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The Dangers of a Loyalist Director of National Intelligence

Austin Carson
Sunday, September 29, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, distanced himself from the Trump administration’s rhetoric during congressional testimony this past week as he defended the actions of the whistleblower who filed a complaint regarding President Donald Trump’s communications with the Ukrainian government. His predecessor, former Senator Dan Coats, also proved to be professional and unbiased director of national intelligence.

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Editor’s Note: The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, distanced himself from the Trump administration’s rhetoric during congressional testimony this past week as he defended the actions of the whistleblower who filed a complaint regarding President Donald Trump’s communications with the Ukrainian government. His predecessor, former Senator Dan Coats, also proved to be professional and unbiased director of national intelligence. But Trump may now be eager to nominate a new director, and if the succession follows the administration’s pattern, the new nominee is likely to be a loyalist more concerned with Trump’s approval than the truth. Austin Carson of the University of Chicago warns that a politicized DNI may distort intelligence analyses, undermine faith in the community as a whole and derail important initiatives like election security.

Daniel Byman


The intelligence community is at a crossroads. Dan Coats resigned as director of national intelligence (DNI) on Aug. 15. The Trump White House quickly floated Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas as a possible replacement. Just as quickly, he was dropped. This past week, revelations about Ukraine and the initiation of an impeachment inquiry thrust the acting DNI, Joseph Maguire, into the spotlight.

The future of this symbolically important role remains unclear, but President Trump’s reflex to nominate a loyal Republican supporter suggests a permanent replacement will almost surely be more closely aligned with the president and the White House than was Coats.

This is far from an abstract concern. On Sept. 15, acting DNI Maguire was accused by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff of stifling a whistleblower complaint about Trump attempting to coerce Ukraine into investigating activities involving the family of the former vice president, Joe Biden. Schiff raised the possibility that Maguire was acting to “protect the President or other Administration officials.” Yet in Maguire’s testimony before Congress on Thursday he insisted he was not bowing to political pressure, defended the whistleblower’s behavior, and stated that “no one, none of us is, is above the law in this country.”

The impeachment inquiry may well tempt President Trump to replace the DNI. This raises the risk of politicized intelligence, which would have direct and indirect consequences for the business of intelligence and for public discourse. A loyalist DNI could affect the symbolic, the mundane and the bureaucratic, and steps in between. While necessarily speculative, the analysis below gives reasons for concern. It also provides ideas for where some “canaries in the coal mine” may appear if the politicization of intelligence is propelled forward.

These consequences come despite the inherent limitations of the DNI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). As many observers have noted, the DNI has significant constraints in practice, despite hopes for broad authority when the position was created after 9/11. Agency heads remain in the driver’s seat in many ways, which means the weakness of the office may limit the possible damage from a loyalist leader.

Yet the director has significant influence. While the DNI and his or her staff has a limited role in the day-to-day business of intelligence analysis, for example, the director can affect cross-agency intelligence products. The ODNI manages the President’s Daily Brief. The National Intelligence Council, which produces the influential Global Trends Report, is housed in the ODNI. The office also hosts centers of analytic expertise like the National Counterterrorism Center. Each provides real opportunities to exert influence. Moreover, as Amy Zegart rightly notes, the DNI’s lack of formal authority means informal channels of influence and personality can be critical. The DNI has become an important public figure who represents the intelligence community writ large; this is its own source of informal power. A loyalist at the helm may see opportunities in both formal and informal mechanisms.

Steering Intelligence Assessments

The primary function of the ODNI is to supervise the analysis process across intelligence agencies. The places to watch for signs that politicization is steering the content of intelligence assessments are in products like National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and in the activities of centers housed in the ODNI.

A loyalist DNI attempting to bend analytic judgments to President Trump’s own views, for example, could attempt to influence judgments in a future Global Trends Report by the National Intelligence Council. A new DNI could also use his or her power to elevate or deprioritize specific issues considered by national centers on terrorism, counterintelligence and weapons of mass destruction.

One specific item that history suggests we should watch is the NIE process. National Intelligence Estimates are influential, coordinated assessments of specific topics of national security concern. The issues they address and the conclusions reached can become fodder for intense internal debate, deliberation and bureaucratic maneuvering.

Historically the NIE is a prime target for politicization. Joshua Rovner, who wrote the book on politicization of intelligence by policy leaders, recounts several instances when a controversial NIE judgment was unduly influenced. For example, in reaction to disagreements over estimates of the Viet Cong’s strength in the Vietnam War in 1967, “the White House responded by pressuring CIA Director Richard Helms and other intelligence officers” to accept military estimates more supportive of presidential policy.

A loyalist replacement will be in a position to steer the NIE process in a way that minimizes clashes with White House policy and priorities. A director at odds with the commander in chief could use his or her power to protect NIE topics and conclusions from political influence. The flip side is also true: A loyalist director could put a thumb on the scale about what deserves attention and how conflicting views are resolved.

Compounding this risk is the possibility of publicity. National Intelligence Estimates are that rare intelligence product that occasionally has a public impact. Some have become fodder for political controversy, such as a 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such publicity raises the stakes of NIE conclusions and may tempt a loyalist director to demonstrate his or her support for the White House.

Losing a Public Dissenter

While he often kept a low profile, former DNI Coats appeared in public and, on several notable occasions, made statements at odds with the White House. Coats was one of a handful of high-level officials willing to publicly contradict the White House line. Of course, such dissent is not an unalloyed good. Allied leaders and foreign policy analysts have lamented the inconsistent messaging from the Trump national security team.

The most memorable instance of this public disagreement was when Coats was told of Trump’s interest in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the White House during an Aspen Institute conference. Appearing live and onstage, Coats made headlines by emphasizing the threat of Russian cyberattacks and sarcastically saying the meeting “is going to be special.” In another case, Coats, alongside CIA Director Gina Haspel, refuted Trump’s rosy view of North Korea, testifying to Congress that the intelligence community assessed that North Korea would not give up its arsenal. The break with Trump reinforced skepticism about the president’s credibility but also complicated the U.S. position at a summit the following month.

Expressions of dissent by officials like Coats have been important signals of stability. Observers of all stripes, concerned about the wisdom and predictability of policy under Trump, have found no small measure of reassurance from occasional expressions of disagreement. A few audiences are especially important. First, in the context of the intelligence-policy relationship, a DNI’s willingness to defend analytic judgments against a rosy White House view signals to intelligence professionals that their exercise of independence and apolitical analysis is valued. Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community have been blunt and unprecedented. Senior leaders making public statements that defend professional judgment over political talking points reassure the rank-and-file to stay the course.

Second, a DNI willing to dissent publicly on important issues can reassure anxious allies abroad. Trump’s critiques of close allies in Europe and East Asia have raised the uneasy question: Has the American commitment to defend its friends weakened? The continuation of working relationships among partnering militaries and intelligence agencies is an important source of continuity. Public dissents, like those of Coats, can encourage the view that allied leaders can safely ignore some of Trump’s most extreme rhetoric. This is good: It allows the everyday business of such partnerships—military training exercises, intelligence sharing about shared threats, and the like—to continue.

Third, dissent from the DNI sends a signal to congressional leaders and other political elites. It is significant that Coats chose to diverge during a congressional hearing. Many Democrats and mainstream Republicans in Congress have been looking for periodic indications that intelligence and the military have not become politicized. While some fidelity to the views in the White House is expected, a public break by a DNI sends a signal to those with formal and informal oversight roles that intelligence agencies remain relatively independent.

All this is lost with a loyalist DNI. A DNI who stays silent or explicitly agrees with the White House’s exaggerated claims regarding North Korea or climate change sends the opposite message. The morale among intelligence professionals will likely decline and more may choose to leave the community. Allies may shift gears to prepare for a possible change in the U.S. relationship. Members of Congress—already skeptical of the White House’s relationship with intelligence—may exert stronger oversight to counteract a loyalist’s influence. More realistic, however, is caution among legislators as the 2020 election approaches, especially among those in the president’s party.

Jeopardizing DNI Initiatives: Election Security

Another potential problem is the loss of specific policy initiatives put in place by the previous DNI that are not popular with the Trump White House. Even with its limited powers, the ODNI is one place where a director can experiment with new policy issues and where new policy priorities without a clear home can get some high-level attention. One concern about Ratcliffe, for example, was that he would use his powers to prioritize leak investigations during the Obama years.

It is hard to know how a new director more closely aligned with the White House might use this agenda-setting power. Easier to anticipate, though, is that existing initiatives that were not White House priorities—but that Coats chose to act on—could be in jeopardy. After all, agenda-stopping power is the flip side of agenda setting.

A case in point is election security. One of the last acts Coats took as DNI was to create a new position for “overseeing and coordinating election security,” called the Election Threats Executive. According to Coats, the individual would “coordinate and integrate all election security activities, initiatives, and programs.” He also ordered the various intelligence agencies to appoint their own senior officials to oversee foreign influence attempts in the run-up to the 2020 election.

It’s too early to know whether this particular initiative is meaningful or mere window dressing. What is clear is that Trump and key aides are no fan of such efforts. The New York Times reported that former Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen was told not to discuss election security and Russian influence operations in front of the president months before she was fired. The reason? “Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory.” In public and private, Trump and advisers like Jared Kushner and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton have downplayed the threat of election security even as intelligence professionals sound the alarms.

A loyalist as director of national intelligence could jeopardize the effectiveness of these nascent attempts to prevent foreign influence in 2020 and risk a repeat of 2016. Beyond the impact on intelligence assessments and visible dissent, a new DNI more aligned with the Trump White House’s preferences could shift the gears of bureaucracy away from some of the positives of the past director. This alone is well worth watching.

Looking Ahead

Where does the leadership of U.S. intelligence go from here? The prospect of politicized intelligence has grown with the departure of Coats and the acting DNI’s role in the impeachment inquiry regarding Ukraine. In the hands of a loyalist, intelligence analysis may suffer, the utility of public discourse to reassure allies abroad and analysts at home will decline, and specific threats like election security are more likely to be neglected. Each will be essential to watch if and when a permanent replacement is found.

But there is more to do than watch. The DNI functions within a bureaucracy of checks and balances. The independence of other intelligence leaders, such as CIA Director Gina Haspel, will be an important counterweight to any loyalist DNI. Congress has a role to play as well. Any loyalist would need Senate confirmation, and the potential consequences of politicized intelligence shows why meaningful review of a nominee is important. Once a new DNI is in office, any evidence of politicization will magnify the importance of aggressive oversight—by both Republicans and Democrats and by committees in both the House and the Senate.

Austin Carson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics (Princeton University Press 2018), which was recently awarded the Lepgold Book Prize for best book in international relations in 2018.

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