Why the intelligence community sees potential harm in ‘loyalty’

Why We Wrote This

What price loyalty? As President Trump surrounds himself with top advisers who are ever more agreeable, especially on national security, what is the cost in professionalism, and how does it impact America’s friends and allies?

Andrew Harnik/AP
Reps. John Ratcliffe, left, and Will Hurd, both Texas Republicans, speak as former special counsel Robert Mueller appears before a House Intelligence Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, in Washington, July 24, 2019.

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President Donald Trump came into office suspicious of an intelligence community he considered to a great extent to be part of the “deep state.” He clashed with his intelligence chiefs over Iran, over North Korea, and above all over Russia and its role in the 2016 elections. So few were surprised when Mr. Trump announced via Twitter Sunday that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who didn’t shy away from disagreeing with the president, would be stepping down.

What did raise eyebrows across Washington was Mr. Trump’s announcement that he intends to replace Mr. Coats with Rep. John Ratcliffe, a third-term congressman with little intelligence experience but who is very supportive of the president.

“When countries work with us and share intelligence, they want to be sure it’s serving a purpose and is taken into consideration,” says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration who is now at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“But if those same friends and allies feel the information is going to be distorted to support a policy that’s already been decided or will simply be disregarded,” he adds, “they’re going to worry.”

When President Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday that he wants to replace departing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats with someone who can “rein in” an intelligence community that has “really run amok,” it struck many intelligence professionals as the wrong criterion for choosing the country’s next top spy.

What they heard in those words is a president favoring loyalty and a like political perspective over professionalism. Mr. Trump's comments followed closely his announcement that he intends to replace Mr. Coats with John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican member of Congress short on intelligence experience but sharply critical of the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections.

“The intelligence community is about the most apolitical group of professionals you can imagine, but if we start winnowing out the people who provide the unvarnished view of what is happening out there in favor of others who would provide views that are closer to what the president wants to hear, it’s something everyone should be worried about,” says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia in the National Intelligence Council.

Beyond that, what worries national security experts is the potential for a period of deepening “intelligence wars” in the United States that could alarm U.S. allies and friends around the world, while heartening U.S. adversaries.

“When countries work with us and share intelligence, they want to be sure it’s serving a purpose and is taken into consideration,” says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration who is now a senior fellow in defense and national security policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“But if those same friends and allies feel the information is going to be distorted to support a policy that’s already been decided or will simply be disregarded,” he adds, “they’re going to worry.”

Others say U.S. allies have long since adjusted to Mr. Trump eschewing independent advisers in favor of loyalists, so they won’t be especially alarmed by Mr. Coats’s departure.

“Coats was the last guy to speak truth to power, is the way the Europeans see it,” says John Hulsman, a transatlantic affairs expert who heads his own global risk consulting firm in Germany. After the departures of former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and especially former Defense Secretary James Mattis, “Coats was seen as the last survivor of what they called the ‘axis of grown-ups,’” he says.

U.S. intelligence chiefs, most prominently Mr. Coats, have at times during the Trump administration seemed to be more in tune with the assessments of their colleagues in allied countries like France, Britain, Japan, and South Korea, than with the president they work for.

Last January, at a Senate hearing reviewing the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, Mr. Coats offered assessments on Iran, North Korea, and the threat from ISIS that aligned more closely with what allied leaders have been telling Mr. Trump than with the president’s own take on those same national-security challenges.

Boon to adversaries

U.S. allies will no doubt miss that close association, Mr. Hulsman says. But at the same time he doubts it will affect intelligence sharing among friends.

“The U.S. has the largest intelligence-gathering operations in the world, the allies know they gain so much more from [intelligence-sharing arrangements] than we do,” he says. “They’re just happy to be at the table. The prime minister of New Zealand may not like President Trump’s positions on a lot of things, but that’s not going to stop her from working with the U.S. on security issues.”

As for less-friendly countries, Dr. Korb says they will be all the more motivated to proffer information that will feed into a narrative that supports U.S. policy decisions that are to their liking.

“The adversaries will figure, if they know what Trump wants to do and they are in favor of him going in that direction, they can distort the picture to feed into those instincts.”

And then there’s the boon that U.S. adversaries would see in any drawn-out battles in Washington over intelligence agencies.

“From the Russian perspective, any prolonged turmoil or questioning of the intelligence community would be quite welcome,” says Ms. Kendall-Taylor.

At another level, the Russia analyst says she also hears in the president’s approach to the intelligence community a perspective that would likely elicit an approving nod from the world’s growing club of authoritarian leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

“From the Russian perspective and from the viewpoint of other authoritarian regimes, it certainly looks familiar if you’re pushing away the people who are willing to present views that differ significantly from your own and surrounding yourself instead with loyalists and yes-men,” says Ms. Kendall-Taylor, who is now director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“This may create an environment that allows the president to pursue his own core instincts,” she adds, “but it also heightens the risk the president won’t be making informed decisions, and that’s how mistakes get made.”

“Deep state” suspicions

Mr. Trump came into office deeply suspicious of an intelligence community he considered to a great extent to be part of the “deep state,” with a stranglehold on Washington. He clashed with his intelligence chiefs over Iran and the usefulness of the Iran nuclear deal, over North Korea, and above all over Russia and its role in the 2016 elections.

So few were surprised when Mr. Trump announced via Twitter Sunday that Mr. Coats would be stepping down Aug. 15.

The former ambassador to Germany and Republican senator turned top spy had not shied away from expressing views at odds with those of the president – in particular concerning Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections and the continuing threat Russia poses to the security and integrity of the country’s elections.

What did raise eyebrows across Washington was Mr. Trump’s announcement that he intends to replace Mr. Coats with Representative Ratcliffe.

The former federal prosecutor and mayor of a small town near Dallas, now in his third term in Congress, has little experience in international intelligence matters aside from serving the last four months on the House Intelligence Committee.    

Yet what Mr. Ratcliffe may lack in experience, he would seem to more than make up for in loyalty to the current Oval Office occupant. So much so that Mr. Trump bestowed the moniker of “warrior” upon Mr. Ratcliffe after his ferocious grilling of former special counsel Robert Mueller during his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee last week.

Pattern of decisions

Mr. Ratcliffe’s appointment would not be the first time Mr. Trump favored loyalty over experience in filling a key post.

Nor is it the first time the president is using an appointment to try to further his aim of shaking up an intelligence community that has consistently held that Russia meddled in the 2016 election with the goal of boosting Mr. Trump’s electoral prospects.

His replacement of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions with William Barr is a case in point – as is a recent decision by Mr. Trump to grant Mr. Barr broad powers to collect information and declassify material related to the Russia probe.

Mr. Barr’s objective in undertaking his investigation is to determine if political influences were a factor in the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia and the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump’s choice of “warrior” Ratcliffe would seem to dovetail with the aims of Mr. Barr’s investigation. Mr. Ratcliffe has said that he does not doubt Russian interference in the election that gave Mr. Trump his White House victory, but rather that he questions the origins of the intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia intervened specifically to boost Mr. Trump.

Still, what worries some intelligence experts is that Mr. Ratcliffe’s appointment might be designed to deliver loyalty and adherence to a president’s particular worldview over apolitical assessments.

The Iraq WMD report

Mr. Korb notes that one of the reasons the DNI was created in 2005 was to avoid any repeat of what transpired in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. The CIA furnished the White House with what turned out to be faulty intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs, but it conveniently bolstered the case for invading Iraq to depose the regime.

Moreover, molding intelligence to fit a particular perspective would demoralize the country’s intelligence community and could ultimately lead to a weakened intelligence infrastructure, they add.     

In a statement issued Sunday evening, Mr. Ratcliffe said his top priority as DNI would be to “work on behalf of all the public servants who are tirelessly devoted to defending the security and safety of the United States.”

But he has also reportedly told colleagues he intends to clean house in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – a mission that would seem to target experienced intelligence officers.

“Once you start politicizing the intelligence community, you risk creating an environment where analysts don’t have the space and professional security to offer their unvarnished assessments and best judgments,” says Ms. Kendall-Taylor. “People start to worry about the security of their career,” she adds, “but they also worry that vital and accurate information isn’t making it to the top and influencing decision-making.”

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