In an attempt to control the US intelligence community, whose conclusions are routinely rejected by President Donald Trump regarding substantive issues for US national security, including Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential elections, and the potential thereof in this year’s elections, Richard Grenell, the pro-Trump US Ambassador to Germany, was appointed Acting Director of National Intelligence.
On 20 February 2020, Trump fired the Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire for not being loyal to him by permitting Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community election security official, to brief Congress on February 13 in a closed-door session, attended by Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who led Trump’s impeachment procedures, about the belief by the intelligence community that Russia may again interfere in the upcoming presidential elections to support Trump’s win therein.
Trump’s negative assessment of the US intelligence community
Even before his official inauguration as president, Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community has been tense, with its officials having the impression that the US President refuses to change his views based on information provided by intelligence agencies, that he is not willing to listen to those with opposing opinions to his own, and that he is not interested in learning the facts. On the other hand, Trump declared more than once that he does not trust information provided by the US intelligence bodies because such information has previously led to a “catastrophic situation” both inside the US and beyond.
The relationship between the President and intelligence agencies has seen further tension over the last three years due to his dismissal of their conclusions that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential elections in his support, and their assessments regarding North Korea and Iran which disagree with his policies. The President has even belittled intelligence officials and asked them to “go back to school”.
Dan Coats, the first Director of National Intelligence, angered President Trump by declaring and backing the overwhelming view of the intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential elections and by his assertion that it is in the process of doing the same in the upcoming elections. Joseph Maguire, who assumed the post of Acting Director of the Agency after Coats’s departure, also angered the US President because of agreeing with the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives to submit a report prepared by an Agency official on Trump’s abuse of power, one of the charges that the House brought against the President and on the basis of which it pursued his impeachment.
The President also blamed Maguire after an intelligence official briefed legislators regarding the security of the 2020 elections and the possibility of Russian interference therein. Some press reports indicated that the US President upbraided him on February 14, saying that the intelligence community had handed his Democratic opponents political ammunition that may enhance the chances of their candidate in winning the presidential elections to be held next November.
Continuous attempts to control the intelligence community
With the approach of the date of the presidential elections and Trump’s attempt to prevent the leak of intelligence that could harm him politically and affect his chances of winning a second presidential term, and in an attempt to prevent any scrutiny of Russia’s role in the 2020 elections, the US President has appointed people loyal to him in high-level US intelligence positions. After the dismissal of Maguire, Trump chose Richard Grenell to assume the post of Acting Director of National Intelligence, despite being obviously unqualified for that post, albeit temporarily, since he does not boast any experience in the intelligence field or in managing any major institutions such as the National Intelligence Agency which deals with 17 intelligence agencies reporting to it. The main criterion adopted by Trump in this appointment was that Grenell is one of his ardent supporters.
After the severe criticisms due to Grenell’s appointment, Trump declared the appointment of Republican Representative John Ratcliffe, one of his strong supporters, as Director of National Intelligence, after seven months of the failure of an earlier plan to appoint him as successor to former director Coats, amidst questions raised regarding his competence to assume this important position. The aim of re-nominating Ratcliffe for the position of Director of National Intelligence, despite the possibility of rejection of this appointment by the Senate, which is the authorized quarter to approve the appointment of senior US officials, might be to retain Ratcliffe as the Director of National Intelligence until the presidential elections to ensure that no intelligence that could affect Trump’s win is leaked. According to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Grenell could not have assumed his post after March 11 unless the President has formally nominated someone else for the job. Under the said Act, Grenell will be able to retain his job for an additional 210 days once the President dispatches Ratcliffe’s official nomination documents for the post to the Senate. If the Senate rejects the nomination, Grenell’s tenure would be extended again.
In the context of his persistent efforts to control US intelligence, Trump appointed Kash Patel, a former top National Security Council official who opposed the investigations into the Russian interference in the 2016 elections, to a senior position at the office of the Director of National Intelligence. The US President also appointed Michael Ellis, Deputy Legal Adviser to the National Security Council and former Counsel to the House Intelligence Committee, as Director for Intelligence on the National Security Council. This appointment represents the latest indication of President Trump’s intention to continue with his approach of appointing reliable loyalists to control the intelligence community. Ellis has declined a request for testimony by the House Intelligence Committee which was responsible for Trump’s impeachment probe. The office led by Ellis serves as the day-to-day connective tissue between the intelligence community and the White House. Sensitive information coming in from the intelligence agencies goes to that office. The office is also the location of the National Security Council server that stores the most sensitive classified information.
Implications for the efficiency of the intelligence apparatus
The 2004 Act establishing the National Intelligence Agency states that the Agency is to be directed by a person who has “extensive national security expertise”. Since the inception of the Agency, the position has been assumed by persons with decades of intelligence, diplomacy or military experience. Although Coats, the first director of the Agency under the Trump administration, was the least experienced, he spent a quarter of a century in Congress, including three years in the Senate Intelligence Committee, followed by nearly four years as US Ambassador to Germany.
Yet the appointment by the President of officials with no experience in intelligence work, including Grenell as Acting Director of National Intelligence and the nomination of Ratcliffe for the position, will affect the Agency’s performance of its duties, its capability of enhancing the collection of intelligence, and its better engagement across government agencies. Many observers of US affairs also fear that Trump’s appointment of partisan and inexperienced persons to assume the position of Director of National Intelligence would lead to enhancing his personal control over the intelligence community, politicizing it, and neutralizing it as an independent and objective voice that stands far from partisan and political divisions. According to those observers, the new appointments are likely to curb intelligence agencies when they are required to provide an accurate intelligence assessment so that they would only offer what Trump would like to hear.
As a result, during Trump’s presidency, the intelligence community may have to walk a tightrope since its officials would have to provide information to the President, as the one responsible for protecting the nation. On the other hand, they might feel like they need to hold things back to avoid triggering his anger. Besides, many of them have a growing belief that the President cannot be trusted, which might lead intelligence agencies to avoid sharing politically sensitive information with him.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has, since he was sworn in on 20 January 2017, witnessed a record number of dismissals, resignations and changes, in a manner that no Democratic or Republican administration has ever seen. Since his acquittal at the Senate last February of both charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress work, he has been striving to get rid of disloyal officials or those working to undermine his power or his chances of winning a second term in the presidential elections to take place on November 3 of this year, or those who hold opposing views to the White House, and replace them with others who share his views and policies and follow his desires.
President Trump has over the first three years of his rule developed an approach that establishes the temporary appointment of loyal officials in senior positions of the US administration to avoid the need for confirmation by the Senate which rejected several appointments by the President, besides the fact that this approach diminishes the influence and independence of US officials.
Within the framework of Trump’s attempt to increase his control of the US intelligence community after years of tension, he tended to politicize intelligence work by appointing loyal partisan persons who lack the necessary expertise to assume those positions. Many observers of US politics believe that politicization and lack of leadership in the intelligence community are as dangerous as foreign threats facing the US and endangering its security and national interests.
* Researcher on US affairs.
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