The president’s intent to nominate Robert Mueller’s chief Capitol Hill inquisitor to head the nation’s intelligence community might just be the Trump administration’s most alarming personnel decision yet—even in an administration whose list of departed, disgraced, and indicted former top officials reads like a casualty list from Game of Thrones.
The news Sunday that Trump planned to tap representative John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) as director of national intelligence, replacing former senator Dan Coats, left many even on Capitol Hill scratching their heads: Who? “I don’t know John. I’ve met him a couple times, seen him on TV,” Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) told Politico, among other choice quotes it gathered.
"ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries." Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence The hearing instead focused on questions from senators about anti-terrorism efforts, nuclear proliferation, infrastructure hacking, and foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence-gathering.
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED who covers national security. His next book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, will be published in September. He can be reached at [email protected] .
Indeed, very few Americans had ever heard of the congressman from Texas’s fourth district until last Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, when Ratcliffe lambasted former special counsel Robert Mueller about “not exonerating” Donald Trump. Watching the hearing on TV with a group of journalists, I turned to my colleagues and said, “He’s auditioning to be DNI.”
Days later, Axios scooped the news of Ratcliffe’s impending nomination, saying Trump was “thrilled” by the congressman’s performance at the Mueller hearing.
That the administration is so predictable in its terrible choices should not make those terrible choices any less troubling.
The men who have occupied the relatively new role of DNI so far are among the most experienced intelligence leaders and diplomats in the country. After the job was created as part of the post-9/11 reshuffling of the US national security apparatus, George W. Bush tapped an experienced hand to fill it: John Negroponte had served as an ambassador in four countries, including Iraq; been UN ambassador; and worked at the National Security Council. His successor, Mike McConnell, was a vice admiral in the Navy and a former director of the National Security Agency. Barack Obama’s first DNI was another admiral, Dennis Blair, who had led Pacific Command and served as associate director of the CIA.
James Clapper, Obama’s second pick as DNI, was arguably the most experienced intelligence officer in the entire country—a career Air Force intelligence officer who had served for four decades, risen to the rank of lieutenant general, and personally headed two of the nation’s most critical intelligence agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Clapper had also served as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, where he oversaw all three of the Pentagon’s intel agencies: DIA, NGA, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s spy satellites.
And even though Coats, the outgoing DNI who Ratcliffe may replace, had no field intelligence background, he served in the Army during the Vietnam War, spent nearly 30 years in Congress—in both the House and the Senate, including stints on the intelligence committee—and had served as ambassador to one of America’s top allies, Germany.
Ratcliffe’s experience pales in comparison to any of his would-be predecessors. He served as the mayor of Heath, Texas—population 8,000—for a decade, and while he did a brief stint as a politically appointed US attorney in Texas in the final months of George W. Bush’s administration, his résumé on national security matters is practically nonexistent.
He had previously claimed to be involved in a single terrorism-related case, against the Holy Land Foundation, but appears to have far overstated his role. As ABC News’ James Gordon Meek reported Tuesday, “The fact is that @RepRatcliffe did not convict anyone in the Holy Land Foundation trial. His staff now admits he simply reviewed the first mistrial and issued no report to [attorney general Mike] Mukasey, which is why no one we contacted remembers him at all.”