Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman, is facing a moment of truth: Will he serve the intelligence community that he heads, protecting information that — in making a momentary splash for Trump — could disclose sources and methods and damage the country? Or will he join Trump in an assault on the very agencies he leads, treating them as part of an imaginary “deep state” that the president sees as his enemy?
Ratcliffe joined FBI Director Christopher A. Wray on Wednesday night in exposing efforts by Iran and Russia to influence the 2020 presidential election. Two cheers for that. Even if the claims about Iranian activity on behalf of Biden perplexed some intelligence officials, it’s good that, on Wednesday at least, Ratcliffe appeared to be taking intelligence interference seriously.
But there are many other questions about Ratcliffe’s behavior. On two previous recent occasions, Ratcliffe had seemed to be serving Trump’s political aims — releasing intelligence about a Russian assessment of Hillary Clinton that U.S. officials said could be disinformation, and then declaring “there is no intelligence that supports” allegations that the leak of Hunter Biden’s alleged emails was “part of a Russian disinformation campaign,” as some former intelligence officials have claimed.
John Brennan, former CIA director and a passionate Trump critic, underlined the worries about Ratcliffe’s independence in a conversation Thursday on Washington Post Live. “I wish the director of National Intelligence had more credibility because I think there are real questions about whether or not what he says is being motivated by his political interests,” he said, arguing that Ratcliffe “has politicized his office by the selective release and declassification of some material that is designed to promote Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection.”
A bipartisan warning about the danger of 11th-hour dissemination of sensitive information came Thursday from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the acting chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee: “To the American people and the media, we reiterate the need to be skeptical of sensationalist, last-minute claims about election infrastructure,” they said.
“The White House wants to pull a rabbit out of the hat, sources, methods and allies be damned,” Warner said in an interview Thursday.
Intelligence officials have told me they fear Ratcliffe was appointed DNI for a simple reason: Trump wanted a loyal supporter in charge of the spy agencies as the country headed toward Election Day. That’s the kind of raw self-interest the country has come to expect from Trump, but we don’t often assess the consequences for the intelligence community.
The ODNI structure has been enfeebled, according to four knowledgeable intelligence sources. The roughly 1,700 people who work there are “demoralized,” says one. The organization is being “hollowed out,” says a second, as senior employees quit and junior ones resist being sent there on temporary assignment from other agencies, such as the CIA. Analysts are “pulling their punches” for fear of offending the White House, says a third.
“The intelligence community is exhausted by Trump,” says a fourth, noting that agencies such as the CIA are trying to “distance themselves” from a DNI office that doesn’t help them improve performance and carries a political agenda. “The problem is that the DNI provides no value to the other agencies. They don’t want to act as a community.”
These four intelligence veterans also fear that political caution is creeping into the analysis that agencies share with Congress or the White House on sensitive topics. Intelligence briefers are sometimes accompanied by “minders” from the DNI’s office, to make sure they don’t stray from approved themes, one official told me. Important intelligence is still included in formal documents, like the President’s Daily Brief. But on topics that might upset Trump, like allegations that Russia is paying bounties to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, the briefers don’t push too hard.
The DNI post was created in 2005 to “connect the dots” among the 17 intelligence agencies and avoid another catastrophe like the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But under Ratcliffe, the agencies are shy of being connected to a central structure they mistrust. The intelligence chiefs try to keep their heads down, while the GOP point man at Liberty Crossing, as the ODNI’s Virginia headquarters is known, seems to have only one dot that really matters — Trump.
As the DNI office has become politicized, it’s performing the opposite of what was intended — separating the agencies rather than integrating them. If Biden is elected next month, he should ask whether this bureaucratic behemoth, so susceptible to manipulation, should be scrapped.