February 25, 2020

IntelBrief: Targeting the U.S. Intelligence Community

President Donald Trump at CIA Headquarters (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).
  • President Trump has installed Ambassador Richard Grenell as the next acting director of national intelligence, overseeing all U.S. intelligence agencies.
  • Ambassador Grenell has no intelligence or national security experience but is viewed as a Trump administration sycophant.
  • President Trump has been openly dismissive of objective intelligence analysis, viewing it as a threat to his partisan agenda.
  • Meanwhile, Russia continues to interfere in the ongoing U.S. election season, exploiting existing divisions and exacerbating tensions within the American public.



The United States has arrived at an impasse, with President Trump and senior officials regularly and publicly demeaning the very government they are supposed to be leading. Regularly repeated false accusations of a so-called ‘Deep State’ conspiracy have real world consequences. The American people are watching their elected leaders denigrate civil servants while second guessing the notion of non-partisan national service. Approaching the 2020 election, Americans are more divided than ever along party lines and once again, a Russian disinformation campaign seeks to further entrench those divisions. On February 19, President Trump announced that Richard Grenell, currently the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, would be elevated to the role of acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Grenell will also reportedly continue on as ambassador while overseeing all of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The decision to replace the former acting DNI, Admiral Joseph Maguire, with someone who lacks even a scintilla of intelligence-related experience is viewed by many in the intelligence community with bewilderment and frustration. It serves as yet another example of President Trump’s barely disguised disdain for information and intelligence that might conflict with his gut feelings and personal inclinations.

Grenell stated he will only serve in an ‘acting’ capacity until the President selects a replacement and formally sends that nomination to the Senate for confirmation. This could take a while, as President Trump has made ‘acting’ a quasi-permanent feature of his cabinet. By doing so, President Trump avoids Senate hearings on the nominee’s qualifications or lack thereof; he says he prefers ‘acting’ senior personnel due to the flexibility it offers. Other senior positions have gone unfilled altogether. The move to appoint Grenell as DNI, acting or otherwise, runs afoul of the language and the intention of the legislation that created the cabinet-level department—The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The qualifications are specified in 50 U.S. Code §?3023. Director of National Intelligence: ‘Any individual nominated for appointment as Director of National Intelligence shall have extensive national security expertise.’ Therefore, any appointment outside of these parameters should be viewed as a continuation of President Trump’s public demeaning of the work of intelligence agencies and personnel, which are mandated to ‘speak truth to power.’ 

The appointment of Ambassador Grenell, and the subsequent departure of Andrew Hallman, the department’s second most senior official, leaves the ODNI in turmoil as it works to counter the United States’ most vexing national security challenges. Among those threats are the intelligence community’s concerns that Russia is again interfering in a U.S. election. Russia’s systemic and large-scale influence campaign in the 2016 U.S. elections was unprecedented in scope; it is also the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community, based on overwhelming and unambiguous data, that Russia did interfere in the election and had a clear preference for then-candidate Trump. The mere mention of Russian election influence campaigns reportedly angers President Trump; the removal of DNI Maguire, according to news reports, came after a senior intelligence briefer informed a bipartisan group of lawmakers that not only was Russia trying to influence the 2020 elections but also that Trump was Moscow’s preferred candidate.

Professional intelligence officials and officers understand that it is entirely at the discretion of the President to act (or not act) on the intelligence he receives. Intelligence officials should not be involved in policy making; their job is to present the policymakers with accurate and unbiased information needed to help inform and shape the decisions that go into crafting proper policy. Yet the current political environment represents something altogether different, with a President who not only refuses to hear ‘bad news’ as it relates to Russia, but who consistently questions the loyalties of those bringing him the intelligence reports. Since before assuming office, President Trump has repeatedly and publicly berated the intelligence community, smearing the leadership of the CIA and the FBI as disloyal and insidious, even going so far as to use the word ‘treason’ in presidential tweets. The decision to appoint Ambassador Grenell not in spite of his lack of qualifications but because of them sends an unmistakable message to the already beleaguered U.S. intelligence community that ‘speaking truth to power’ is no longer welcomed by this administration. 


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