John Ratcliffe Is a Dangerous Pick for Director of National Intelligence

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The president’s intent to nominate Robert Mueller’s chief Capitol Hill inquisitor to head the nation’s intelligence community might just be the Trump administration’s most alarming personnel decision yet—even in an administration whose list of departed, disgraced, and indicted former top officials reads like a casualty list from Game of Thrones.

The news Sunday that Trump planned to tap representative John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) as director of national intelligence, replacing former senator Dan Coats, left many even on Capitol Hill scratching their heads: Who? “I don’t know John. I’ve met him a couple times, seen him on TV,” Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) told Politico, among other choice quotes it gathered.

Indeed, very few Americans had ever heard of the congressman from Texas’s fourth district until last Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, when Ratcliffe lambasted former special counsel Robert Mueller about “not exonerating” Donald Trump. Watching the hearing on TV with a group of journalists, I turned to my colleagues and said, “He’s auditioning to be DNI.”

Days later, Axios scooped the news of Ratcliffe’s impending nomination, saying Trump was “thrilled” by the congressman’s performance at the Mueller hearing.

That the administration is so predictable in its terrible choices should not make those terrible choices any less troubling.

The men who have occupied the relatively new role of DNI so far are among the most experienced intelligence leaders and diplomats in the country. After the job was created as part of the post-9/11 reshuffling of the US national security apparatus, George W. Bush tapped an experienced hand to fill it: John Negroponte had served as an ambassador in four countries, including Iraq; been UN ambassador; and worked at the National Security Council. His successor, Mike McConnell, was a vice admiral in the Navy and a former director of the National Security Agency. Barack Obama’s first DNI was another admiral, Dennis Blair, who had led Pacific Command and served as associate director of the CIA.

James Clapper, Obama’s second pick as DNI, was arguably the most experienced intelligence officer in the entire country—a career Air Force intelligence officer who had served for four decades, risen to the rank of lieutenant general, and personally headed two of the nation’s most critical intelligence agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Clapper had also served as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, where he oversaw all three of the Pentagon’s intel agencies: DIA, NGA, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s spy satellites.

And even though Coats, the outgoing DNI who Ratcliffe may replace, had no field intelligence background, he served in the Army during the Vietnam War, spent nearly 30 years in Congress—in both the House and the Senate, including stints on the intelligence committee—and had served as ambassador to one of America’s top allies, Germany.

Ratcliffe’s experience pales in comparison to any of his would-be predecessors. He served as the mayor of Heath, Texas—population 8,000—for a decade, and while he did a brief stint as a politically appointed US attorney in Texas in the final months of George W. Bush’s administration, his résumé on national security matters is practically nonexistent.

He had previously claimed to be involved in a single terrorism-related case, against the Holy Land Foundation, but appears to have far overstated his role. As ABC News’ James Gordon Meek reported Tuesday, “The fact is that @RepRatcliffe did not convict anyone in the Holy Land Foundation trial. His staff now admits he simply reviewed the first mistrial and issued no report to [attorney general Mike] Mukasey, which is why no one we contacted remembers him at all.”

Similarly confounding, he asserts on his House website that he once “arrested 300 illegal aliens in a single day,” which would have been quite a feat, since US attorneys don’t have arrest authority.

That lack of experience is almost certain to make Ratcliffe an ineffective DNI, a position that has little direct power and whose few levers and moral suasion only Clapper—the longest-serving DNI yet—managed to handle effectively.

But while Ratcliffe will likely have trouble herding the cats that make up the nation’s 17 sprawling intelligence agencies, ranging from the Justice Department to the State Department to the Pentagon to even the Energy Department, that’s not what seems primed to make him a dangerous DNI.

The biggest danger Ratcliffe poses is to the integrity of the job of director of national intelligence in the first place; the core principle of the intelligence professional is to speak truth to power.

The US spends $60 billion a year on the nation’s intelligence apparatus, a workforce of tens of thousands ranging from CIA officers and FBI agents to NSA cryptologists and hackers, NGA analysts, interpretation experts at the NRO, financial wizards at the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and much more.

All of that money and all of those workers share a simple uniting goal: To ensure that the president of the United States is, in every conversation and decision, the most informed, knowledgeable, best-prepared person in the room. They enable the president and his advisers to anticipate problems and opportunities; understand the mind, decisionmaking, and internal pressures of foreign leaders far and wide; know from satellites overhead, cables underground, and agents in the field what’s happening the world over—and why.

The career analysts, agents, officers, and leaders of the intelligence community work every day to ensure that the information flowing up to the Oval Office is the most thorough, accurate, and best-analyzed it can be. That mission requires that the information presented to the president be presented in a fair, objective, nonpartisan, and apolitical manner. (The rare instances where the CIA or other agencies have skewed their intelligence toward political ends, as with the run-up to the Iraq War, only underscore the devastating consequences of anything less than fair-eyed analysis.)

That the administration is so predictable in its terrible choices should not make those terrible choices any less troubling.

It’s here that the DNI plays his most important role. By statute, the DNI is the president’s lead intelligence adviser. That’s supposed to mean that the DNI leads the effort to provide the President’s Daily Brief—the world’s most elite newspaper—filled with daily intelligence and big-picture analysis of global, geopolitical trends affecting the US, its allies, and its adversaries. That role of chief intelligence adviser is one that Coats, Trump’s outgoing DNI, never quite grew into. Mike Pompeo arrived first in the administration as CIA director, before Coats was confirmed, big-footed the PDB, and hit it off with Trump before Coats could really establish a bond with the commander-in-chief.

Yet Coats did try to speak truth to power. He spoke up when it mattered, was honest about Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, and was willing to contradict Trump publicly on the future of North Korea’s nuclear program. One of Coats’ final acts as DNI actually was to appoint the nation’s first election security czar. That honesty appears to be a not insignificant part of why Coats was shoved aside, and ultimately out the door.

With a president so divorced from daily reality as Trump, it’s all the more important to fill the role of DNI with someone whose first duty is to puncture the Fox News fever swamp bubble that surrounds the White House, provide real facts and grounded analysis, and ensure—to whatever extent possible—that the information that flows into the Oval Office and the decisions that flow out of it are informed and strategic.

There’s little evidence that Ratcliffe is the man for the job. Beyond his antics cross-examining Mueller last week, he’s long been on the leading edge of criticizing the Russia investigation writ large. He was even the congressman who started the completely false rumor that the FBI—one of the intel agencies he is set to oversee—had an anti-Trump “secret society.”

Ratcliffe seems to appeal to Trump for the same reason most of the sycophants around him do: Loyalty first and foremost to No. 1. But the DNI is not supposed to walk through the door of the Oval Office attempting to please the president—he is supposed to tell the president whatever he needs to hear, consequences be damned.

Trump wants nothing of the kind. Instead, as he told reporters Tuesday afternoon, “We need somebody strong that can really rein it in. Because as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They’ve run amok.”

The fact that Trump, who has skirmished with the intelligence community ever since the campaign, still sees the truth-telling tradition of the intelligence world as making them his adversaries rather than his allies underscores how little Donald Trump has risen to the role of the commander-in-chief. As The New Yorker’s David Rohde wrote this week, the message Trump sends with Ratcliffe’s appointment is clear: Be loyal or leave.

That’s a recipe for the type of geopolitical mistake that gets Americans killed.

The idea that a person prone to wild conspiracy theories might soon occupy the role legally designated to be the final voice in the president’s ear on intelligence matters should terrify Americans—as well as both its allies and adversaries the world over. The fact that Senate GOP members have so far been relatively muted in their support for Ratcliffe encourages hope that maybe this disaster-in-waiting might be averted.

WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at [email protected]


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