How Trump Hollowed Out US National Security

As Richard Grenell, the current US ambassador to Germany, starts his second day on the job as the nation’s acting director of national intelligence, his arrival also marks the ouster of not only his predecessor, Joseph Maguire, but reportedly also of DNI principal executive Andrew Hallman. By the end of the day, almost all of the roles created after 9/11 literally to prevent the next 9/11 will be either vacant or lack permanent appointees.While vacancies and acting officials have become commonplace in this administration, the moves by President Donald Trump this week represent a troubling and potentially profound new danger to the country. There will soon be no Senate-confirmed director of the National Counterterrorism Center, director of national intelligence, principal deputy director of national intelligence, homeland security secretary, deputy homeland security secretary, nor leaders of any of the three main border security and immigration agencies. Across the government, nearly 100,000 federal law enforcement agents, officers, and personnel are working today without permanent agency leaders, from Customs and Border Protection and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
All the posts, and many more top security jobs, are unfilled or staffed with leaders who have not been confirmed by the Senate. Trump has done an end-around, installing loyalists without subjecting them to legally mandated vetting and approval by Congress.Trump’s surprise ouster of Maguire, who took over as acting director of national intelligence last summer, came apparently in a tantrum over a congressional briefing that outlined how Russia is already trying to interfere with the 2020 election and help reelect Trump.

But understanding the true cost of Maguire’s firing requires understanding how the role first came to be. The director of national intelligence position was created after 9/11 specifically to coordinate the work of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies and help “connect the dots” on disparate data and threats, work that wasn’t done before September 11, 2001. DNI is an immensely challenging job that includes serving legally as the president’s top intelligence adviser, and traditionally involves giving the president’s daily briefing on potential threats. It has bested many of its previous office-holders, who found it a perilous position with immense responsibility but little direct authority.

As part of that reorganization, Congress also created the National Counterterrorism Center, meant to bring the FBI, CIA, and other key partners together in one building to ensure full visibility and cooperation into terrorist threats.Maguire, a former admiral who had been the NCTC head before assuming the acting DNI responsibility, has now been replaced Grenell, by a political loyalist with scant knowledge of the intelligence world. Grenell’s experience pales in comparison even to previous Trump appointee Dan Coats, who had only served as a member of the Senate intelligence committee. In a job that legally requires its nominee to have significant intelligence experience, Coats’ predecessors had all been admirals, generals, intelligence agency leaders, or former top White House officials.
Grenell has none of that background. He also confusingly appears to be continuing both as the US ambassador to Germany—a job that seems difficult to fulfill from the intelligence community’s headquarters at Liberty Crossing in McLean, Virginia—and the administration’s special envoy to the Balkan peace negotiations.Meanwhile, the clock on Grenell’s tenure as acting DNI is already ticking; for him to stay more than three weeks, Trump must nominate a new director by mid-March to restart the clock of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which is meant to limit the authority of non-Senate-confirmed officials. (If that nomination fails or other nominations come and go, Grenell could stay on indefinitely.)