Biden’s New Intel Chief Means Truth to Power Is Back - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Biden’s New Intel Chief Means Truth to Power Is Back

Biden’s New Intel Chief Means Truth to Power Is Back

By John McLaughlin


Because the intelligence community just climbed back into the front seat.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

President-elect Joe Biden’s national security nominees all present a stark contrast with their predecessors, but none starker than his choice for director of national intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines. By saying publicly that she understood her job to be one requiring political neutrality and willingness to deliver unwelcome news to the president, Haines drew a bright, clear line between herself and the current director of national intelligence, former Representative John Ratcliffe, whose public handling of intelligence seems designed to support Trump’s political causes.

What is the DNI?

Unlike the CIA, there are no movies about the DNI, which does not have the same high public profile despite its great importance. The office was created in 2004 as part of a congressional restructuring of the intelligence community. The law made the director the nation’s chief intelligence officer but denied the occupant robust authorities commensurate with that responsibility, largely because the Defense Department did not want to dilute its control of several agencies important to combat support. 

The director’s powers over budget and personnel were modestly strengthened in 2008 and 2010 by executive order and in legislation. But in the end, the director’s power comes mainly from the personal relationship with the president and with heads of individual agencies, especially the CIA. Haines clearly has Biden’s confidence and is held in high regard throughout the broader intelligence community, so she should get off to a strong start. Haines, with degrees in physics and law and with private business experience, brings to the job an extensive government portfolio — as a former CIA deputy director, a deputy national security adviser and deputy White House counsel during the Obama administration. She also flies planes and has a brown belt in judo.

Transition from Trump to Biden

Trump’s relationship with intelligence was rocky from the beginning and has gone through four stages over the course of his tenure: 

  1. Ignorance during his business career and during his campaign.
  2. Hostility when intelligence began documenting Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
  3. Necessity when needing to determine things such as Syria’s chemical weapons use and terrorist whereabouts.
  4. Manipulation, most recently, with the clear intention of supporting his political objectives.

Intelligence professionals have held up well during all of these phases. Both CIA Director Gina Haspel and former DNI Dan Coats disagreed publicly with Trump on issues such as North Korea, Iran and Russia (taking positions that have been since been affirmed), leading him to say they should “go back to school.” Trump fired Coats for this and later dumped his successor, acting director Joe Maguire, reportedly for allowing an aide to brief Congress on intelligence analysis that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was geared to helping Trump.

President-Elect Biden Introduces Foreign Policy And National Security Nominees And Appointments

WILMINGTON, DE – NOVEMBER 24:  Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. As President-elect Biden waits to receive official national security briefings, he is announcing the names of top members of his national security team to the public. Calls continue for President Trump to concede the election as the transition proceeds. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Following Maguire’s departure, Trump first brought in Richard Grenell, his political ally and former ambassador to Germany, as an acting director until he nominated and gained confirmation by the Republican majority in the Senate for John Ratcliffe. Prior to that, Ratcliffe had made no effort to hide his political fealty to Trump. Since taking office, he has selectively declassified documents in an effort to support Trump’s contention that the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election was a conspiracy and “hoax” to tarnish his administration.

Looking Ahead

Avril Haines has made clear her determination to keep the intelligence community professional and objective, but the challenges ahead for her and agency leaders are substantial. However, simply by nominating Haines, and by virtue of her initial remarks emphasizing independence, Biden has given a boost to the morale of the intelligence officers who have kept true to their mission but been battered rhetorically by Trump and some of his cohorts.

After a period when intelligence has had an uncertain standing in the national security arena, I believe it will now move front and center. Among the reasons are the sheer number of issues Biden will have to deal with that require an intelligence input. This includes the usual so-called “hot spots” such as Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Syria — and of course major rivals such as Russia and China, along with transnational threat such as terrorism and cybersecurity.

But on top of these, there are some mega issues either neglected or inconclusively dealt with during the Trump years — starting with climate change, which Biden has elevated as a top priority. Intelligence will almost certainly have a warning-and-analysis role on climate. At the same time, the community will probably now also be charged with foreseeing the next pandemic. Scientists are already highlighting the likelihood of new diseases coming from the interaction between wildlife and humans as population and global crowding increases.

In a more traditional vein, strategic arms control will also require much from intelligence. Less than a month after Biden’s inauguration, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to expire. Assuming Trump does not renew it on an interim basis, I am confident Biden will want to negotiate renewal or revision — and that will require intelligence input to understand the capabilities of Russia, including those not covered in the original treaty, especially hypersonic weapons (which are able to move at speeds able to defeat our missile defenses). And if an agreement is reached, intelligence will take on added responsibilities for monitoring Russian compliance.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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