President Donald Trump’s decision to name a staunch Republican ally with a limited background in spycraft to replace Dan Coats as the nation’s top intelligence official has aroused concern on Capitol Hill, including a warning to the White House from the Republican head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But among veteran members of the nation’s intelligence agencies the mood is resignation.
In naming Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe to be Director of National Intelligence, Trump ignored a warning from Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the intelligence committee, according to Congressional aides familiar with the matter. Burr told the White House last week that the move would inject more partisan politics into the work of the intelligence agencies, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) stipulates that the DNI must have “extensive national security experience”. Ratcliffe was a prosecutor and politician in Texas and has served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for only seven months. Coats and his predecessors in the job all had years of experience in the intelligence community, overseeing it, and serving as U.S. ambassadors.
A Burr aide said the Senator had not taken a position on Trump’s desire to choose Ratcliffe. “Senator Burr did not offer guidance or offer his opinion to the White House regarding Congressman Ratcliffe’s nomination,” the aide said, speaking only on condition of anonymity. On Tuesday, Burr’s office issued a statement saying, “When the White House submits its official nomination to the Senate Intelligence Committee, we will work to move it swiftly through regular order.” The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Coats has earned praise for standing up for the intelligence community, even when its conclusions contradicted Trump. The former Republican senator from Indiana and longtime ally of Vice President Mike Pence kept politics out of the agencies’ work, says the Senate Intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. “The mission of the intelligence agencies is to speak truth to power,” Warner said in a statement. “As DNI, Dan Coats stayed true to that mission.”
Coats’ relationship with Trump was shaky from the start, and continued to fray as he publicly disagreed with him on policy.
Coats defended the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton and publicly expressed surprise at the President’s decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year in Finland, saying: “That is going to be special.”
Testifying before Congress in the early days of his tenure, Coats reiterated his subordinates’ conclusion that Iran has continued to comply with the six-nation agreement restricting its nuclear program. Trump denounced and then abandoned the agreement.
Despite Trump’s optimism about striking a deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un to eliminate his country’s nuclear weapons, Coats repeated the intelligence assessment that Pyongyang is unlikely ever to abandon weapons Kim considers essential to his regime’s survival.
Ratcliffe, on the other hand, seemed to go out of his way to back the President up on matters where he and the intelligence community have differed. Ratcliffe suggested while questioning former Special Counsel Robert Mueller last week that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election on behalf of Clinton, a notion that contradicts the repeated public findings of the intelligence community. One intelligence official on Monday called Ratcliffe‘s assertion “ridiculous on both faces of it”.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Minority Leader, said Ratcliffe was “selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to President Trump” when he grilled Mueller about his report.
In a sign of how dysfunctional President Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community has become already, some senior spies and analysts say having a political ally as DNI may not make much of a difference at this point. Trump, these senior officials point out, pays only sporadic attention to his daily briefings, routinely ignores analysis that contradicts his own views, and in many cases pursues policies that analysts have concluded are fruitless or misguided.
But veteran intelligence analysts worry Ratcliffe will further undermine national security decision making if he is confirmed as DNI. “The change from Coats to Ratcliffe is bad not only for the intelligence community, but for the cause of well-informed foreign policy,” says former senior CIA officer Paul Pillar. “It probably is true that Trump is not going to pay much attention to the intelligence community’s judgment no matter who is DNI, and that he will continue to get his beliefs and material more from Fox than from any part of the federal bureaucracy, including the intelligence community. [But] a partisan warrior such as Ratcliffe can do additional damage by politicizing the part of the intelligence community product that is available to the public and to Congress.”
It remains unclear who will lead the intelligence community while Ratcliffe is considered by the Senate. Trump announced that he would name an acting DNI after Coats’ August 15 departure. The 2004 law creating the position stipulates that the principal deputy DNI will take over temporarily when the office is vacant.
That would grant interim authority to Sue Gordon, a longtime intelligence professional who is held in high regard by her subordinates and on Capitol Hill. It’s not clear how long Gordon might stay on, however, say James Clapper, Coats’ predecessor as DNI, and an official in Gordon’s office.
Burr’s warning provides hope for some of his opponents that Ratcliffe may not ultimately get the job. The Senate intelligence committee, which is charged with recommending to the full Senate whether to approve DNI nominees, “has been consistently bipartisan,” says Clapper. “No one should assume” that the Senate will confirm Ratcliffe, he says. However, the Republican Party has been reticent to stand up to Trump, and it would be surprising to see the GOP buck him on a senior national security choice.