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Trump's intelligence shakeup could prove dangerous

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- Among intelligence professionals, President Trump's nomination of an inexperienced, partisan politician to oversee America's spy agencies prompted deep dismay -- but also a stolid reaffirmation of the spymaster's credo: Let's get on with it.

This combination of incredulity and stoicism was voiced by a half-dozen current and former officers I spoke with Monday about Trump's choice of Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to become director of national intelligence. The worry is partly that Ratcliffe lacks any real experience, and perhaps more that he has embraced Trump's "deep state" conspiracy theories about the CIA and FBI.

"This makes the work force wonder, what are we doing here?" said one veteran CIA station chief. But a few moments later he affirmed: "This place is under siege. People say, carry on, protect the mission, avoid the firing range."

"Analysts will be asking how well [Ratcliffe] will represent our product downtown," said a second former officer who served in a senior position under Dan Coats, the departing DNI. This former official predicted that it would take Ratcliffe a year just to understand the vast array of 17 intelligence agencies he will oversee, if he's confirmed.

The deepest worry among intelligence professionals is how the Ratcliffe nomination, and the intense partisanship that fueled it, will be perceived by America's intelligence partners overseas. "They're in wait-and-see mode," said a former senior CIA officer after canvassing a group of intelligence colleagues.

If the White House exerts political control through Ratcliffe, "foreign governments will be wondering if they should be sharing information" with the CIA and NSA, said the veteran station chief.

 

The most successful DNI since the creation of the post in 2004 was Coats' predecessor, James Clapper, a career intelligence officer whom Trump recklessly attacked because of his supposed political bias. In fact, Clapper was the model of an independent intelligence chief, who told the truth about intelligence failures in assessing the Islamic State, for example, when it made colleagues in the Obama administration uncomfortable.

Coats showed similar willingness to give honest if politically awkward assessments in congressional testimony in January of North Korea's continuing nuclear weapons development and Iran's continuing compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal -- both contradicting Trump's line.

This truth-telling standard is in the DNI's job description. Trump instead chose "a man who tells the president what he wants to know, rather than what he needs to know," said the veteran station chief.

A decisive factor in how the intelligence community views Ratcliffe will be his treatment of his two most senior prospective lieutenants: Gina Haspel, the CIA director; and Sue Gordon, who has been Coats' deputy.

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