Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas., speaks to media, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who triggered the Russia investigation, will speak behind closed doors to two GOP-led House committees that are investigating partisan bias at the Justice Department. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Back in January 2017, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was on Rachel Maddow’s show. The subject was President-elect Trump being incensed and dismissive of the bizarre analysis that had been expelled from the nether regions of the Intelligence Community that the Russians had actively intervened in the 2016 election to elect Trump and defeat Clinton. This is what he had to say:
Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you. So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.
Indeed, time has shown Schumer to be prescient. The Intelligence Community has, indeed, declared open warfare on President Trump. It began in the early days with distorted versions of his phone calls with various foreign leaders being leaked in order to politically damage him, in continued right up until a CIA operative, Eric Ciaramella, conspired with staffers working for Adam Schiff…if not with Adam Schiff, personally…to lodge a complaint that led, ultimately, to the silly impeachment trial and exoneration of President Trump (this is the first time a federal official has been impeached that not only was the 2/3 vote threshold not met but that none of the charges were considered proved by a majority of senators). In this, Ciaramell was actively assisted by former Justice Department official and current Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who literally changed the rules to ratchet up the importance of Ciaramella’s bullsh** report and tacitly assisted by the acting director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who lacked the brains or guts to step in and stop the travesty.
Slowly, President Trump has been moving to take control of the intelligence apparatus that John Brennan and James Clapper weaponized to attempt to force President Trump from office.
The first step was the retirement of Dan Coats. This was not a huge deal but if you recall, there was a huge outcry from the people most closely associated with the Russia Hoax and the intelligence leaks that federal law required that Coats be succeeded by Coats’s Principal Deputy Sue Gordon. The administration overcame this obstacle by forcing her retirement. She was succeeded by Joseph Maguire. By the time the impeachment trial of President Trump was over it became obvious that he was not going to be secure in office unless he controlled the levers of power in the Intelligence Community.
Two weeks after President Trump was acquitted, he announced that he was moving US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as acting director. The action was heavy in symbolism. Maguire could legally remain the acting director until mid-March, but Trump acted to replace him. He replaced him with someone who has no ties to the Intelligence Community and who is a Trump loyalist (in addition to being one of the most kick-ass ambassadors we’ve had since Jeanne Kirkpatrick). Under federal law, Grenell can serve up to 240 days. Grenell brought with him an aide who is familiar with the intelligence bureaucracy and isn’t beloved by it, Kash Patet, to serve as a senior adviser. The ODNI chief of staff, Viraj Mirani, and principal executive Andrew Hallman were told to pack their bags and get out despite offering to stay on and help with the transition.
A week later President Trump named Texas Republican John Ratcliffe to be DNI. Then heads really exploded. The Intelligence Community, particularly the CIA, probably thought they could hunker down and wait for Grenell to go away confident that they’d have a major say in who any permanent replacement was. Wrong guess.
President Donald Trump’s nomination of Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe to serve as the nation’s intel chief has led to some apprehension within the intelligence community, which has only grudgingly come to accept the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a force for good.
But with a grip on the President’s Daily Brief, broad discretion over the agencies’ responsiveness to Congress, and responsibility for intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection, the DNI can easily veer into the political and revive the kind of friction that plagued its relationship with the intelligence community in its early days.
And Ratcliffe — an intel greenhorn with only one year of experience on the House Intelligence Committee and a résumé that now includes serving on Trump’s impeachment team — is the epitome of what intelligence officers “reflexively” reject, said David Priess, a former CIA officer and daily intelligence briefer.
“Anyone who does not come with extensive intelligence experience is automatically and quickly viewed as a threat because of the risk of the politicization of intelligence,” Priess said.
To put this in perspective, this is how things are seen from within the Intelligence Community:
John McLaughlin, who was serving as acting CIA director when the ODNI was established, initially opposed the concept when it was being debated in 2003-2004.
But, he said in an interview, the office “went through an evolution from 2004 through four directors,” reaching maximum effectiveness under James Clapper, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency before taking over as DNI in 2010.
“Clapper figured out the secret,” McLaughlin said. “Let the agencies do their jobs and do only the things that the DNI alone is empowered (and authorized by the president) to do — mainly shaping the budget, coordinating tasking, briefing the president and Congress.”
Clapper will be fortunate to escape indictment when the smoke has finally cleared. Far from leading a depoliticized bureaucracy, the actually was involved in sedition that had as its objective the illict removal of a president from office.
Naturally, there are predictions of dire consequences:
What vexes intelligence veterans most, Priess said, is the prospect that a partisan director like Ratcliffe might take an active role in managing the President’s Daily Brief instead of letting analysts do their job — substituting his personal opinions for the consensus view of the $70-plus billion intelligence community.
“That’s the kind of thing that could prompt resignations of senior officials within the agencies,” Priess said, noting Ratcliffe’s status as an outsider will make it more difficult to establish trust with the career officials.
Another concern “that’s not discussed nearly enough” is the role of ODNI’s legislative affairs office, a former senior intelligence official said.
“All of the legislative affairs offices in the intelligence community coordinate with, and often work through, ODNI legislative affairs,” the former official said. “So with a very partisan DNI, there could be some risk that you end up with a partisan shaping of what information goes to Congress.”
What you’re seeing is nothing more or less than petty bureaucrats incensed at the idea that the might no longer be able to do whatever the hell they want. The DNI should, in my view, be the focal point for the PDB, not the CIA. You need look no further than the pronouncements we have seen from the CIA to know that the judgment of their analysts is a product of groupthink and Democrat politics. Parts of the Intelligence Community should not be freelancing their personal views to Congress. It is the DNI’s job to render the consensus opinion of the IC, it isn’t for the CIA to sabotage that opinion.
It is entirely possible, though, that the CIA has no one left to lie to. Their attempted coup has shown even the squishiest of Vichy Republicans that they can’t be trusted.
That may be why lawmakers are generally proceeding with caution on Ratcliffe, with Republican senators offering only tepid support and Democrats criticizing his lack of qualifications. Democrats, however, are also facing the prospect of something they may fear even more than a Ratcliffe appointment: that Grenell could remain in the acting DNI role indefinitely.
“I don’t think anybody changed their opinion of John Ratcliffe. What changed was the pathway to get somebody confirmed,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told Politico on Monday. “If Democrats want to vote against him and have Grenell stay on as acting until the end of the year, that’s fine with me.”
When Ratcliffe is confirmed, he needs to keep that Chuck Schumer interview in mind and never, not for a second, deceive himself into believing that he can rule by anything other than fear and intimidation.