Defending intelligence pick, Trump says U.S. spy agencies 'run amok'
By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his choice for the next U.S. spy chief as someone who could "rein in" intelligence agencies that "have run amok," fueling concerns Trump seeks assessments that support his own views.
Trump's choice of Republican Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas as the next director of national intelligence, has been greeted with scant enthusiasm by his fellow Republicans and charges by former intelligence officials and Democrats that he is unqualified and will frame intelligence to suit the president.
Ratcliffe, a member of the House Intelligence Committee for six months, would replace Dan Coats, whose judgments on Iran, North Korea and Russia's interference in the 2016 elections clashed with Trump's views, earning the president's disdain.
Returning to the White House from an appearance in Virginia, Trump on Tuesday said Ratcliffe "is going to do an incredible job, if he gets approved" by the Senate.
"I think we need somebody like that in there," he continued. "We need somebody strong that can rein it in. Because, as I think you've all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They have run amok."
Trump denied he had a "conflict" with Coats, saying he was "a friend of mine" and a "terrific person." But, he added, "Dan made statements and they were a little confused."
Trump repeatedly has criticized the U.S. intelligence community since taking office, questioning its conclusions that Russia's election interference was aimed at boosting Trump's candidacy over that of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Coats has defended the assessment, while Ratcliffe has denied there was evidence of Russian interference, accused the FBI of pursuing a biased investigation and echoed Trump's baseless charge that the Obama administration spied on his campaign.
In January, Trump attacked Coats and other intelligence agency chiefs on Twitter after they told Congress that Iran was adhering to the 2015 pact designed to block its development of a nuclear bomb and North Korea was unlikely to comply with Trump's demand that it eliminate its nuclear arsenal.
Asked about Trump's comments, Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an email that, "The men and women of our intelligence community deserve our thanks and support, not more baseless attacks."
"It's striking how the president so often seems completely incapable of viewing matters of intelligence and national security through any lens but his own political wellbeing," Warner added.
John Sipher, a former senior CIA officer who spent 28 years in the agency's clandestine service, said Trump's comments were "especially bad because as president he runs the intelligence community and has access to everything. Despite that, he maintains these crazy fictions that shore up his base."
Coats, who served for more than 20 years in Congress and as a U.S. ambassador to Germany, steps down on Aug. 15. Trump has not yet formally nominated Ratcliffe and it is unlikely the Senate would hold a confirmation hearing until after Congress returns from summer recess in September.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell - whose support is critical to Ratcliffe's confirmation - was somewhat circumspect on Tuesday when asked if the three-term lawmaker was qualified to oversee the 17 U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies, whose combined annual budgets total more than $60 billion.
"I haven't met him yet. I look forward to meeting with him," said McConnell. "I would, you know, lean toward the president's nominees and I'd rather not address that until I've actually had a chance to meet him and discuss his background and qualifications."
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, added her voice to concerns Ratcliffe lacked the "extensive national security experience" that the post of director of national intelligence requires by law.
"Congressman Ratcliffe has served for four years in the House and was mayor of a small town in Texas. This isn’t a learn-as-you-go position and shouldn’t be given out to political supporters," she said in a statement.
Ratcliffe gained attention last week when he defended Trump during a hearing in which former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified on his two-year probe into Russia's election interference and possible obstruction of justice by the president.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper, Patricia Zengerle, Mark Hosenball and David Alexander; editing by Mary Milliken and Chris Reese)