It was only a matter of time before President Donald Trump started going after the intelligence agencies. When it comes to analyzing global politics, facts tend to have an anti-Trump bias, and the sin of Dan Coats—the just-ousted director of national intelligence—is that he told Trump too many unsettling facts.
The nominee to replace Coats, Trump announced on Sunday, is John Ratcliffe, a two-term Republican congressman from Texas, whose only remote qualification for the job is his service on the House Intelligence Committee for the past six months.
More to the point, Ratcliffe’s spirited criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller in last week’s hearing—including the recital of one of the more preposterous conspiracy theories ever unreeled on the subject—demonstrated that he would embody everything this president wants in a Cabinet secretary: total loyalty to Trump
And that is the problem. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with the idea that foreign threats could be more swiftly detected, analyzed, and reported if some supra-entity coordinated the findings of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, which, until then, had often worked with little common purpose.
The order creating the office specified that directors should have military or intelligence experience, and the first four, beginning in 2005, fit the bill. John Negroponte had been ambassador to several crisis-laden countries. Vice Adm. Mike McConnell had been a career Navy intelligence officer, culminating in a term as director of the National Security Agency. Dennis Blair had been a Navy commander. Lt. Gen. James Clapper had been director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Trump’s first director, Coats, had no such experience, aside from a brief stint on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he had developed expertise on military issues. George W. Bush was even set to nominate him as secretary of defense until a job interview, where Coats displayed insufficient enthusiasm for an elaborate missile-defense system. (Vice President Dick Cheney then suggested that Donald Rumsfeld—who had planned to be CIA director—be nominated instead. History might have been different if Bush hadn’t been so keen on anti-missile missiles.)
Coats’ washout in the audition—his disinclination to say what Bush wanted him to say, just to get the job—spoke well for his character. As DNI, he has immersed himself in the work, diligently represented the views of the intelligence agencies, and shielded the other agencies from Trump’s wrath, taking much of the heat himself. And there has been a lot of heat to take.
Among other things, the DNI gives the president his daily intelligence briefing, and in those reports, as well as in his testimony to Congress, Coats has concluded that Iran no longer had a nuclear weapons program, that North Korea was unlikely to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, that ISIS was still an active terrorist organization, and that top Russian officials interfered in the 2016 election—all of which contradicted Trump’s views. At times, Trump has even publicly sided with assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the findings of the intelligence community.
By contrast, Ratcliffe has been a hangdog defender of Trump during the various inquiries into Trump’s collusion with Russia. In last week’s hearing, he grilled Mueller on his legal theories and asserted that the real colluders were Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, claiming that the Steele dossier—which Ratcliffe incorrectly said had triggered the Mueller probe—was filled with misinformation planted by the Russians, with the intent of harming Trump’s bid for the White House.
Two retired intelligence officers told me that they—and several of their associates who still work in the agencies—are concerned that the nation’s top spymaster might be someone who has such scant experience, entertains such wacky conspiracy theories, and seems so eager to please the president.
One other concern, which they didn’t express, is that the director of national intelligence has access to all classified material. Attorney General William Barr will soon begin his “investigation of the investigators”—a probe to assess the political biases of the Mueller investigation—and Trump has given him authority to declassify documents as he sees fit. Ratcliffe would be a natural enabler in a pursuit to cherry-pick material—or, more to the point, to find material worth cherry-picking—whereas Coats might have sided with the intel professionals in resisting such a blatantly political maneuver.
It is worth noting that, in one of his final moves, Coats created a senior-level post within the DNI office to monitor and coordinate the security of U.S. elections. The fate of this initiative may be one early measure of Ratcliffe’s performance and priorities.
However, it is also worth noting that Ratcliffe may not get the chance. Nominees for DNI must be confirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee and then by the full Senate. This committee tends to operate in a more bipartisan fashion than many panels these days. Its Republican chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, reportedly advised Trump that Ratcliffe was “too political” for the job. Trump apparently ignored the advice. Before picking Ratcliffe, Trump had in fact asked Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and an even more rabid defender of the administration, to take the job. Nunes reportedly turned it down.
Nunes is not the first person to shy away from the position. When George W. Bush created the job, he asked his father’s old friend (and former CIA Director) Robert Gates to be its first director. Gates demurred, noting that, by the post’s charter, he would have no power to draw up a budget or to hire and fire personnel—which, in bureaucratic politics, translated to no real power at all.
The director’s power and influence depends, almost entirely, on his or her personal relationships with the other agency directors and with the White House. During Bush’s second term, McConnell boosted the post’s power—and was the only director who made real strides toward coordinating the intelligence agencies—in part because Bush leaned on him heavily and because McConnell himself had long known his top colleagues in the national-security bureaucracy. Clapper focused more on strengthening the DNI’s internal structure, in part because his boss, Barack Obama, placed much of the authority for gathering and coordinating intelligence, as well as all work in counterterrorism, back in the hands of the CIA—which, as its name suggests, had been the central intelligence agency before the national intelligence directorate was created.
Coats, lacking inside knowledge or organizational prowess, ignored—or fell short of—the DNI’s role as coordinator. Instead, he focused on the other vital mission of the DNI’s job: speaking truth to power. It is unlikely, judging from his experience and inclinations, that Ratcliffe will do well at either.
In part due to Clapper’s efforts, the DNI office has attracted professional intelligence analysts. One of them, Susan Gordon, the current deputy, will become acting director when Coats leaves in August.
What happens to the professionals, or to their roles, or to the objective nature of the president’s daily briefing will depend on what Ratcliffe makes happen (if he’s confirmed). And, by all appearances, that will depend on what Trump wants him to make happen. And that is why many intelligence analysts, past and present, are very nervous.