Donald Trump’s nomination of an inexperienced but loyal partisan to become the director of national intelligence (DNI) is an attempt to “neutralise” US spy agencies as an independent and objective voice on global affairs, former intelligence officials warned.
It follows the announcement that Dan Coats, one of the most senior national security officials willing to contradict the US president, is to leave the post next month after disagreements with Trump over policy and intelligence, including on Russian interference in the US election and on North Korean nuclear capabilities.
Trump has indicated that he might not wait for his nominee, the Republican congressman John Ratcliffe, to receive Senate confirmation before wresting control over the office of the director of national intelligence, which coordinates the work of the other 16 intelligence agencies.
“The acting director will be named shortly,” Trump tweeted on Sunday, announcing the departure of Coats, and his choice of Ratcliffe, who has been a staunch defender of Trump in Congress.
However, the statute that established the role of DNI states that in case of a vacancy, the principal deputy director acts in the role until a replacement is confirmed. That would be Sue Gordon, a career official with three decades’ experience in intelligence. An attempt to break the rules and oust her will probably heighten the sense in the intelligence agencies that they are under attack.
“Trump is consolidating his personal control over the intelligence community,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA intelligence officer. He said the current directors of the CIA and FBI have found their hands tied increasingly when it comes to accurate intelligence assessment, by risk of being fired for something at odds with Trump’s views.
“I fear that there is a slow takeover of the norms and procedures of governance by this president, amassing unprecedented executive power,” Mowatt-Larssen, now at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, added. “To do that he needs to neutralise or at least silence the intelligence community. He has been doing that for three years, but this takes it to the new level.”
Trump described Ratcliffe as a “highly respected congressman” and “a former US attorney”. However, he was a US attorney for only a year in the eastern district of Texas, and was the mayor of the Texan town of Heath, with a population of about 6,000, for eight years, before becoming a congressman in 2015.
He became prominent on television talkshows in recent weeks for his outspoken defence of Trump in the face of the report by the former special counsel Robert Mueller, on the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Kremlin and Trump’s role in obstructing the investigation.
“Donald Trump was the one telling the truth the whole time,” Ratcliffe told Fox News, and suggested that the real crimes had been committed by Democrats and the former FBI director James Comey.
The outgoing director, Coats, is also a conservative Republican, but he has given testimony to Congress on issues like the threat of the climate crisis, the improbability of North Korean disarmament, Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and Russian interference in the 2016 election that contradicted Trump’s own claims.
“We are informed citizens precisely because we had people like Coats willing to say these things in public even when it didn’t coincide with Trump’s personal interests,” said Ned Price, another former CIA intelligence officer.
Susan Hennessey, a former attorney for the National Security Agency, said on Twitter: “I have very mixed feelings on Coats’ tenure as DNI. But I will say this: Coats told the truth, even when inconvenient, which is the core imperative of the intelligence professional. And what comes after him will be far, far worse.”
The DNI does not run the intelligence agencies directly, but coordinates their work and determines budgets and priorities. The director also briefs the president and Congress on the intelligence community’s assessment of global threats.
It is unclear if Ratcliffe will be able to secure Senate confirmation. His inexperience and partisanship would come under intense scrutiny, but the Republican majority has generally been disciplined in following Trump’s wishes. Senior Republicans who responded to Trump’s announcement, praised Coats but did not mention Ratcliffe. The nomination may also falter on the law establishing the DNI position, which states any nominee “shall have extensive national security expertise”.
If Ratcliffe is confirmed and sought to politicise intelligence work further, it could lead to a clash with the intelligence agency professionals, warned John Sipher, a veteran of the CIA’s national clandestine services.
“If he tries to spin intelligence in a different way that it is presented to him, his work force would rebel,” Sipher said, predicting there would be a spike in resignations and leaks. “He is going to get a lot of knives stuck in his back.”