Make no mistake: The Trump administration’s continued failure to nominate a qualified, permanent DNI since the abrupt resignation of Daniel Coats, a former senator, seven months ago leaves a serious gap in the U.S. national security structure. Internal politicization and lack of leadership in the intelligence community can be just as serious as the myriad external threats confronting the United States.
It would be a mistake to forget the history behind the DNI’s creation. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission called for strong, independent management to help “connect the dots,” as well as integrate intelligence across the “foreign-domestic divide” that separated the missions of the CIA and FBI.
Moreover, the commission formed in 2004 to investigate the U.S. intelligence failures regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq issued a report emphasizing the need for centralized organization in the intelligence community. The WMD commission, led by senior federal judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia, stressed that strong leadership was essential to rectify the glaring tradecraft errors associated with prewar intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination.
The result was the largest intelligence overhaul since the CIA was created in 1947. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 established a director of national intelligence to better coordinate the 17 government organizations, approximately 200,000 employees and more than $80 billion in annual expenditures that compose the sprawling U.S. intelligence community.
Admittedly, the law is imperfect, granting the DNI broad responsibilities but only limited authorities over budgets, personnel and operations. The DNI must possess a nuanced understanding of intelligence and policy, as well as an ability to forge personal relationships, devise unified strategies and imbue disparate organizations with a common sense of purpose. That is in part why the complex legislation requires the DNI to have “extensive national security expertise.” Previous Senate-confirmed DNIs have possessed many decades of military, intelligence or other relevant experience.
The selection of Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting DNI is an accomplished fact, and nothing anyone says is likely to change it. But it is critical that whoever is chosen to fill the position permanently can reliably uphold the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act’s requirement that the DNI provide intelligence that is “timely, objective” and “independent of political considerations.”
Unvarnished, nonpartisan intelligence is essential to making sound national-security decisions. Even the appearance of politicization undermines public trust in the dedicated men and women who serve in the intelligence community, often at great personal risk. Any effort to silence analysts or punish perceived critics damages the DNI’s credibility as principal intelligence adviser to the president, Cabinet secretaries, senior military commanders and Congress.
The Trump administration must nominate a permanent candidate for DNI as soon as possible, and the Senate should use its influence to ensure that a qualified person is confirmed. Given recent history, the next Senate-confirmed DNI will have a steep hill to climb to reestablish trust, which is why we believe strongly that the ideal candidate should be a nonpartisan career professional, with an extensive record of public service and the highest standards of integrity.
To strengthen the DNI position, Congress also should consider creating a multiyear fixed term for the job, as with the Federal Reserve chairman or the director of the FBI. Doing so would help restore confidence in the DNI and insulate the role from political interference.
The U.S. intelligence community is by no means flawless, but the current system, forged in the aftermath of 9/11 and the revelation of flawed pre-war Iraq weapons assessments, cannot sustain another wholesale reorganization. The president’s efforts to weaken the DNI threaten to turn back the clock on intelligence reform and risk increasing America’s vulnerability to strategic surprise. We urge him to restore the DNI to the standing Congress intended in 2005 when the position was created.