David Ignatius

Washington, D.C.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. Ignatius has written 11 spy novels: “The Paladin” (2020), “The Quantum Spy,” (2017), “The Director,” (2014), “Bloodmoney” (2011), “The Increment” (2009), “Body of Lies” (2007), “The Sun King” (1999), “A Firing Offense” (1997), “The Bank of Fear” (1994), “SIRO” (1991), and “Agents of Innocence” (1987). “Body of Lies” was made into a 2008 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe.

Ignatius joined The Post in 1986 as editor of its Sunday Outlook section. In 1990 he became foreign editor, and in 1993, assistant managing editor for business news. He began writing his column in 1998 and continued even during a three-year stint as executive editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris. Earlier in his career, Ignatius was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, covering at various times the steel industry, the Departments of State and Justice, the CIA, the Senate and the Middle East.

Ignatius grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied political theory at Harvard College and economics at Kings College, Cambridge. He lives in Washington with his wife and has three daughters. Honors & Awards:
  • 2018 Finalist team, Pulitzer Prize for Public Service
  • 2018 George Polk Award
  • 2010 Urbino International Press Award
  • 2013 Overseas Press Club Award for Foreign Affairs Commentary
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, International Committee for Foreign Journalists
  • Legion D'Honneur awarded by the French government
  • 2004 Edward Weintal Prize
  • 2000 Gerald Loeb Award for Commentary
  • As The Post’s foreign editor, Ignatius supervised the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait
Recent Articles

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, April 17, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only. WRITETHRU: Swaps in new 17th graf to add first reference for Esper and context

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON - In the Trump administration's four-year battle with the intelligence community, a recurring character was a brash lawyer named Kashyap P. "Kash" Patel. He appeared so frequently, in so many incarnations, that he was almost a "Zelig" figure in President Donald Trump's confrontation against what he imagined as the "deep state."

Patel repeatedly pressed intelligence agencies to release secrets that, in his view, showed that the president was being persecuted unfairly by critics. Ironically, he is now facing Justice Department investigation for possible improper disclosure of classified information, according to two knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the probe.

Patel didn't respond to text, email and voice mail messages, or a request to talk at his residence.

Patel, now 41, flew largely beneath the radar during the Trump administration. In the span of four years, he rose from an obscure Hill staffer to become one of the most powerful players in the national security apparatus. The saga of his battles with the intelligence bureaucracy shows how the last administration empowered its lieutenants to challenge what it saw as the deep state.

At the start of the Trump administration, Patel was senior counsel for Rep. Devin Nunes when the California Republican chaired the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 and 2018 and emerged as a leading critic of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller III into the Trump campaign's alleged links to Russia. Patel then joined Trump's National Security Council staff as senior director for counterterrorism. In 2020, he was a senior adviser to acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell and his successor, John Ratcliffe, helping lead their efforts to remove senior career intelligence officers.

Patel's most prominent role was his final job, as chief of staff for acting defense secretary Christopher Miller in the administration's last two months. In that position, according to sources close to events, he challenged the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, and very nearly became acting director of the CIA himself.

As with so many other still-mysterious aspects of the Trump presidency, there's a riddle at the center of Patel's many activities. Was there a systematic plan to gain control of the nation's intelligence and military command centers as part of Trump's effort to retain the presidency, despite his loss in the November 2020 election? Or was this a more capricious campaign without a clear strategy?

Patel's story is an unlikely version of the American immigrants' dream. He was born in 1980 in Long Island's Garden City and attended public schools there. His family's roots are in Gujarat, India, by way of East Africa. After a stint as a public defender in Miami, he moved to the Justice Department in 2014, where he worked on national security cases. His Pentagon biography describes him as a "life-long ice hockey player, coach and fan."

Patel moved from the Nunes's staff to the NSC staff. At the White House, he was increasingly drawn into Trump's battle against an intelligence community that the president had come to regard as an enemy.

The assault on the intelligence community escalated when Dan Coats retired as director of national intelligence in August 2019, after disagreeing with Trump about Russian election interference and other subjects. Trump chose as acting head Joseph Maguire, a former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. But Maguire was sacked in February 2020 after one of his deputies briefed Congress on Russian election interference - drawing Trump's wrath.

Patel arrived at the DNI's headquarters on Feb. 20 with Grenell, but employees there say it was Patel, as a top adviser, who ran the place - and began a housecleaning. Deirdre Walsh, the chief operating officer, was ousted, along with Russell Travers, the acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Patel was the action officer. He made it happen," recalled one former top intelligence official.

Anger toward Patel within the national security bureaucracy mounted after an Oct. 31, 2020, hostage rescue mission in Nigeria. The incident, never previously reported in detail, was described by four high-level sources.

It was a rescue mission that was nearly aborted partly because of inadequate coordination by Patel. SEAL Team Six had been assigned to rescue 27-year-old Philip Walton, a missionary's son who had been kidnapped by gunmen in Niger, near the border with Nigeria. Patel, as a senior counterterrorism adviser, had assured colleagues that the mission had a green light, according to several sources.

But as the SEALs were about to parachute jump to the rescue site, officials realized the Nigerian government hadn't been informed, as required.

A frantic last-minute effort to obtain the necessary permission ensued. Finally, just 15 minutes before the operational window closed, the Nigerians were given word, the SEALs parachuted down, and the hostage was rescued.

Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Nov. 9, five days after the election. Esper had sharply criticized Patel's actions during the Nigeria hostage rescue and had protested attempts to declassify intelligence about the Russia investigation. Trump installed in his place Christopher C. Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center and a former Trump White House aide, as acting defense secretary. Patel was named his chief of staff.

A half-dozen officials say Miller was largely a figurehead and that Patel was the key civilian official at the Pentagon during the last two months of Trump's presidency when he clashed with the CIA and the NSA over various issues.

The final chapter in this strange saga was Trump's brief effort in December to remove Haspel at CIA and replace her with Patel. Haspel's apparent crime was that for months she had been resisting efforts by Trump and Patel to declassify information he had gathered for Nunes back in 2017 and 2018.

An account of the final campaign to oust Haspel was compiled from several sources with close knowledge of events.

Trump's plan unfolded in December when Haspel visited the White House to attend the president's daily intelligence briefing. After the briefing, she was approached by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who told her that Trump intended to fire CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop and install Patel in his place.

Haspel balked. She said that she would resign rather than accept Patel as her deputy. She said she would like to deliver her resignation directly to the president. Meadows disappeared and returned a few minutes later to say that the president had changed his mind: Bishop wouldn't be fired; Patel wouldn't be sent to the agency; Haspel would remain as director.

One takeaway from this long, tangled story is oddly reassuring. For all the roadblocks in Trump's way, he had the authority as commander in chief to do what he wanted in national security. Facing resistance from courageous officials who sought to protect the government, Trump in many cases simply backed down.

As bad as this story was, in other words, it could have been much worse.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 16, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- As President Joe Biden's list of foreign challenges grows, he has quietly shelved his predecessor's hopes for prompt denuclearization by North Korea.

"The likelihood of North Korea giving up nuclear weapons is close to zero" right now, says a senior administration official. Instead, the administration is seeking interim "way stations," such as halting weapons proliferation and checking development of new delivery systems, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The recognition that North Korean denuclearization is, for now, an unreachable goal comes as the Biden administration is swamped with other major foreign policy issues. Biden this week announced a quick withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, imposed tough new sanctions against Russia and began indirect nuclear talks with Iran.

North Korea has taken a back seat amid these other front-burner dilemmas. But the long-range danger posed by North Korea's nuclear program is likely to be an important topic when Biden meets Friday with Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.

The Suga visit is Biden's first White House meeting with a foreign leader and a sign that, as the senior official put it, "We cannot be successful in Asia if the U.S.-Japan relationship is weak." Biden hopes to establish rapport with a leader who, like him, served a long apprenticeship as the No. 2 official in his government and was widely underestimated politically.

Suga is bringing some welcome pledges to the meeting. He is expected to propose a $2 billion investment in 5G communications technologies that could provide an alternative to China's Huawei, and he'll offer what U.S. officials say is the most significant commitment on climate change yet by any U.S. ally.

Biden set the nonconfrontational tone on North Korea at his March 25 news conference, when he was asked about Pyongyang's short-range missile tests the previous week. He said that the United States would respond "if they choose to escalate," but that he was ready for "diplomacy . . . conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization."

Biden's stance, suggesting that denuclearization was an eventual goal, not an immediate one, was repeated in a joint U.S.-Japanese-South Korean statement on April 2, which called for progress "towards denuclearization."

Biden's muted approach reflects the failure of former president Donald Trump's high-visibility campaign for denuclearization -- which moved from threatening "fire and fury" against Pyongyang, to a showy summit in Singapore to "love letters" exchanged with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim basked in personal attention from Trump, and he undoubtedly hoped it would continue in a second term. But after Biden won in November, Pyongyang tried to maintain continuity. Kim announced in January that the fraternal, if hollow, Singapore statement should be the baseline for U.S.-North Korean relations.

Kim sent Biden a reminder of North Korea's military strength with missile tests in late March, but even that message was restrained. The party newspaper carried the story on Page 2, with the front page displaying routine articles about city planning and transportation, according to Robert Carlin, a former intelligence analyst who is one of America's top experts on North Korea. That was a "deliberate signal" of restraint, Carlin told me.

Carlin argues that the Biden administration needs to speak directly with North Korea, even if it recognizes that there's little chance for any breakthrough in denuclearization. "We do need lines of communication opened up, we do need to be talking and listening to them on a regular basis," he said.

The Biden administration has messaged North Korea that it is reviewing U.S. policy and that it "will be prepared to engage," the senior official said. But Pyongyang hasn't responded yet.

Biden's approach to foreign policy seems to be solving one problem at a time. He decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ending an almost 20-year headache at some risk to the homeland, but an enormous relief to a war-weary country. He's begun addressing Iran, seeking a "compliance for compliance" deal that would reimpose limits on its nuclear program and ease U.S. sanctions. And he's trying to balance penalties against Russia with diplomacy, through a proposed summit with President Vladimir Putin.

Lowering expectations on what's achievable now with North Korea makes sense, but it's not a policy. Biden needs a formula that balances competing interests -- tough enough to bolster Japan, but not so aggressive that it frightens South Korea. Just matching Trump's success in getting North Korea to stop its nuclear testing would be an achievement.

North Korea seems to be in the "too hard" folder for now. But one thing we've learned about Kim is that he doesn't like to be ignored for long.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, April 14, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON - Afghanistan nagged at Joe Biden 10 years ago. He thought the Pentagon was muscling a new president, Barack Obama, into adding more troops for an unwinnable war. He believed the United States' interests in Afghanistan should be focused on preventing another attack against the homeland.

This week, as president himself, Biden decisively reversed the choices made a decade ago and decided to withdraw all troops by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the ghastly al-Qaeda attacks that skewed U.S. foreign policy for two decades. It's a gutsy move because the price of being wrong is enormous.

Military advisers, now as a decade ago, have been warning Biden of the dangers. Intelligence analysts predict that civil war may quickly erupt, and the Kabul government may collapse. They predict that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups could reestablish safe havens within two years. They fear that Islamic militants around the world, who have been on the defensive since the defeat of the Islamic State, will be emboldened by what the Taliban will claim as a victory.

Many military leaders have been urging that Biden announce a conditions-based withdrawal. Biden, in the end, rejected that course, deciding that linking withdrawal to conditions on the ground, in the words of a senior administration official who briefed reporters today, "is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever."

Biden sometimes comes across as a genial gaffer, pliable in the way of a career politician. But Tuesday's announcement shows that he is also a stubborn and resolute man. Friends say he was bruised by the Afghanistan battles of a decade ago and took away some grudges. When convinced he's right, he's prepared to take big risks -- as he has this week.

The military, for all its worries about withdrawal, has hated the meat grinder of Afghanistan. Most of today's Army and Marine commanders have fought there, and many of their sons and daughters have, too. They share Biden's desire to get the hell out. But that's checked by a feeling that the only thing that's worse than remaining in what seems an unwinnable stalemate is pulling out troops -- and then having to go back in.

That's what happened in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. They were back five years later, dealing with the slaughterhouse that was the Islamic State. And if Biden was right about Afghanistan 10 years ago, he was dead wrong about getting out of Iraq, which he also strongly advocated.

That's the awful danger of this decision. Sometimes cutting the knot and removing U.S. troops opens the way for peace; more often, in recent years, it has been a prelude to greater bloodshed.

The downside is easy to imagine: a spiral of violence in which provincial capitals fall, one by one, leading to a deadly battle for Kabul -- a fight in which the people who believed most in the United States' intervention will be at greatest risk, and pleading for help. Closing our eyes and ears to that catastrophic situation -- turning away from the desperate appeals, especially from the women of Afghanistan, who fear new oppression -- will require cold hearts and strong stomachs.

Biden decided this week that Afghanistan's fate, in the end, will be determined by its people. Those who suspect that the country will quickly tumble back into the Middle Ages and a primitive version of Islam are wrong, I suspect. The years of war have modernized Afghanistan. It's now a richer, more urban country, connected by modern communications. People who gained their freedom in the two decades under a U.S. umbrella won't give it up easily.

The real test of Biden's policy is whether the core national interest he has embraced -- of limiting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to preventing another 9/11-type attack on the homeland -- can be achieved without U.S. troops on the ground.

Officials have been arguing this question back and forth for weeks. Can the CIA maintain a clandestine force in Afghanistan that's strong enough to operate against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups? Will drones be effective, if they must now be based in the Persian Gulf, with long flight times to Afghanistan and much shorter periods over potential target areas? We don't know the answers. Biden is rolling the dice.

Presidents have a few moments in office where they must make gut decisions about the nation's security. Because the future is unknowable, a commander in chief must trust his instincts. Fred Charles Iklé titled a book about ending the quagmire of Vietnam, "Every War Must End." Now that Biden has made his choice, he must pray that the troops he is bringing home will never have to go back.

- - -

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

About
David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. Ignatius has written 11 spy novels: “The Paladin” (2020), “The Quantum Spy,” (2017), “The Director,” (2014), “Bloodmoney” (2011), “The Increment” (2009), “Body of Lies” (2007), “The Sun King” (1999), “A Firing Offense” (1997), “The Bank of Fear” (1994), “SIRO” (1991), and “Agents of Innocence” (1987). “Body of Lies” was made into a 2008 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe.

Ignatius joined The Post in 1986 as editor of its Sunday Outlook section. In 1990 he became foreign editor, and in 1993, assistant managing editor for business news. He began writing his column in 1998 and continued even during a three-year stint as executive editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris. Earlier in his career, Ignatius was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, covering at various times the steel industry, the Departments of State and Justice, the CIA, the Senate and the Middle East.

Ignatius grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied political theory at Harvard College and economics at Kings College, Cambridge. He lives in Washington with his wife and has three daughters.
Books
  • The Paladin
  • The Quantum Spy
  • The Director
  • Bloodmoney
  • The Increment
  • Body of Lies
  • The Sun King
  • A Firing Offense
  • The Bank of Fear
  • SIRO
  • Agents of Innocence
Awards
  • 2018 Finalist team, Pulitzer Prize for Public Service
  • 2018 George Polk Award
  • 2010 Urbino International Press Award
  • 2013 Overseas Press Club Award for Foreign Affairs Commentary
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, International Committee for Foreign Journalists
  • Legion D'Honneur awarded by the French government
  • 2004 Edward Weintal Prize
  • 2000 Gerald Loeb Award for Commentary
  • As The Post’s foreign editor, Ignatius supervised the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait
Links