Careful vetting needed now

The New York Times

July 30

Before President Trump picked Dan Coats to be the director of national intelligence, Mr. Coats spent 24 years in Washington as a member of the House and the Senate from Indiana, serving long stints on both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had also been ambassador to Germany.

His predecessors included James Clapper, an Air Force lieutenant general who previously headed two other intelligence agencies, and Adm. Dennis Blair, who commanded United States naval forces in the Pacific.

After an increasingly difficult tenure, Mr. Coats is stepping down and Mr. Trump has chosen as his replacement Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas.

The 2004 law creating the position of director of national intelligence says that whoever holds the post must have “extensive national security expertise,” but Mr. Ratcliffe has been a House member only since 2015 and joined the House Intelligence Committee just this year. Before that he was a small-town mayor and a United States attorney, apparently with little or no experience dealing with terrorism or national security issues. He may have even falsely claimed to have prosecuted terrorists.

One reason Mr. Coats’s tenure was so uncomfortable was that, unlike many Trump appointees, he was more likely to say what he believed to be true than what the president wanted to hear.

Even some influential Republican senators are concerned that Mr. Trump’s main reason for picking Mr. Ratcliffe is his intense loyalty, and not his experience on intelligence issues.

Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he didn’t even know Mr. Ratcliffe.

“I talked to him on the phone last night,” Mr. Burr said. “It’s the first contact I’ve ever had with him.”

That Mr. Ratcliffe’s record seems so undistinguished by relevant experience and so filled with examples of partisanship makes it all the more vital that the Senate carefully vet him.

Days before Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, testified last week that Russia had corrupted the 2016 presidential race and was once more “doing it as we sit here,” Mr. Coats appointed an experienced official to oversee election security intelligence across the government in a newly created senior position. A bit late in the game, but it amounted to an act of courage in the face of Mr. Trump’s adamant refusal to acknowledge the problem and respond forcefully ahead of the 2020 elections.

Mr. Ratcliffe appears to have caught Mr. Trump’s eye by being a dogged critic of the Russia investigation and claiming that the F.B.I. harassed Mr. Trump. During Mr. Mueller’s testimony, Mr. Ratcliffe accused Mr. Mueller of violating American judicial norms by writing an inconclusive report about whether Mr. Trump committed a crime by obstructing justice.

Just before Mr. Trump picked him for the intelligence job, Mr. Ratcliffe was on the president’s favored source of intelligence, Fox News, smearing the special counsel’s report.

“Its conclusions weren’t from Robert Mueller, they were written by what a lot of people believe was Hillary Clinton’s de facto legal team, people that had supported her, even represented some of her aides,” he said.

Mr. Coats has defended the nation’s intelligence agencies in their unanimous finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. He refused the president’s request to get James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to end his investigation of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who has since pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

These were not the only ways Mr. Coats rubbed Mr. Trump the wrong way. Time and again he delivered truths at odds with Mr. Trump’s preferred version of reality — saying that North Korea was unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons, that Iran was abiding by the nuclear deal, that the Islamic State continued to be a threat in Syria.

The president made his position clear on Tuesday when he said that “the intelligence agencies have run amok” and that Mr. Ratcliffe would “rein it in.”

Mr. Coats wasn’t perfect. Some experts think he could have done more to protect America’s 17 intelligence agencies from politicization. But more often than not, he stood by the professionals and their analysis.

One of the most important lessons from America’s response to the attacks of 9/11 that led to the creation of this post was that intelligence agencies need to work freely and honestly, and not be swayed by political considerations and the need to placate a president. An administration that sought and got the message it wanted from the intelligence apparatus is what helped lead to the invasion of Iraq and the disasters that followed.

The Senate needs to be sure we don’t go down that road again.

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