With former Vice President Joe Biden’s election win now certain, we can turn our attention to restoring the faith and competence in U.S. government institutions, including improved, less politicized relations between federal agencies and the White House. That is particularly true of the Intelligence Community (IC). With years of experience at CIA as a guide, and with the hope that we can move on from this painful chapter, we offer this letter to President-elect Biden on key actions that should be implemented immediately—within days even — after taking office on Jan. 20, 2021. This is not a prescription for the future of the IC. These are simply our recommendations to immediately bolster a demoralized community that is indispensable to U.S. national security and must be made whole and healthy again.
On Jan. 25, 1993, Pakistani national Mir Amal Kasi stepped out of his vehicle just outside of CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Armed with an automatic weapon, he walked up and down the turn lane into Headquarters shooting until he had killed two CIA employees and wounded three others.
Those of us at work that day were horrified. We grieved — still grieve — the loss of Lansing Bennett and Frank Darling. But we never doubted the Agency would find the attacker and bring him to justice. We knew that however long it took, the CIA, and all U.S. government partners would not rest until he was captured. And while it took four years, Kasi was captured, convicted, and ultimately sentenced to death by U.S. courts.
CIA officers then, and since, strive to faithfully serve the president – our “first customer.” In turn, we never doubted that the president would expect much from us and hold us to account, but also support the men and women of the Agency. Then-President Bill Clinton, speaking at the CIA said, “These stars remind us that the battle lines of freedom need not be thousands of miles away but can be right here, in the midst of our communities, with our families and friends.” And during their eras, both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama also understood the value the IC brought to their administrations and the sacrifices delivering that value entailed. When we failed, they demanded better, but they still stood with the people of the IC.
That all changed under President Donald Trump. He belittled the work of intelligence officers, many serving their country in the most difficult of conditions overseas. He rejected the analytic work of experts who’ve spent their careers honing their craft. He abandoned vital U.S. allies like the Iraqi Kurds and Afghan tribal groups, and undercut critical partnerships with key foreign intelligence services. Much of the intelligence that helps keep Americans safe comes from long-nurtured relationships with partners such as the British, Australian, and Canadian governments, among many others. President Trump’s actions served to erode the trust necessary to ensure the kind of cooperation necessary to meet our common challenges.
Perhaps even more damaging, President Trump refused to acknowledge clear Russian interference in our democracy, instead accepting the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the IC’s unanimous findings. These and many other actions by President Trump have led to significant staff departures over the last year. Even now, many people in critical senior positions — as well as younger officers who see the high-tech sector calling — have one foot out the door, waiting to see what would happen on Nov. 3. We must stop this bleeding of talent.
So, Mr. President-elect, the Intelligence Community needs to renew its relationship with the commander-in-chief. It needs new leadership so that it can get back to providing the intelligence the country needs to face its many challenges.
Among the early actions in your first days that we would suggest to help restore this relationship:
–Immediately free up Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe and send a qualified DNI candidate for Senate confirmation. A healthy IC must avoid any form of politicization. Ratcliffe – and Rick Grenell before him – debased the non-partisan nature of the IC. They were both unqualified to lead the IC, and routinely took actions to serve President Trump’s personal political whims.
—Nominate a CIA director with the experience and leadership skills that allows him or her to walk in the door and hit the ground running, ultimately to rebuild morale and refashion the Agency to meet its numerous challenges. Among them, intelligence collectors face existential threats from ubiquitous surveillance. We need to devise ways to defeat 21st century technology and allow officers to operate effectively around the world. In addition, the IC needs to elevate the use of open-source tools, redouble analytic rigor and objectivity, and ensure its professionals are armed with cutting-edge skills and technology. The world is changing rapidly, and the IC must adapt and evolve. Most importantly however, it needs competent and committed leaders so that U.S. adversaries never doubt our strength and resolve.
—Visit both ODNI and CIA in the very first days of your administration. This is of paramount importance. The IC is desperate for real presidential leadership. Given the turmoil that President Trump has caused, a visit to meet the men and women working in intelligence is of critical importance.
–During this visit, reaffirm the principle that the first loyalty of all public servants is to the Constitution and to the safety of the American people. Emphasize that you expect a non-partisan IC to always speak truth to power, even when you won’t like it — especially when you won’t like it. IC professionals should always be adherents to the truth — be straight shooters, always providing the policy community with their best assessment. Stress that you will provide the space for IC professionals to take operational risk, but also expect the IC to do its work in secret. Leaks of sensitive information will not be tolerated, and the IC should seek to stay out of the news. Intelligence should be a silent profession. As president you will hold the IC to account when things don’t go right, but will not question the professionalism and patriotism of its workforce.
–Reaffirm support for IC whistleblowers and the laws and regulations that protect them. Direct CIA leaders to implement recommendations from the Government Accountability Office’s Sept.25, 2020, Report on IC IG actions required to strengthen whistleblower protections and seek a broader review of any additional measures needed. The whistleblower statutes are of great importance to the security of the country, as they offer a critical counterintelligence safety valve for its employees.
–Launch a review of all the IC’s Inspectors General (IG) to root out any element of partisanship, and end the practice of placing “acting” officials in the role to avoid the Senate confirmation process.
Mr. President-elect, as you know, a powerful, well-resourced, and highly accountable Intelligence Community is in your interests as Commander-in-Chief, and in the country’s interests as the first line of defense in an unsettled world. The men and women of the IC are mission-focused professionals eager to serve. They want to get back to doing the job they know best, protecting the nation in the shadows, around the globe, 24/7, knowing that you have their backs.
With deepest respect,
Marc Polymeropoulos and John Sipher, former senior CIA operations officers
Image: Then-Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a campaign press conference on August 7, 2019 in Burlington, Iowa. Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images