One early lesson from the pandemic is that America needs experienced, knowledgeable people, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, in senior government positions – and senior political leaders need to pay attention to what they say.
Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the corona virus outbreak ranged from indifference to deliberately downplaying it. As countries like South Korea and Singapore responded to early reports of an unusual illness outbreak in China by implementing counter-pandemic strategies, no senior White House or Cabinet official made the case publicly that the U.S. should take action to mitigate a potential pandemic. Instead, Trump downplayed the situation and thanked China for what it was doing.
In contrast, senior scientists at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, made the case publicly and privately that the corona virus needed to be taken seriously. This produced pushback from Trump, but began to get attention elsewhere in the government. Trump now acknowledges the problem is real and has allowed scientists to shape the U.S. response to the pandemic. But imagine if the NIH and CDC were run not by deeply experienced scientists, but by people who came to Trump’s attention by praising him on Fox News.
This is already occurring in the U.S. intelligence community. On Feb. 19, Trump named Richard Grenell to be the acting Director of National Intelligence. A former Fox News commentator with a thin international relations resume, Grenell had been serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany, where his hyper-partisan approach alienated many of his German interlocutors and produced more negative headlines than support for Trump administration policies.
Nine days later, Trump nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe to replace Grenell as permanent DNI. The White House floated Ratcliffe’s name last year as a possible replacement for Trump’s first DNI, former senator Dan Coats, but dropped the idea after some of his already thin experience was found to be inflated.
In 2004, bipartisan majorities in the Congress passed intelligence reform legislation to address failures in the runup to the 9/11 attacks and the WMD rationale for the war in Iraq. Lawmakers wanted to ensure that intelligence agencies would better integrate and coordinate their work; and would present U.S. policy makers with intelligence assessments untainted by politics or policy preferences.
To enable this integration and coordination, the law created the position of the DNI, with this codicil: “Any individual nominated for appointment as DNI shall have extensive national security expertise.” The first DNI, Ambassador John Negroponte, a career diplomat with multiple ambassadorial and National Security Council assignments, clearly met the requirements of the law, as did subsequent DNIs: three four-star military officers and Coats.
In naming Grenell as acting DNI and nominating Ratcliffe to take the job permanently, Trump is seeking loyalist cheerleaders to oversee the IC, which he has repeatedly and publicly disparaged. Before a March IC briefing to the Congress about Russian election interference, two sources told the New York Times, a Grenell political staffer met with intelligence officials to set limits on what would be briefed. While the administration disputed this report, it demonstrates that having a non-professional cheerleader as acting-DNI is already raising questions about the politicization of intelligence on an issue of vital national security importance.
What could go wrong with a President — particularly one who is averse to information that does not fit his interests or his view of reality — getting intelligence through a political cheerleader? America has learned the costs of bad or misguided intelligence the hard way. Over 9,000 American military and civilian personnel have died in Iraq, along with over 200,000 Iraqi civilians, at a cost to the American taxpayer of almost $2 trillion. The final costs have yet to be tallied for Trump’s refusal to take seriously the intelligence briefings he received in January about a likely pandemic coming out of China. But it is already clear the U.S. missed the chance to get ahead of the pandemic and minimize the human and economic costs.
The U.S. has never faced a wider range of national security challenges, from rising powers, strained alliances and the global impacts of a changing climate, to terrorism, and pandemics. American taxpayers expect the IC to provide policy makers with factual, not politically shaded, intelligence to protect them and the economy from current and future threats. That is why the DNI is legally required to have “extensive” national security experience. Congressman Ratcliffe’s fanciful national security resume and track record of being a Trump cheerleader do not meet the requirements of the law or the demands of the job.
The Senate must implement the lesson the pandemic has (re)taught us about having experienced people in important government positions. It must reject promptly Trump’s woefully inadequate nomination of Rep. Ratcliffe to be the DNI. Additionally, Senate leaders should press Trump to expeditiously nominate a person with the credibility and experience of a Dr. Fauci to lead the IC. If the Senate leadership shirks its duty on this critically important issue, it will share responsibility for future intelligence failures and should be held accountable by voters in November.