There has been a lot of pearl clutching about Richard Grenell’s appointment as acting director of national intelligence (DNI). Evidently the appointment will be temporary; Grenell is staying as ambassador to Germany, and the White House is not going send his name to the Senate for confirmation as DNI.
It’s reasonable to criticize that arrangement. If Grenell is going to return to his duties in Germany, where he has done an outstanding job, I would prefer that he not be diverted from them now. But apart from that consideration, the appointment strikes me as a good one. Certainly there is no reason for the almost hysterical response that the choice has met in some quarters.
The Directorate of National Intelligence and the DNI position were created in 2005. Its purpose is to assist the president in evaluating the intelligence collected by the 17 agencies that make up what is commonly called the “intelligence community,” or the IC. The DNI doesn’t have budgetary, personnel, or command authority over the community he overlooks; his job is to assess the intelligence that the IC creates, ask tough questions in an attempt to expose weakness or uncertainty, and present the views of the IC to the president in a useful form. If possible, the DNI should mediate differences among the various agencies to create a consensus view, but not to the point of suppressing honest differences of opinion that might affect the president’s decisions.
In other words, the DNI is an evaluator, not an operator. Like top political leaders, he consumes rather than produces intelligence. The DNI doesn’t need to know how to run an operation or manage intelligence assets in hostile countries; in fact, he has no formal authority over those collection activities and would encounter immediate and ferocious resistance if he tried to interfere.
The DNI does need good judgment, an understanding of the global context that makes intelligence meaningful, and a good relationship with the president and the leaders of the most important agencies in the IC — chiefly the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSA, and the FBI. The relationship with the president is especially important, because the DNI typically gives the president his daily briefing.
If the president is going to sit with you for an hour every day, or most days, you had better be able to present information in a way he trusts and can use.
For all these reasons, DNIs do not need to be, and often have not been, career intelligence officers. There have been five Senate-confirmed DNIs since the job was created. Only two of them (Admiral Mike McConnell and James Clapper) came from the IC. The first DNI — John Negroponte — was a career diplomat and ambassador who went on to be deputy secretary of state. Another, Admiral Dennis Blair, came out of the Surface Navy and was a former commander of the United States Pacific Command. The latest DNI was Dan Coates, a well-respected Senator who had been a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The point is that DNIs come from a number of different backgrounds. What they have in common is long experience assessing intelligence and the ability to approach intelligence estimates the way presidents must approach them: in the context of broader national-security issues.
Grenell is in the mold of Negroponte. He has years of international experience at both the U.N. and as ambassador to Germany, as well as in private life. In those capacities, he has had ample opportunity to see the strengths and weaknesses of the IC. Grenell’s post in Germany, for example, puts him at the center of a vital intelligence node not just for Europe but for Russia and China as well. There are no doubt a number of IC attachés in the U.S. embassy and consulates in Germany. Technically, they report to Grenell, and while the actual relationship between ambassadors and attachés can vary, I’m certain that Grenell has been an eager, active, and (where necessary) critical consumer of the intelligence he receives, which is exactly as it should be.
I worked with Grenell on the Romney campaign in 2012; he is a clear thinker who adapts quickly to different roles. In addition, Grenell is close to the president, which as I said is a definite advantage; he has the courage of his convictions, which is always desirable; and he is willing to probe and question inertial bureaucratic assumptions, which for the DNI is a necessity.
Again, my main concern is whether Grenell will have enough time to have a real impact as DNI. Typically, acting DNIs have come from inside the intelligence community; everyone knows that they will return to their old job and will still be a presence in the IC. Grenell, on the other hand, will be leaving the IC and returning to the diplomatic world. The tendency will be for the IC to cut him out of the loop, given that its members resent the DNI at the best of times. But the president can help a lot if he makes clear to the other major players that they have to take Grenell seriously even though he will be there for only a relatively short while.
I well remember the legislation that created the DNI 15 years ago. The concern at the time was whether the new office would add real value or simply be another bureaucratic layer within the IC that presidents have to penetrate. The CIA, which had institutional reasons for not wanting a DNI, lobbied (though not openly — it is the CIA, after all) against the legislation on that basis. I eventually decided to vote to create the DNI, but it was a close question for me and many others in Congress.
The concerns are still relevant today. I hope Grenell at least has enough time on the job to formulate an opinion on such concerns. If he does, he will be in a good position, perhaps in a second Trump administration, to suggest changes that will make the DNI and the IC more effective. That would be yet another service that Grenell could perform for his country.