There is nothing in the Constitution about a director of national intelligence; like the White House chief of staff, the position is a modern invention created to help presidents do impossible jobs better. The men who have held these posts are unelected, hired and fired by the president alone. Both jobs have one thing in common: They are the people we count on to speak truth to power.
But though the chief of staff reports only to the president, the DNI must also answer to Congress. Maguire has only a few days to decide whether he understands that these are equal branches in a democratic government.
The office of the DNI has a short but colorful history. Created by Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to end the squabbling among competing intelligence agencies, the DNI at first muddied lines of authority and touched off turf battles. The CIA director would still oversee the world’s most powerful spy agency, but after years of reporting directly to the president, the CIA director found himself, starting in 2005, reporting to the DNI.
The first DNI, former U.N. ambassador John Negroponte, was greeted by then-CIA Director Porter Goss like a Visigoth at the gates. Goss and his deputies wouldn’t even give Negroponte office space at their Langley, Va., campus. Another DNI, a Navy admiral named Dennis Blair, encroached on then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta’s turf by informing everyone that the agency’s station chiefs would henceforth be chosen by, and report to, Blair. When Panetta got wind of Blair’s instruction, he promptly sent out another, telling all hands to ignore the DNI’s directive. His wings thoroughly clipped, Blair never recovered his authority and resigned a year later.
Since then, relations have improved; James R. Clapper Jr. and Daniel Coats both made peace with their CIA counterparts and became critically important players who strengthened the DNI’s clout inside the White House. It is received wisdom that the billions of dollars we spend on spying are for naught if the spymasters do not have the ear of the president of the United States.
But the DNI is also the nation’s honest broker. That means telling Congress what it needs to know. During the 1970s, the CIA was rocked by the disclosure of a witches’ brew of horrors that included illegal surveillance of domestic organizations and leaders; drugging of unsuspecting subjects; and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders. Those abuses led to congressional oversight, which has made all the difference ever since. The CIA is required by law to brief Congress, the heads of the Intelligence committees in particular, on all significant activities. Covert operations are disclosed in advance. It is only by ensuring that Congress is informed that rogue CIA officers and presidents alike can be kept in check.
Which helps explain why Maguire’s decision to withhold the whistleblower’s information from Congress is such a breach of trust, especially since the DNI’s recent record of truth telling has been so strong: Among innumerable other falsehoods, President Trump has insisted that Kim Jong Un is no longer a nuclear threat; there was no Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections; and global climate change is a Chinese hoax. During televised hearings this past January and in other public appearances, former DNI Coats contradicted the president, giving the lie to each of those assertions. He did not ask the Justice Department or the White House legal counsel for permission to do so.
Maguire will pay a price should he decide to turn over the whistleblower’s complaint to the congressional committees. He will be savaged by Trump and might well lose his job. There was hell to pay for Coats, too, when he told the truth to the American people, defending intelligence community assessments that contradicted the president. He did not care. He did his job.
By all accounts, Maguire is an honorable man and a straight shooter who defended this country as a Navy SEAL. It is time for him to do the same as director of national intelligence.