The United States — and the world — faces a historic threat to its health, well-being and economy. The global covid-19 pandemic challenges all of us: the public, cities, states and, of course, the federal government. But as we collectively fight this deadly disease, the intelligence institutions that help protect us all from current and future threats are also under attack from an insidious enemy: domestic politics. We cannot let the covid-19 pandemic be a cover for the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration.
The most recent illustration of this unprecedented attack is the continuing dismissal of career intelligence professionals — officers who have ably served both Republican and Democratic administrations regardless of their personal political stripe. Specifically, the unceremonious removal this week of the leadership of the National Counterterrorism Center. The NCTC, though not as recognized an entity as its intelligence community counterparts such as the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency, is one of the crown-jewel creations of the United States’ post-9/11 reforms.
Created to “connect the dots” and coordinate U.S. counterterrorism operational planning, the NCTC brings together representatives from across the federal government to maintain critical watch lists, monitor threats in real time and make sure that the disparate elements of the massive federal bureaucracy respond in a coordinated fashion. In short: Since 9/11, the NCTC has helped do for counterterrorism what the U.S. government is now trying to piece together against its new viral threat.
Although we were heartened to see President Trump nominate an experienced Special Operations officer to serve as the next Senate-confirmed director of the NCTC, we are deeply dismayed — and perplexed — as to why he would simultaneously gut the center’s leadership of critical institutional knowledge. The NCTC’s just-dismissed acting director, Russell Travers, began his career as an Army intelligence officer more than 40 years ago. He stood up the NCTC’s predecessor organization while the embers of Ground Zero still smoldered. He built the terrorism watch list from a set of index cards into the envy of countries around the world (and, it should be noted, as the model for the president’s own aspirational watch list to screen travelers to the United States for threats other than terrorism). Travers and his deputy, a career National Security Agency officer, were the epitome of what we strive for in national security: nonpartisan experts who serve the president and the American people with no regard to personal politics.
Now both are gone, to be replaced by as-yet-unnamed acting heads who will undoubtedly know less and who will be more beholden to the intelligence community’s politicized leadership. The next acting heads might or might not be gone themselves in a matter of months if the president’s nominee is ultimately confirmed. In the meantime, who manages the critical security tasks, including watch-listing and ensuring that the government-wide counterterrorism structure remains well integrated?
Even amid public health concerns, we cannot be distracted from how deeply destructive these removals are to our nation’s safety. To be clear: This is not just about protecting a few senior officers. These unceremonious removals send a damaging message across the intelligence community. Every current officer sees that speaking truth to power in this administration is an immediate career-killer. Every young recruit will conclude that joining the intelligence community is little different from signing up for any other politicized element of the federal bureaucracy. Countless more talented young Americans will decide that federal service, indeed public service, is not a worthy calling.
We do not suggest that post-9/11 reforms should be etched in stone. All healthy institutions should evolve with changing circumstances, and the NCTC as well as the rest of government must adapt as circumstances change. But the gutting of the intelligence community’s experienced professionals is not reform. It is politicization, pure and simple. It is destructive of our nation’s ideals, and it puts us all at risk.
Congress must reinvigorate the strictest of oversight to preserve what is left of the country’s prized, apolitical intelligence community. Post-9/11 reforms happened for a critical reason: The U.S. bureaucracy wasn’t prepared for a new era of threats. Indeed, the NCTC is a model of how the government should work in close coordination and with unity of effort in response to a crisis. It provides critical lessons for today’s challenge. The administration’s continued politicization of intelligence pulls the nation further from this goal, making us more vulnerable to the next national security threat regardless from where it emanates.