adviser in a party line Senate vote, putting an inexperienced and highly partisan legislator at the top of the nation’s intelligence enterprise during a time of unprecedented threats to our security.
Ratcliffe made a name for himself defending the president, noisily and often falsely. He is the least qualified director of national intelligence (DNI) in the position’s short history. Ratcliffe’s thin experience – he had been on the House Intelligence Committee for just a few months when Trump first nominated him for the job last year– became an obstacle to his being confirmed, even by a Republican Senate. By law the position must be filled by a person with “extensive national experience.” When it became clear that Ratcliffe had few qualifications for the job and had badly misrepresented his experience, the president withdrew his name in August before the nomination had even been made official.
This time around, however, the president was able to force the Senate to choose between keeping the current acting DNI Richard Grenell, another inexperienced loyalist, or confirming Ratcliffe. The Senate chose Ratcliffe, perhaps preferring a permanent DNI and hoping they would have marginally more control over a Senate-confirmed pick.
At his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Ratcliffe vowed to “speak truth to power” and ensure the independence of intelligence agencies. But, will Ratcliffe keep those promises?
When he is sworn in as DNI, he will confront a complex and dynamic threat landscape that includes not only longstanding adversaries like Russian and China, but also terrorism, climate change and an ongoing global pandemic. As the nation’s chief intelligence adviser, the DNI has a solemn obligation to tell the truth about these threats to policymakers, especially the president, even when facts run counter to the president’s political aims.
Ratcliffe’s record, however, provides reason to doubt he will fulfill this obligation. Ratcliffe earned his nomination by repeating and amplifying the president’s false narratives about the Russia investigation. Ratcliffe has struggled even to confirm that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, the unanimous opinion of the Intelligence Community he is now poised to lead. Ratcliffe also advanced a conspiracy theory that a “secret society” within the Department of Justice and FBI worked to prevent Trump’s election, and he made false statements about the evidence presented during Trump’s impeachment hearing.
So, will Ratcliffe truly guard the independence of intelligence agencies? The Intelligence Community’s most valuable asset is its freedom from political influence. The legitimacy of its activities, which often occur in secret, depend on its apolitical analysis.
But Ratcliffe will take over an Intelligence Community that is under siege from political forces. The president has maligned and disregarded consensus intelligence assessments that do not align with his perceived political interests and lodged partisan attacks against career professionals. Ratcliffe will inherit a dispirited and fatigued workforce and a leadership team hampered by the loss of seasoned experts, some of whom were forced out and others who chose to leave rather than watch the office of the DNI be politicized.
Against this backdrop, Ratcliffe will oversee the process for providing intelligence briefings to the Democratic candidate ahead of the presidential election. This means he will control what classified intelligence information is provided to Trump’s opponent during those briefings, and what intelligence is withheld. During his confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe assured lawmakers that “regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I will provide if confirmed will not be altered or impacted by outside influence.” Keeping that promise will require Ratcliffe to authorize briefers to share intelligence about the plans and intentions of our adversaries to interfere in the 2020 election, even if the intelligence reveals they are doing so to help Trump.
If he is to keep the promises he made to the Senate, Ratcliffe will have to safeguard the independence of the Intelligence Community, and fend off the president, who seeks to use every tool at his disposal, even cherry-picked pieces of classified intelligence information, to fit his political narratives.
Perhaps most importantly, Ratcliffe will also have to shape the strategic direction for the Intelligence Community as it navigates a transformation, carving out its role in responding to cyber, global health, and climate threats, as well as great power competition—issues that will require it to adapt and change if it is to succeed. In this area, Ratcliffe will need to focus on the intelligence workforce: reinventing structures and processes, establishing new management and oversight mechanisms, recruiting and retaining a diverse staff with the skills and experiences to respond creatively to emerging threats that legacy intelligence tools alone cannot address.
The position of DNI is a critical and demanding role, and it is certain to be a major test for Ratcliffe. In no small measure, our nation’s security depends on Ratcliffe’s ability to rise to the demands of his new office and to keep his promises—to the Congress, and to the American people.