The first 24 hours of the Trump presidency were marked by a bizarre inauguration speech (“American Carnage”), frenzied claims of record inauguration crowds, and an unusual appearance at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency where the new president proclaimed his political brilliance. The shock of these 24 hours led pundits and politicians alike to proclaim that the so-called adults in the administration (Tillerson at State; Mattis at Defense; Coats as the director of national intelligence; and eventually General McMaster at the national security council) would exercise some restraint on a potentially unstable and unpredictable president.
Well, the last of these adults, director of national intelligence Dan Coats, has resigned and, like the previous successions in the national security team, his nominated successor, Representative John Ratcliffe (R-TX) is a political ideologue, a political loyalist, and a substantive know-nothing. This pattern follows the dangerous successions that have taken place at State (Mike Pompeo); the national security council (John Bolton); and particularly Defense, where acting directors continue to rotate. If the first round of cabinet appointments were considered to be experienced hands who would counsel the president, the current appointments constitute a war cabinet that will encourage Trump’s worst instincts. The British and French ambassadors to the United States have already recorded their views on this dangerous transition.
Coats, the former Senator from Indiana, may have been a conservative appointment, but he was willing to tell truth to power on such issues as climate change, the Iran nuclear accord, North Korean nuclear forces, and Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Coats has been on thin ice with the president since July 2018 when he reacted with surprise and sarcasm at learning from a TV journalist that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would be holding a second summit meeting in the wake of the first disastrous one. Coats did a double take at the news, laughing, and uttering the memorable phrase “OK…that’s going to be special” upon learning of the meeting, which had not been discussed by the national security team. Even more troubling, Coats conceded that he didn’t “know what happened at the first meeting”
There is great risk in appointing a political loyalist to become the director of national intelligence. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed one of his campaign directors, William Casey, to be director of central intelligence. Casey was an ideological zealot and an intense political loyalist on behalf of Reagan. Casey and his deputy director for intelligence, Robert M. Gates, proceeded to cherry-pick intelligence on the Soviet Union in order to justify Reagan’s enormous defense budgets, which at the time represented the largest peacetime increases in defense spending in the nation’s history.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had entered a decade of decline which resulted in the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Casey and Gates, however, falsely conjured a picture of a Kremlin that was ten-feet tall and an ominous threat to U.S. interests. They exaggerated Soviet defense spending at a time when the Soviets were in facing cuts in defense spending as well as the reduced lethality of Soviet weaponry, which was in fact falling behind the technological superiority of the U.S. arsenal. Casey and Gates warned of Soviet threats in the third world at a time when Moscow was pulling its forces out of the Asian-Pacific region as well as the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The failure to warn of the Soviet decline was a huge CIA intelligence failure and an excellent example of the danger of politicized intelligence.
The worst example of politicized intelligence took place in 2002-2003, when CIA director George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, committed themselves to producing the intelligence that President George W. Bush was seeking to justify war against Iraq. Tenet lied to Congress about the nature of the Iraqi relationship with al Qaeda, and McLaughlin prepared the phony speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Nations several weeks before the U.S. invasion. Sixteen years later, we are still losing blood and treasure in Iraq, where Iran has the dominant role in external power and influence.
Ratcliffe, who has no intelligence experience, has already signaled his opposition to agreed assessments within the 17 agencies and departments of the $70 billion intelligence community. He doesn’t believe that the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election; he supports the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord as well as the use of military coercion against Iran; and he is a prominent skeptic on climate change. Ratcliffe is considered one of the strongest conservatives in the Republican caucus and his rude interrogation of Robert Mueller at last week’s hearings was considered his audition for the job of director of national intelligence (DNI).
The director of national intelligence may have to defer to the Pentagon on most budget and personnel matters within the intelligence community, but he has a great deal of power in providing substantive briefings to the president in the form of the President’s Daily Brief and authoritative National Intelligence Estimates. Ratcliffe will have a great deal of latitude in this role because of the weakness of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, as well as the unpredictability of national security adviser John Bolton.
The danger of politicization of intelligence has never been greater. We have civilian deference to the military community; unprecedented bipartisan support for bloated defense budgets; weak congressional oversight; and an “American First” strategy that has isolated the United States in many areas of the international arena. Over the past several decades, we have had too many intelligence directors (Bill Casey, Bob Gates, George Tenet, and Porter Goss), who have been unwilling to tell truth to power and have cherry-picked intelligence for their presidents. With so many national security decisions facing the United States regarding Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia, it is particularly worrisome to have a weak and truckling DNI at the service of an unstable and unpredictable president.