The naming of a lackey as acting director of national intelligence, and of an even bigger lackey as his deputy, signifies President Donald Trump’s deep insecurity but also his growing confidence: He can’t bear to hear views that differ from his own, but he now makes no effort to disguise his shutdown of dissent. He knows that no one will stop him.
There are two dangers to the blatant politicization of intelligence: first, the looming specter of authoritarianism, second, the clear danger to national security.
We have seen bits of this in the past. When President George W. Bush was looking for an excuse to invade Iraq in the fall of 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney prodded the CIA to cherry-pick raw intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Dissenting views, from other agencies, were cited in footnotes to the National Intelligence Estimate, but no footnotes were cited in the report’s executive summary, which is all that most presidents and legislators bother to read. And so we plunged into a war—which killed 4,400 U.S. troops, wounded 34,000 more, and destabilized the entire Middle East—on false and contested pretenses.
With lackeys now in charge of all the intelligence agencies, future reports might not have any dissents, even in the fine print.
The new lackey in chief is Richard Grenell, a former political operative who currently serves as U.S. ambassador to Germany, where he has aroused contempt and distrust for dissing the top NATO ally in a head-spinningly clueless manner. Recently, for instance, Grenell said that reports by embassy staffs—the professional diplomats who have built up years of experience and wisdom about the host countries—aren’t needed because “we can get that information off the internet.”
Grenell was brought in just days after the previous acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told House members that Russian President Vladimir Putin had begun interfering in the 2020 elections with the aim of getting Trump reelected.
As his first move in his new post, Grenell hired as his deputy Kashyap Patel, who—as a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee—wove elaborate conspiracy theories depicting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “deep state” plot to overthrow Trump.* CBS News has reported that Patel’s main job as Grenell’s deputy will be to “clean house”—that is, to turn the vast cadre of intelligence analysts into pliant parrots of Trump or to get rid of them. Grenell hired Patel after firing Andrew Hallman, a career intelligence officer of three decades’ standing, who had been Maguire’s deputy.
It’s not hard to imagine the consequences. The intel agencies, which report above all to the president, began caving under pressure even before these personnel shuffles. In January, the heads of these agencies wriggled out of their annual briefing to Congress on worldwide threats—at least the portion of the briefing that’s open to the public—so that they wouldn’t have to appear on TV disagreeing with Trump. In the January 2019 briefing, the intel chiefs testified that Iran was abiding by the nuclear deal signed by former President Barack Obama, that North Korea had no intention to give up its nuclear weapons, that ISIS continued to stoke violence in Iraq and Syria, and that Russian cyberoperations still posed a threat to America’s elections and infrastructure. All of these points—which reflected the unanimous view of the intelligence agencies—contradicted Trump’s beliefs and repeated statements. Dan Coats, the national intelligence director at the time, was dismissed not long after.
When the agencies next compile their reports on worldwide threats, it is possible that Iran will suddenly be seen as a perennial violator of treaties, that North Korea will be depicted as harmless, that the defeat of ISIS will be hailed as all but total, and that the intel on Russia’s cyberoperations will take on a distinct aura of ambiguity. Or, if the agency chiefs can’t bring themselves to compromise their principles so abjectly, acting Director Richard Grenell can be counted on to rewrite the president’s daily briefing in a manner that pleases the boss.
And so Trump and his staff may well miss the warning signs of aggression, the furtive openings for a possible peace, or the subtle shifts of something in between, in all the world’s hot spots.
Intelligence agencies are supposed to be independent, in order to keep the president apprised of what they see as facts and warnings. The agencies aren’t always right. And the president is well within his rights to reject their findings. But it serves even this president badly—and the nation even worse—to twist intelligence from the get-go, simply in order to keep the president from getting angry.
We are already seeing this in the broader makings of national security policy. According to the New York Times, when Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, convenes interagency meetings of the National Security Council, “he sometimes opens by distributing printouts of Mr. Trump’s latest tweets on the subject at hand.”
The whole point of the NSC is to inform and advise the president on matters of foreign and military policy. Yet O’Brien has twisted things around: The council’s purpose now is to justify and implement what Trump has already decided—sometimes impulsively, never on the basis of analysis, often after listening to some favored pundit on Fox News.
This is exactly as Trump wants it. Just over three years into his presidency, he is on his fourth national security adviser, his third secretary of defense (including one acting secretary who washed out), his second secretary of state, his fifth secretary of homeland security (three of them acting), and his fourth national intelligence director (three of them acting).
In the spring of 2018, shortly after firing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and replacing him with the more amenable (and still-kowtowing) Mike Pompeo, Trump said, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet, and other things, that I want.” Soon after came the ouster of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser and the resignation-in-protest of Jim Mattis as secretary of defense, followed by further waves of firings and hirings.
We have now reached the point where Trump isn’t merely “getting very close” to the Cabinet he wants; he’s reached the destination. He’s gathered a tight group of lightweights who, whether out of cravenness or misplaced loyalty, will do his every bidding and bow to his every utterance. Just as the Republican Party is now the party of Trump, the executive branch is now his fiefdom.
Correction, Feb. 24, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Kashyap Patel as Kashyan Patel.