A statement from the DNI’s office said Grenell and his staff had begun a “careful review” of past studies that “have identified opportunities to refocus or transfer activities at ODNI to eliminate duplication of work with other agencies.” While this review is underway, the statement said, Grenell has imposed a “short-term pause in external hiring” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its components, such as the NCTC.
This “review” of intelligence-coordinating activities has created concern among intelligence professionals that a campaign is beginning against what President Trump and his loyalists view as a “deep state” in the national security community. Foreign intelligence partners share this worry about a Trump-led campaign to control intelligence.
Fear of a purge increased last July, when Daniel Coats was pushed out as director of national intelligence. His widely respected deputy, Sue Gordon, resigned in August after she wasn’t tapped to replace Coats. Then came the departures of Maguire and his chief deputy, Andrew Hallman, last month. All four had angered the White House, in part because they supported the intelligence community’s findings that Russia has been meddling in U.S. politics to benefit Trump.
The debate about trimming the NCTC dates back two years, to a “summer study” launched by Coats. Officials say it has accelerated as a more political team has taken over intelligence policy. This group includes Michael Ellis, named this month to a National Security Council post overseeing intelligence, and Kashyap Patel, Grenell’s senior adviser at ODNI. Both formerly worked for Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and a passionate Trump supporter.
The management issue is complicated. Some critics have long argued that the NCTC duplicates some functions of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Similar complaints have been made about the larger ODNI structure, which duplicates some of the legal, communications and management functions of the 17 agencies it supervises.
The NCTC’s biggest problem right now, officials say, is that it is understaffed. Of its roughly 1,000 employees, about 700 are full-time government workers and 300 are contractors. About 30 percent of the government workers are supposed to be loaned by the CIA and other agencies. But a significant number of these interagency transfer positions are vacant, an NCTC veteran said, weakening the cross-government mission. With Grenell’s hiring freeze, and the reluctance of the CIA and other agencies to send transfers, the personnel shortage is becoming more severe.
The lack of adequate staff is felt especially at the NCTC’s Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning, which coordinates counterterrorism policy across government agencies. This directorate was mandated by law when the NCTC was created in 2004 to “connect the dots” within government and avoid the catastrophic intelligence-sharing failure that allowed the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Another key NCTC function that could be affected by the current squeeze is the modernization of its data collection. The current database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, collects names, passport numbers and other biographical information. The agency is building a broader registry that would include biometric and biographical data. But that work has slowed because of lack of resources, potentially leaving the nation vulnerable.
Russell Travers, a widely respected career intelligence officer, has been acting director of the NCTC since Maguire left to become acting DNI last year. Travers formerly served as chief data officer for both the NCTC and ODNI, and he’s an expert in the data-management techniques that are part of the NCTC’s core mission. A half-dozen intelligence veterans told me it is crucial that Travers remain in his job.
The stakes here are immense. The NCTC receives about 8,000 threat-related messages each day. Officials fear there aren’t enough people now to input all that information efficiently or to modernize the system.
“This review is not an effort to purge,” said the statement from Grenell’s office about his plans. Members of Congress and the administration who care about the nation’s security should make sure that promise is kept.