Amid the constant onslaught of troubling headlines that is daily life under the Trump administration, it’s hard to know what’s more dangerous: The confirmation of John Ratcliffe to be the director of national intelligence—or what comes after it?
Perhaps the clearest sign that three-term Texas congressman Ratcliffe is manifestly unqualified to serve as the nation’s director of national intelligence isn’t the fact that he embellished his résumé, nor that only a minority of the US Senate would vote to confirm him, nor that the first time he was floated for the post last summer he was so soundly rejected that he withdrew almost immediately.
Instead, it’s that years before just 49 senators of the 116th Congress—all Republicans—voted to confirm him last week as the head of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies and the president’s top intelligence adviser, the 108th Congress tried to stop a man like Ratcliffe from assuming that very role in the first place. They wrote into the law that created the job, 50 US Code § 3023, “Any individual nominated for appointment as Director of National Intelligence shall have extensive national security expertise.”
And John Ratcliffe definitely doesn’t.
A quick résumé reel of Ratcliffe’s predecessors makes clear the yawning chasm of experience between him and the five men who have held the role. The first DNI—confirmed by the Senate 98–2—was a career foreign service officer, a former staffer on the White House National Security Council, a four-time ambassador, and had just wrapped up four years serving as the ambassador to the United Nations and the US envoy to Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The next, confirmed by a simple voice vote, spent 30 years in naval intelligence, was a vice admiral, the head of intelligence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Desert Storm, and head of the National Security Agency. The third, confirmed unanimously, was also a Navy admiral, Rhodes Scholar, lifelong intelligence officer, veteran of two White Houses, associate director of the CIA, and the one-time head of Pacific Command.
The fourth, also confirmed unanimously, put even those sterling résumés to shame: a career Air Force intelligence officer and retired lieutenant general with a nearly 40-year career that included stints heading the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, as well as serving as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the Pentagon’s top civilian intelligence post responsible for overseeing four separate agencies—the DIA, NGA, NSA, and the satellite-focused National Reconnaissance Office—and roughly half of the country’s entire $60 billion-a-year intelligence budget.
The fifth DNI, President Trump’s first choice for the role, former senator Dan Coats, previously set the lowest bar for experience, yet even he had spent a quarter-century in Congress, including years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and had served for four years as ambassador to Germany, one of the country’s most important foreign security allies.
Ratcliffe, the Trump loyalist and congressman from Texas’ fourth district, is best known for his fiery hearings performances cross-examining witnesses like special counsel Robert Mueller and, last fall, during the impeachment proceedings.
A longtime personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer, Ratcliffe once told his law school alumni magazine, “I just wanted to hang out my shingle and start making money.” He served a decade as the part-time mayor of Heath, Texas, (population 8,000) and, midway through his career, spent four years as a federal prosecutor in Texas. Elected to Congress in 2014 on the Tea Party wave, he has served in Congress for five years and is in his first term on the House intelligence committee.
When the congressman’s name was floated for DNI last summer, the already-thin justification of his national security “experience” evaporated almost immediately. Precisely two sentences of his official biography dealt with anything related to national security. Both proved to be inaccurate embellishments.
Ratcliffe had repeatedly claimed to have been involved in a major terrorism financing case, saying at one point that he “convicted individuals who were funneling money to Hamas behind the front of a charitable organization,” but closer examination showed that Ratcliffe actually just conducted a policy review after a mistrial of the case, made no recommendations, and was not involved in the actual prosecution.
His official House of Representatives biography also asserted that Ratcliffe once “arrested 300 illegal aliens in a single day." He had long used that case, known as Operation Plymouth Rock, to prove that he was an immigration hard-liner. “Many people talk tough on immigration, but fewer actually put their money where their mouth is,” Ratcliffe said during his congressional campaign. “But don’t just take my word on it. Ask any of the over 300 illegal aliens I arrested in a single day.” That claim also proved false; Ratcliffe, who has never had a job with arrest authority, had indeed helped oversee a large-scale sweep of undocumented poultry workers. But his office had charged just 45 of them—and six of those cases were dismissed, including two who turned out to be wrongly arrested US citizens. (Ratcliffe's House website, as of last week, had changed the language to say he “coordinated” the operation that led to 300 arrests, which is still incorrect.)
Those embellishments and the otherwise lacking résumé were enough to cause Ratcliffe to quickly pull his name from contention last summer, when Trump first pushed out DNI Coats and the career intelligence officer, Sue Gordon, who had been serving as the deputy.
John Ratcliffe is no more qualified today to be DNI than he was last summer, and yet he will soon settle into the director’s suite of the most powerful intelligence gathering operation ever assembled in human history.
Ratcliffe faces as DNI what might just be the hardest job in government. It is an enormously complex role with one of Washington’s worst combinations of power—a post with enormous responsibility and very little actual authority that has bested nearly all of its far-more-experienced comers. (By general consensus, only James Clapper—who was widely seen as a seasoned, low-profile leader before Trump attempted to paint him as a Deep State maestro—has managed to do the job successfully.)
The DNI oversees a sprawling, opaque, shadowy enterprise with an annual budget the size of the GDP of a country like Costa Rica or Panama—larger, in fact, than the annual GDP of more than 100 countries. The intelligence community is the US government’s most global and wide-ranging workforce, split among six Cabinet departments and 17 fiercely-guarded fiefdoms, each with their own separate focuses, reporting structures, legal authorities, collection capabilities, culture, and history, with employees collectively based in every US state and operating in practically every country. Depending on the agency, the legal powers, authorities, and limits of the DNI’s purview are defined by the military’s legal authorities, the US criminal code, the body of laws that govern intelligence and the CIA’s operations, or any of a myriad of other legal restraints.
Information within the constellation of agencies is closely protected, segmented by “need to know” basis, sorted and classified by collection method and by project. Coworkers sitting next to each other may know different pieces of the same puzzle, supervisors may not even know all the work their employees are engaged in, and analysts may know a piece of information without having any idea how the US government knows it’s true.
The DNI has to track everything from Russia’s new nuclear weapons and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China to the stability of the Venezuelan oil supply and Iranian cyberattacks, as well as whatever else crops up on a given day—the health of Kim Jong Un, a resurgence of ISIS, or a shooting at a naval air station. The job encompasses everything from submarines and undersea internet cables to secret space planes and reconnaissance satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
Simply all of that would keep any human busy enough, but managing, coordinating, and sifting through it isn’t even the DNI’s full-time job. The director serves as the president’s top intelligence adviser and is in charge of the daily presidential intelligence briefings—which in and of itself proves to be one of the most confounding roles in Washington, as a recent New York Times article outlined.
John Ratcliffe has never served in the military, never served overseas in a government post, and never worked in a White House or elsewhere in Washington as part of the intelligence community or the Justice Department. His managerial experience tops out at the less than a year he spent as the interim US attorney in North Texas during the final months of the George W. Bush administration, responsible for overseeing a staff of attorneys roughly equivalent in size to a single military company.
Ratcliffe has tried to sell his lack of qualifications as his best qualification. “I haven’t served in an intelligence agency. I think that bringing a different kind of experience today is really going to be vitally important,” he told CBS reporter Catherine Herridge after his nomination. It's a bizarre ploy. Nowhere else in life would we tolerate such inexperience; you’d never let someone who had never stepped inside an operating room perform open-heart surgery.
In short, John Ratcliffe seems like precisely the type of nominee that Congress tried to prohibit from becoming DNI in 2004. Ratcliffe’s nomination, by almost any interpretation of the law, should be illegal. The majority of the US Senate clearly understands that—even Donald Trump's Republican party couldn’t muster a full 50 votes to confirm him.
But what about the 49 senators who did? Why would they support someone so manifestly unqualified?
Because he has precisely two qualifications: He is an intensely loyal attack dog for Trump, and he is not Richard Grenell, the also unqualified, combative Twitter troll turned diplomat installed by Trump earlier this year as acting DNI. Grenell made short work of his own intelligence “reform” agenda, pushing out every Senate-confirmed appointee in the director’s office that he inherited.
Grenell’s presence at Liberty Crossing is such an anathema to Senate Republicans that they’re willing to confirm Ratcliffe instead. “In a time when the threats to our nation are many and varied, it is critical to have a Senate-confirmed DNI,” Florida senator Marco Rubio, acting chair of the intelligence committee, said in a statement after Ratcliffe’s confirmation last week. It was an odd sentiment given that the GOP had largely stayed mum as a career official had spent the better part of nine months as acting DNI before Trump forced him out in favor of Grenell. Only then did Republicans find any urgency to confirm an appointee.
In short, Donald Trump managed to install an unqualified nominee simply by managing to make the alternative appear worse; Republicans didn’t want to wait and see what more damage Grenell could do with the remaining months of the Trump presidency. In John Ratcliffe, Trump sees an answer to what he insultingly and wrongly calls the “Deep State,” a man who can weaponize the nation’s intelligence services like William Barr has at the Justice Department.
Grenell has already shown what damage a disingenuous DNI can do. He declassified, for apparently the sole purpose of leaking it, the list of Obama administration officials who requested the “unmasking” in intelligence reports of the name of former Trump White House national security adviser Michael Flynn. The controversy over the unmasking is the latest chapter of the amorphous, fever-swamp-inspired series of allegations that in the president’s mind make up “Obamagate,” a phrase he’s taken to repeatedly tweeting.
The danger ahead is that Ratcliffe, as DNI, will be in a position to do two things to undermine American democracy over the final months of Trump’s first term: First, he will be in charge of the official information that gets to Trump through the daily intelligence briefings and other reports, a troubling position for a partisan figure to hold. The job requires speaking truth to power and being clear-eyed about what’s factual and what’s not. The deeper the president gets into his term, the more he has adopted, embraced, and championed increasingly dubious claims, from magical thinking about the curative effects of various Covid-19 treatments to outright conspiracy theories about its origins and the government forces arrayed against him. His information diet, polluted by Fox News and fringe voices on Twitter, is as bad as his actual diet. Now he has someone in place who knows to feed him more of what he wants.
Ratcliffe promised during his confirmation hearing earlier this month to avoid doing just that. “Keeping politics out of the intelligence community is one of my priorities,” Ratcliffe told the Senate. “I will be entirely apolitical as the director of national intelligence.” And yet Trump has failed to articulate any other reason for nominating Ratcliffe than his fierce political loyalty.
Second, Ratcliffe—who in hearing after hearing last year downplayed and dismissed foreign interference in US elections and outright endorsed presidential abuses of power—is now the fox in charge of the henhouse. Ratcliffe will oversee and coordinate the efforts of the US government to protect the fall election from outside interference, and he will be in charge of determining what gets said to whom if an attack does occur.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic—which has claimed around 100,000 American lives—has made all too clear the general danger of politicizing facts, ignoring truth, and delaying honest conversation.
Now, the man literally in charge of ensuring that the nation is safe on a daily basis and that the president of the United States has access to the clearest, best, most accurate information in the world appears instead to be qualified in the president’s eye simply and precisely because of his history of politicizing facts, ignoring truths, and obfuscating honest conversations.
Update 5/26/20 9:25pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify that Richard Grenell pushed out every Senate-confirmed appointee already in place at ODNI, rather than those appointed during his tenure.