Texas congressman John Ratcliffe has pulled out of consideration to become the next Director of National Intelligence
Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump's choice of a lawmaker with limited experience to oversee the massive US intelligence community has sparked concerns over the possible politicization of crucial national security decisions.
Trump declared Tuesday that John Ratcliffe is "strong" and "talented", two days after announcing the Republican congressman as his pick to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence, the person who coordinates the 17 agencies that make up the US intelligence community.
But strong criticism of the choice from Democrats and a tepid response from key Republicans -- some say they had never met him -- put a question mark over whether Ratcliffe can gain Senate confirmation.
"I'm gravely concerned when it appears that the president is trying to look for someone who will be a political loyalist rather than that independent voice standing up for the intelligence community," said Democratic Senator John Warner.
"I don't know John, but I look forward to getting to know him," said Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which must approve the nomination.
- Fox News commentator -
Coats, previously a longtime legislator on the Senate Intelligence Committee and US ambassador to Germany, spent 24 months as DNI quietly advancing and defending the intelligence community's global threats assessments.
Occasionally Coats publicly challenged Trump's rejection of those views, especially on Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Ratcliffe, by comparison, has made his name over four years in the House of Representatives as a staunch defender of the president.
Like many Trump appointees, he frequently appears on Fox News repeating conservative conspiracy theories, like alleging that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference was a political hit-job by Democrats working with US intelligence.
"So was the Trump investigation really about our national security -- or was it politically motivated?" he said last year.
"John Ratcliffe is a good man," Trump said Tuesday. "He's a very talented guy. Strong man. It's what we need in that position."
- Former small-town mayor -
Ratcliffe, 53, would take over a crucial job that involves collating and distilling intelligence from the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Pentagon and other bodies, to prioritize for the president the threats the country faces.
All previous directors have been former diplomats steeped in security and military issues, senior Pentagon officials, and intelligence agency chiefs.
Ratcliffe's resume is thin: before arriving in Congress in 2015, he was mayor of a small, wealthy lakeside suburb of Dallas, Texas for eight years, a staff lawyer for the local federal district attorney, and then interim district attorney for just one year in 2007.
His office in Congress has claimed that during that time he investigated and prosecuted major terror cases, but there is no evidence of that in available court records.
In Congress he has served on the House Intelligence Committee only since January, where he has made a mark attacking the Mueller investigation and insinuating that the intelligence community itself threatens the president.
"Ratcliffe would be the first DNI without significant intelligence or ambassadorial experience," said John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director.
- 'Hyper-political time' -
Ratcliffe's nomination -- which has not yet been formalized by the White House -- comes as the intelligence community has struggled with Trump's determination to see the world his way and use intelligence for his own political goals.
Earlier this month, Sue Gordon, the deputy director of national intelligence, said Coats' independence has been important in the current political environment.
"The intelligence community has been able to keep its eyes in the boat, because he plays it down the middle, even when it's unpopular," she told CBS News' "Intelligence Matters" program.
"There is something great about people who understand the world in the way intelligence officers understand the world," she added.
"Where it has gotten difficult in this time is, this is a hyper-political time. And it's difficult because we are all serious people who are just trying to solve some really serious issues."
Democrats have made clear they will fight against his nomination.
"Congressman Ratcliffe is the most partisan and least qualified individual ever nominated to serve as Director of National Intelligence," said Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"Confirming this individual would amount to an endorsement of this administration's drive to politicize our intelligence agencies."