President Donald Trump’s choice of a lawmaker with limited experience to oversee the massive US intelligence community has sparked concerns over the possible politicization of crucial national security decisions.
Trump announced the nomination Sunday of Republican Representative John Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence, the person who coordinates the 17 agencies that make up the US intelligence community.
Coats is leaving after 24 months during which Trump has regularly ignored and undermined his spy chiefs, keeping them in the dark especially on his plans for relations with Russia.
While the departure is not a surprise, the choice of Ratcliffe has sparked worries among lawmakers.
“I’m gravely concerned when it appears that the president is trying to look for someone who will be a political loyalist rather than that independent voice standing up for the intelligence community,” Democratic Senator John Warner told CNN.
Key Republicans were cautious about the nomination, some thinking that, despite his inexperience in the field, he might have Trump’s ear, unlike Coats.
“I don’t know John, but I look forward to getting to know him,” said Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which must approve the nomination.
Coats’ willingness to make clear his disagreement with Trump on important security matters earned the former senator and ambassador to Germany respect across the political spectrum.
Ratcliffe, by comparison, has made his name over four years in the House of Representatives as a staunch defender of the president.
Like many of Trump’s appointees, he frequently appears on Fox News repeating conservative conspiracy theories and alleging that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference was a political hit-job by Democrats working with US intelligence.
“So was the Trump investigation really about our national security – or was it politically motivated?” he said last year.
Former small-town mayor
That view –entirely contrary to how US spy chiefs see the Russia investigation – could bode ill for an intelligence community whose relationship with Trump has always been tenuous.
Ratcliffe, 53, would take over a crucial job that involves collating and distilling intelligence from the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Pentagon and other bodies for the president.
The DNI helps prioritize the threats and risks the country faces short- and long-term. All previous directors have been former diplomats steeped in security and military issues, senior Pentagon officials, and intelligence agency chiefs.
Ratcliffe’s resume is thin: before arriving in Congress in 2015, he was mayor of a small, very wealthy lakeside suburb of Dallas, Texas, for eight years, and a federal district attorney for just one year.
“Ratcliffe would be the first DNI without significant intelligence or ambassadorial experience,” said John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director.
The intelligence community has struggled with politicization under Trump.
He took office rejecting a DNI report that said Putin directed the 2016 election interference to hurt the campaign of Trump rival Hillary Clinton.
His legitimacy questioned, Trump countered that he himself was under attack by the “criminal deep state.”
Trump has also dismissed intelligence on North Korea and Iran to declare his own “facts.”
Earlier this month, Sue Gordon, Coats’ deputy director of national intelligence, said his independence has been important in the current political environment.
“The intelligence community has been able to keep its eyes in the boat, because he plays it down the middle, even when it’s unpopular,” she told CBS News’ “Intelligence Matters” program.
“There is something great about people who understand the world in the way intelligence officers understand the world,” she added.
“Where it has gotten difficult in this time is, this is a hyper-political time. And it’s difficult because we are all serious people who are just trying to solve some really serious issues.”
Ratcliffe has served on the House Intelligence Committee since January. But so far, he has used that time to defend Trump, rather than to connect with the espionage community.
Democrats have made clear they will fight against his nomination.
“Congressman Ratcliffe is the most partisan and least qualified individual ever nominated to serve as Director of National Intelligence,” said Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Confirming this individual would amount to an endorsement of this administration’s drive to politicize our intelligence agencies. This is a dangerous time, and America needs the most qualified and objective individuals possible to lead our intelligence agencies.”