In the pre-coronavirus era, President Trump’s attacks on the so-called Deep State seemed focused on one thing: undermining the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign to help get him elected, and more recently, stopping the IC from raising similar alarms about the 2020 campaign. Trump’s egregious mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic–including playing down a series of early warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies when there was still time to slow the spread of the virus and prepare the health care system–makes clear that the problem is deeper and wider than Russia and election meddling. Even when the stakes are life and death, the President does not want to hear intelligence or expert analysis that contradict his ill-informed opinions or threaten his personal interests or ego.
Instead of learning the lesson of what happens when he ignores, bullies, ridicules, and fires truth-telling experts, Trump and his team are moving ahead with their plan to subvert the Intelligence Community’s most senior position, the Director of National Intelligence. The DNI was created at the urging of the 9/11 Commission to bring some order to the fractious IC and break down the structural barriers and rivalries that led to the failure to share critical intelligence. It has never lived up to expectations for a host of political and bureaucratic reasons, but the DNI still has considerable influence over budgets and analytical priorities for the 17 intelligence agencies and shaping community-wide analyses. The DNI is also the President’s principal intelligence advisor, charged with telling uncomfortable truths. Even with varying levels of influence and access, it is a responsibility that past DNIs—a senior diplomat, two retired admirals, a retired general, and most recently a former U.S. Senator-turned-Ambassador—appear to have taken very seriously.
Truth-telling is not what this President is looking for—or how he sees the DNI’s job. After Trump ousted (officially he stepped down) his first DNI Dan Coats—the least showboating of Washington officials, he dared to veer, politely, from the Trump line on Russia, Iran, and North Korea—Trump declared that he wanted someone who can really “rein” in “intelligence agencies [that] have run amok.” His current acting DNI, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, best known for his Twitter trolling and his impolitic enthusiasm for Austria’s anti-immigrant Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whom he deemed “a rockstar,” is enthusiastically following orders. (Grenell, a former press spokesman, is also known for his caustic dealings with reporters, but I had a good relationship with him during the Bush 43 years.)
Grenell immediately forced out the Deputy DNI Andrew Hallman, an intelligence professional with 30 years of experience, and brought in as his top adviser Kashyap Patel, a champion of deep state/anti-Trump conspiracies. Patel, who made his name trying to derail the House Russia probe as an investigator for then-House Intelligence chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, also had a brief star turn in the House impeachment investigation, when Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe, described her surprise when she discovered that “apparently, the President may think that Kash Patel is our Ukraine Director.” (Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who held the job until Trump fired him, had the job and was the real Ukraine expert.)
Grenell also quickly ousted the top two officials—both professionals with decades of experience—at the National Counterterrorism Center, created after 9/11 to integrate information from across the IC. There are now no Senate-confirmed officials left at the Office of the DNI. Grenell has also imposed a hiring freeze, raising questions about the Administration’s longer-term plans, especially for the already under-staffed Counterterrorism Center. Fear and loathing is running so high at the normally staid ODNI that Hill staffers say they are hearing reports of political loyalty tests and orders that TVs be turned to Fox News—a particular insult, if true, for professionals who pride themselves on their balanced analysis.
For the permanent job of DNI, Trump has again chosen Rep. John Ratcliffe, who made his bones with the White House by insulting former Special Counsel Robert Mueller on camera. Ratcliffe is also a champion of the White House/Fox News “Spygate” theory—that the Russia investigation was engineered by the FBI/CIA/Clinton campaign to entrap and then derail Trump’s presidential bid.
The President tried to put Ratcliffe in the job last summer, but even some Republicans, most notably Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, objected to the Texas congressman’s lack of experience and reports that he had hyped his credentials. This time around, Burr is working to speed Ratcliffe’s nomination through once the Senate returns to DC. (Ratcliffe is already making the rounds of committee members by telephone.) Some reports have suggested that Burr is trying to make nice with the White House, or at least avoid Trump’s Twitter trolling, now that he is being criticized for dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock after receiving classified intelligence briefings on the coming pandemic. Burr denies he acted on insider information. Burr’s personal antipathy toward Grenell may well be the overriding factor.
Getting through to Trump is never easy. He refuses to read briefing books and is impatient with oral and visual presentations that have too much data or challenge his worldview. One of his main complaints about his second National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star with a PhD and Silver Star, was that he “lectured.” If McMaster or Coats (or former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former chief of staff John Kelly, or his current trade adviser Peter Navarro, who warned in a January 29 memo of potentially catastrophic economic and human costs from a pandemic) could not cut through the Trump miasma, would it be any better with another, independent-minded DNI? Probably not. But with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence managed by Trump-captives and conspiracy-spinners, there will be no chance of cutting through no matter how clear and present the danger.
Philip Zelikow, who directed the 9/11 Commission and is now the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, warns that the problem of a politicized DNI goes far beyond the White House. “It doesn’t just corrupt the information that goes to the president, who may not care.” The intelligence enterprise “spends somewhere north of $60-$70 billion a year. That’s not just all for one man. It’s creating institutional products meant to serve the entire upper echelon of the U.S. government, help inform our allies, and even sometimes state and local officials.”
If a DNI is so inclined, there are opportunities to deflect, divert and suppress information gathering and analysis. Consider the issue of Russian interference in the 2020 elections. When Kirstjen Nielsen was Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, she couldn’t get the White House to agree to a senior level meeting to discuss election security, for fear of angering Trump. In his waning days as DNI, Coats created a new senior position to track and coordinate responses to foreign influence campaigns and infrastructure attacks, and ordered other agencies in the community to appoint their own senior official to coordinate efforts to protect the 2020 vote. There are good reasons to worry about how that will fare under the new management. Coats’s successor, acting DNI Joseph Maguire, was shown the door prematurely–right after the Election Threats Executive, Shelby Pierson, briefed the House Intelligence Committee that Russia was again interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to help Trump. Pierson still has her job, likely because Senator Burr and Senator Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to Grenell in mid-March warning him against firing anyone else.
The DNI has even more influence shaping analytical priorities and reports, including refereeing internal community debates. The assessment on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign was prepared and submitted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and one of the goals of Attorney General William Barr’s “investigation of the investigators” appears to be to highlight any analytical differences among the three agencies—CIA, FBI, and NSA—that contributed to the finding, while searching for proof that the Obama White House skewed the report. The DNI also issues the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. Trump was furious when Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel presented the public version last year, telling Congress that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons and Iran was not cheating on the nuclear deal. Trump tweeted, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” This year, officials working for Maguire tried to duck a public briefing to avoid crossing Trump. Congress has yet to see this year’s Threat Assessment, which is supposedly still being edited.
Grenell and Patel may have already influenced one important intelligence product, the assessment of Russia’s intentions for the 2020 campaign. In March 10 briefings on the Hill, intelligence officials said their assessment was that Russia is not trying to help any candidate in the 2020 campaign. Pierson, the top DNI election security official who did the February briefing, was noticeably absent. The New York Times reported that before the March briefing, Grenell’s senior advisor, Patel, met “with intelligence officials and imposed limits on what they could tell Congress.” Intelligence officials interviewed by the Times insisted that the briefing reflected their most recent analysis. Trump certainly felt no reason to keep his heft off the scale, tweeting earlier in the day: “There is another Russia, Russia, Russia meeting today. It is headed up by corrupt politician Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff, so I wouldn’t expect too much!” Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the briefing.
Late last week, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff sent his own letter to Grenell—unlike the Senate letter, the ranking member, Devin Nunes, did not co-sign. Schiff, too, warned the acting DNI against making further personnel changes without consulting Congress. The letter condemns as politically motivated Trump’s firing this month of the IC’s inspector general Michael Atkinson (who had the temerity to follow the law and insist on telling Congress about the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint) and gives Grenell until April 16–today– “to confirm in writing whether you have ever exercised your authority to prohibit Mr. Atkinson . . . ‘from initiating, carrying out, or completing any investigation, inspection, audit or review.’” I am told that is due diligence, rather than based on information that the IG was fired to squelch yet another investigation.
Grenell has the same deadline to turn over “any and all communication regarding the participation of the [ODNI’s] Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center” in the March 10 House briefing on Russia “as well as any and all communications regarding the assessment that he presented at the briefing.” The Trump Administration has a long history of stiffing the Intelligence committees on legally mandated reports, including on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As of Wednesday, Grenell had not responded to the letter–other than taking to Twitter to accuse Schiff of “politicizing the intelligence community.”
This, of course, is more than your usual DC partisan parlor game. Trump’s browbeating of his own intelligence agencies and his penchant for blurting out secrets on Twitter and in Oval Office meetings has already led close allies to question the reliability of the U.S. intelligence partnership. A DNI seen as irretrievably captive to Trump will do even greater damage to U.S. credibility and increase allies’ concerns about sharing sensitive information. For the many professionals inside the U.S. intelligence community, the spectacle of the DNI being suborned to Trump’s interests is especially corrosive and demoralizing. Zelikow says this couldn’t come at a worse time for the IC, which has spent “years and a lot of work to rebuild tradecraft and the quality and integrity of its analysis after the catastrophic errors we went through with the Iraq War.”
There is still time for Burr, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who has yet to endorse Ratcliffe) and CIA Director Gina Haspel, who has kept her head down throughout her tenure, to tell President Trump what the Intelligence Community, the country, and Trump personally will lose with a captive DNI. If Trump won’t listen to that truth, then Burr and McConnell need to make clear that they can’t confirm Ratcliffe and can’t work with Grenell. If Trump still won’t budge, they need to make their lack of confidence in both men publicly known. When confronted Trump has a history of blaming others and backing down.