The president has announced that he will nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) to replace Coats as director of national intelligence, or DNI, a post created after 9/11 to coordinate the work of the entire intelligence community (IC). Ratcliffe is not yet midway through his third term in Congress, where he represents Texas’s 4th District. Ratcliffe serves on the Intelligence, Homeland Security, Ethics and Judiciary committees. Before Congress, Ratcliffe served as a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and as the mayor of a small town there.
As the Senate decides whether to confirm Ratcliffe to this post, it should measure him against clear criteria. What should those be? It is not clear to us that the Trump administration has thought through that question. It needs to do so.
As longtime intelligence officers, we would recommend that the president set three priorities for the DNI: One, be the president’s primary intelligence adviser, bringing together all the IC’s information and analysis to inform his decision-making; two, aggressively manage and drive collection efforts against the key intelligence gaps that need to be filled to protect the country (and there are many); and three, set long-term strategy to ensure the IC will be effective against the threats our country will face in the future.
With these responsibilities in mind, what does the DNI need to be successful? To do the first job, the DNI must have the trust and confidence of the president, Congress (particularly those who serve on the Intelligence committees) and the other national security principals, especially the secretary of defense, the secretary of state and the national security adviser. The first job also requires both a deep understanding of foreign policy and national security issues and an analytic and intellectually curious mind.
Most important, the first job requires speaking truth to power, not pulling punches or rushing to the president’s defense when the facts and analysis do not warrant it.
In private, the DNI must defend the independence and objectivity of the IC. This includes being willing to privately inform the president and his national security team if or when they mischaracterize intelligence, and it includes holding the rest of the IC leadership to the same standard.
In public, the DNI must convey the IC’s view of the issue, not the views of policymakers.
There are also questions of management experience. The DNI oversees a large, complicated and vast enterprise — 17 intelligence organizations with a $63 billion budget and more than 100,000 people for national intelligence. The DNI also oversees sensitive intelligence collection and counterintelligence operations as well as covert action programs. In short, no national security or intelligence amateurs should be considered or confirmed, nor should anyone who has not run large organizations.
Of the five DNIs who have served since the office was established, four were career national security professionals who had risen to the top of their profession. The fifth, Coats, also had extensive senior national security experience as a senator with service on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees and as ambassador to Germany. James R. Clapper Jr., widely considered the most effective DNI to date, had deep experience in intelligence, serving as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the chief of Air Force Intelligence before becoming DNI.
Ratcliffe has some national security experience from his service in Congress and in the U.S. attorney’s office, but he would come to the job with by far the least experience in foreign policy and intelligence of any DNI in two decades.
Most important, Ratcliffe has taken political positions on important national security issues — he has said, for example, he knows the Obama administration broke the law in investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russians.
As DNI, he will have to leave the politics — and coming to the president’s political defense — behind. The Senate will have to determine if he can do that.