Acting DNI Shows Why Generals and Admirals Should Not Become Top Civilians

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

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Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Joseph Maguire, a retired three-star, was all too desperate to find a higher civilian authority whose orders to obey.

The testimony of Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire before the House Intelligence Committee Thursday made two things clear. First: Democrats, who have embarked on the fourth presidential impeachment proceedings in American history, do not have their strategy down. Second: generals and admirals, especially three-stars, should not normally be appointed to top civilian posts.

There was nothing to be gained by badgering a newly elevated acting director who was so obviously in over his head. Yet there is value in the efforts of Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to extract a basic timeline. It took Maguire several uncomfortable minutes to spell out that he had sought guidance on what to do with the whistleblower complaint, first from the White House and then from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. And Schiff and his colleagues successfully highlighted that both parties are conflicted: the president as the subject of the complaint, and Attorney General William Barr being named as what amounts to a co-conspirator. But to belabor that point was to waste powder. Their target is not Maguire and his missteps, it is President Donald Trump.

The incessant questions did serve another useful purpose, intended or not: they demonstrated why a three-star admiral usually is unsuitable for a strategic job like DNI. Maguire is just the latest in a string of casualties. When a general who is national security advisor, like retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, announces that the president did not share classified information with Russian officials and the president contradicts him, he should resign. When a general who is White House chief of staff, like retired Gen. John Kelly, lays his son’s ultimate sacrifice on the altar of the presidential ego, it is a shame. When a general who is secretary of state, like retired Gen. Colin Powell, stands before the United Nations proffering inaccurate information as the basis to launch a war, his reputation, and that of the U.S. military, is besmirched.

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With the exception of spending a year at a war college, at best, generals and admirals are not conditioned to think strategically. They are conditioned to execute. A three-star officer is an exceptionally talented individual who has spent his or her entire career obeying superiors’ orders.

More importantly: civilian control of the military is an article of faith in the United States. Officers look to what some jokingly dub their “civilian masters” to do the deep thinking about policy matters. Uniform officers rightly confine their responsibilities to implementing the resulting policies, defeating all obstacles. So imbued are some with this ethos that they seem to view senior civilians as possessed of some different and deeper insight — as well as higher authority.

Those qualities were on naked display during Thursday’s hearing. So desperate was Maguire, in his own repeated telling, to find a higher civilian authority whose orders he could obey that he did not notice how deeply compromised were the White House and the Department of Justice to which he deferred. That he did not even consider the apparently inappropriate use of a unique code-word classification system to be in his purview as director of National Intelligence — because the decision to use it was made by that higher civilian authority — proves he is unequal to the responsibilities vested in him.

The fact that this deference to civilian authority is so deeply ingrained in officers of Maguire’s caliber is precious to our Republic. It protects it from the military coups that have crippled so many other nations. But in Maguire, as in so many senior officers who have preceded him into strategic government positions, it blinded him to the fact that he is that civilian higher authority. And it is up to him now to call those tough shots. 

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