The hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee — the first to be held during the pandemic lockdown — comes as senior administration officials have been pressing spy agencies for evidence to back an unproven theory that a government lab in Wuhan, China, was the source of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of almost 70,000 Americans.
So far that effort has produced no information to back up the claim, which is at odds with the view of many scientists, according to current and former U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, without citing examples, said “there’s enormous evidence” that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab that has conducted extensive research on coronaviruses in bats and has partnered with American researchers.
The position of director of national intelligence, created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to improve coordination among the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, is a politically fraught one in the Trump era. The intelligence workforce and senior leaders have been repeated targets for the president, who has accused them of conspiring to undermine his presidential campaign and has cast doubt on their conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign in part to help Trump get elected.
Trump put Ratcliffe forward a second time in early March, and although he is expected to receive a grilling from the committee’s Democratic minority, observers said he will probably be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The DNI post has been held by an acting official ever since Daniel Coats stepped down in August. Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany and an outspoken Trump loyalist, was named acting DNI after Trump removed retired Adm. Joseph Maguire, another acting official, in February. Maguire was fired after a subordinate, in a bipartisan briefing on election threats, informed Congress that Russia had developed “a preference” for Trump — an assessment that appeared to evoke for Trump uncomfortable echoes of 2016.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who had been seen as a key vote for confirmation, indicated last week that she is likely to support Ratcliffe’s nomination.
“After questioning him in detail, I concluded that he does have the experience to meet the statutory standard to fill the position,” Collins, who co-wrote the law that created the DNI, said in a statement. “His knowledge of cybersecurity is particularly important given the challenges our country faces.”
Collins added that she “also pressed [Ratcliffe] for his commitment to deliver objective analysis, regardless of the president’s views on an intelligence issue.”
Ratcliffe, a congressman since 2015, serves on the House Intelligence, Judiciary and Ethics committees. He also served as interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas from 2007 to 2008. He drew attention last year as one of the GOP’s most dogged critics of perceived anti-Trump bias at the FBI and in the special counsel’s investigation of potential Trump ties to Russia.
“Nowhere is the need for competent, apolitical leadership clearer than in the position of the director of national intelligence, who stands at the head of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a draft of his opening statement, portions of which were provided to The Washington Post.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said his main concern is: “Will the individual deliver unvarnished, unbiased intelligence to the president and to the Congress and to the American people?”
King said that in his roughly 40-minute conversation with Ratcliffe, the congressman was “reassuring” about his commitment to present candid intelligence. But he wanted “more reassurance” that Ratcliffe would be able to “be objective and tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear.”
Democrats are expected to press Ratcliffe on his credentials. “While I am willing to give Mr. Ratcliffe the benefit of the doubt in the hearing,” Warner said, “I don’t see what has changed since last summer, when the president decided not to proceed with this nomination over concerns regarding his inexperience, partisanship and past statements that seemed to embellish his record.”
Questions persist about whether Ratcliffe has hyped his record as U.S. attorney, including a claim that he played a central role in a terrorism financing prosecution involving the Holy Land Foundation. A spokeswoman for Ratcliffe acknowledged he did not prosecute the case but rather investigated “issues related to” the case’s ending in a mistrial.
Senators have seen material “affirming his national security experience,” said a person familiar with Ratcliffe’s confirmation process. Justice Department records reviewed by The Post show Ratcliffe was assigned to 34 “matters” involving national security.
“Senators have had a chance to get to know him, both in person and through answers to extensive questionnaires,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. “They’ve heard him talk about his experience in — and frankly preference for — nonpartisan, apolitical roles” at the Justice Department. “That’s directly applicable to the role he’ll be stepping into” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Ratcliffe is likely to be questioned about how the ODNI handled a whistleblower complaint by an intelligence community employee that led to Trump’s impeachment.
“The confirmation hearing is a much-needed opportunity to clarify some key questions that have hung over the intelligence community for several months,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA official, including whether Ratcliffe supports the law that protects whistleblowers from political reprisals.