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The Next Director of National Intelligence

A Thankless Job Is Getting Even Harder

Coats testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., January 2019 Joshua Roberts / Reuters

At the end of July, Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence (DNI), announced his resignation. When he leaves office on August 15, the U.S. intelligence community will be left with two crises to confront. One is obvious and immediate: how to protect the objectivity and professionalism of the intelligence agencies against the rising tide of politicization by the White House. The second is more hidden and longer-term, but just as important: how to transform these agencies to cope with the dizzying technological breakthroughs that, as Michael Morell and I argued in an essay for this magazine earlier this year (“Spies, Lies, and Algorithms,” May/June 2019), are empowering U.S. adversaries. The next DNI must tackle both crises to safeguard the nation. 

So far, the political challenge has dominated headlines. President Donald Trump has compared intelligence officers to Nazis. He has accused the FBI of having “spied on” on his campaign. He has blasted intelligence reports that arrive at inconvenient conclusions, such as that Iran had been adhering to the nuclear deal even after the United States withdrew from it and that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. Most recently, he ominously declared that he was looking for a leader of the intelligence community who could “really rein it in,” by which it appears he meant that intelligence agencies should start agreeing with him more regardless of what the facts say.

That is certainly the message Trump sent with his short-lived nomination of John Ratcliffe, a Republican representative from Texas, to replace Coats. Ratcliffe’s chief qualification to become DNI appears to have been his eagerness to launch a televised partisan attack against Special Counsel Robert Mueller for having failed to exonerate Trump in the investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. A former small-town Texas mayor, Ratcliffe is a three-term Congressman best known for not doing his homework while serving on the House Intelligence Committee. As his colleagues told The

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