The Corner

National Security & Defense

Crucial Tasks for the Next Director of National Intelligence

Then-director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about “worldwide threats” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 29, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

With the resignation of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats last month and with only 16 months left in President Trump’s first term, there is important work to be done by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to improve the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to protect our nation, ensure that intelligence officials speak truth to power and address the politicization of intelligence.

The first and most important task is improving intelligence collection and analysis to protect the United States against threats from U.S. adversaries and new and emerging threats. A growing — and underreported — national-security threat concerns how state and non-state actors have begun to use cyber warfare and other advances in technology against our nation. The recent attack on a Saudi oil field by a fleet of drones illustrates how terrorist groups can now use new technology to inflict devastating carnage on a nation-state.

Second, the U.S. intelligence community must do a better job speaking truth to power. I know from my 19 years as a CIA analyst the requirement that intelligence officers always speak the truth to policymakers — including the president — and tell them what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

While the intelligence community has a good record speaking truth to power, it must do better –it must tell the full truth. Too often, intelligence assessments are only technically true and omit controversial and politically sensitive information. I remember from my time on the House Intelligence Committee staff the frustration of members who frequently could only discover such omitted information if they asked intelligence officials the right question.

There also are too many meaningless consensus intelligence assessments written by committees. A better way to get to the truth would be to encourage intelligence analysts to challenge conventional wisdom and stop pressuring them to stick to corporate lines in their judgments. The Intelligence Community Assessments should always include dissenting views. Controversial assessments should include annexes with the views of these assessments by outside experts.

Third, intelligence officials must launch a massive effort to protect the integrity of the 2020 elections. There’s no question that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election and that there will be more attempts by multiple U.S. adversaries to interfere in future elections. There must be serious and sustained intelligence community-wide and U.S. government-wide efforts to prevent, detect and counter any future efforts to undermine U.S. elections.

Fourth, intelligence officials must address the growing and undeniable evidence that the resources of the U.S. Intelligence Community were weaponized to defeat Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and to undermine his presidency after he won the election. Our intelligence officials must admit Andrew McCarthy’s theory in his new book Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency is exactly right: the purpose of the Trump-Russia collusion investigations in 2016 was to render Mr. Trump unelectable and drive him from office if he won the election. It is time for intelligence officials to admit this happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again.

We need to put rules in place establishing very high standards for using U.S. intelligence resources in the future to investigate presidential candidate or their staffs. If such investigations are ever necessary, the intelligence oversight committees should be notified first.

It’s time to take this much more seriously and punish political leaks of intelligence intended to discredit people from a different political party, especially leaks of NSA material. Leaks of NSA reports on former national-security adviser Michael Flynn were a serious crime which still has not been prosecuted.

Requests for FISA warrants against presidential campaign staff must have far better scrutiny by the FISA Court. We also need strong rules on requests to “unmask” the names of U.S. citizens referred to intelligence reports. Moreover, intelligence officials should be instructed to refer any requests to unmask members of presidential campaign or transition staffs to their inspector general. Former UN Ambassador Samantha Power made hundreds of unmasking requests of Trump transition and campaign officials. These requests should have been investigated by multiple inspectors general.

Finally, if it is ever necessary for American intelligence agencies to investigate members of a presidential campaign of the party out of power, senior officials of that administration should recuse themselves. Officials like FBI Director Comey, Deputy FBI Director McCabe and CIA Director Brennan were far too partisan and obsessed with their hatred of Donald Trump to have been involved in an investigation of his campaign.

I don’t know whether President Trump will nominate someone to be the DNI or retain Admiral Joseph Maguire, who has had a distinguished career serving his nation, as Acting DNI for the rest of his first term. The White House should insist these steps be implemented as soon as possible regardless of who is heading the ODNI to keep our nation safe, protect the 2020 election and close the books on the weaponization of U.S. intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.


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