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Senate confirms John Ratcliffe as next intelligence chief in divided vote

Is Rep. John Ratcliffe able to be confirmed by the Senate for DNI?
Is Rep. John Ratcliffe able to be confirmed b... 04:50

Washington — The Senate confirmed Texas Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Thursday, marking a significant turnaround for his once-troubled nomination to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies.

The final vote of 49 to 44 fell along party lines, a decidedly more divided outcome than the last vote to confirm a permanent director of national intelligence. In 2017, former Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coats was approved as DNI in a bipartisan vote of 85 to 12.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, hailed Ratcliffe's confirmation, saying in a statement that he is "confident that [Ratcliffe] will fulfill all of the roles assigned to the DNI with integrity."

Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor who was elected to Congress in 2015, withdrew his own candidacy days after he was first nominated by President Trump last August amid bipartisan questions about his qualifications for the role. The statute establishing the position of the director of national intelligence — who is charged with coordinating the activities of the 16 other agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community — says the nominee "shall have extensive national security expertise."

A member of both the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, Ratcliffe's impassioned defenses of the president during the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller and subsequent impeachment inquiry had already prompted questions about his suitability for what has traditionally been an apolitical role. At his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Ratcliffe vowed to provide "unvarnished" intelligence to policymakers irrespective of their political preferences, though he declined to answer several questions about recent Trump administration policy decisions that have proven controversial.

He also made commitments to participate in a public Worldwide Threats Hearing, an annual tradition that had apparently been scuttled until now given the fallout from last year's hearing, and to release "expeditiously" the fifth and final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference. The volume, centered on counterintelligence concerns stemming from campaign connections to Russia and expected to be hard-hitting, has already been submitted to ODNI for declassification review.

Congress Intelligence
Representative John Ratcliffe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.  Gabriella Demczuk / AP

Still, all of the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee opposed his nomination, which was advanced on Tuesday in an 8-7 vote. The full Senate vote was expedited to come before lawmakers departed for a week-long recess.

That move came at least in part out of a growing frustration with the office's current acting director, Richard Grenell, Democratic congressional sources said. A vocal defender of Mr. Trump with virtually no background in intelligence, Grenell has made a number of organizational and personnel changes at ODNI in his relatively brief tenure. Many of those changes came as a surprise to congressional oversight committees, and some were met with skepticism from former intelligence officials.

Grenell has also declassified and given to Republican lawmakers a swath of documents related to their probe of government investigations into Moscow's 2016 election interference and the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian officials. Previous directors, including Coats, resisted those lawmakers' requests.

Last week, Republican Senators released a declassified list of Obama administration officials who had made requests resulting in the "unmasking" of Michael Flynn's name in surveillance reports. That move was swiftly decried by former senior intelligence officials, who pointed out that unmasking requests are routine, that the Obama officials' requests were properly made and that publicly releasing the list amounted to a politicization of the intelligence community.

Earlier this week, Grenell also declassified an email written on the day of Mr. Trump's inauguration by former National Security Adviser Susan Rice that memorialized a January 5 White House meeting with President Barack Obama and other senior officials. At that meeting, according to the email, then-FBI Director James Comey raised concerns about Flynn's conversations with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The full text of the email was released by Senate Republicans on Tuesday.

Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have leveled both new and old attacks on former Obama administration officials in recent weeks, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who they claim sought to undermine the incoming Trump administration.

"We believe transparency builds public confidence," an ODNI official said of the declassified Rice email.

Grenell has nonetheless not responded to requests from Democratic lawmakers to declassify the transcripts of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak, or to provide a rationale for the declassifications he had elected to make.

"Selectively declassifying intelligence solely for political purposes undermines the Intelligence Community's credibility, and erodes public trust in institutions critical to protecting the nation," Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner wrote in a letter to Grenell on Wednesday.

The president, meanwhile, has consistently praised Grenell, offering him public thanks during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday "for doing such a fantastic job."

"I think you'll go down as the all-time great acting ever at any position," Mr. Trump said.

ODNI did not offer comment on Grenell's plans following Ratcliffe's confirmation. Grenell has served concurrently as U.S. ambassador to Germany during his tenure as acting DNI.

Some of the organizational reforms announced by Grenell were viewed with cautious optimism by former senior intelligence officials, who said the groundwork for several of them had been laid under prior leadership. They cited in particular the creation of a single intelligence community cyber executive and a reduction in ODNI directorates to streamline bureaucratic functions.  

Cuts to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) outlined by Grenell last week were also predicted long ago as complaints mounted within the intelligence community that NCTC received a significant portion of funding to the exclusion of other important missions. Cumulatively, about 15% of its current workforce will be cut in a downsizing expected to start this summer, an ODNI official said.

"This is a much-needed rebalancing for NCTC and an opportunity to look inward and figure out where it can become more efficient, eliminate some redundancies and align to expanding threats," said Javed Ali, a former senior NCTC official who is now a University of Michigan professor.

Grenell also designated National Counterintelligence and Security Center director William Evanina as the lead briefer for all intelligence-based threat briefings delivered to political candidates, campaigns and organizations, in what ODNI called "an important improvement and simplification to the threat notification process."

Evanina had already delivered cyber security and threat intelligence briefings to all the presidential campaigns in 2019, along with officials from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. He will work with Shelby Pierson, who was named the intelligence community's election threats executive by Coats last July. An ODNI official said Pierson, whose role seemed to hang in the balance following a charged election security briefing in February, will focus on coordination within the executive branch, and that her role is not expected to change.

The NCTC restructuring and other reforms were announced by Grenell without meaningful consultation of the House or Senate Intelligence Committees, according to the senior Democrats on both panels.

"We're going to have to spend some time delving into [this] before we can evaluate the wisdom of these cuts," Warner said in a statement last week.

"The Acting DNI has a legal obligation to keep the Committee fully and currently informed of these changes and failed to do so," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who also vowed a careful review of the reforms.

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