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Intelligence leadership shuffled again as broader reforms continue

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FILE: Lora Shiao, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center. ODNI website

Career intelligence official Lora Shiao will head the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) until a Senate-confirmed director is in place, administration officials announced Monday, in a move that at once eased some concerns that the intelligence community might become politicized while raising questions about the reasons underlying recent personnel shuffles.

Shiao, who previously held NCTC's third-highest position as executive director and has held numerous government positions focused on counterterrorism, will become the center's first female acting director on April 3, officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said. Her deputy will be Clare Linkins, another career official who was most recently NCTC's former director for strategic operational planning. Linkins will become executive director once a permanent NCTC director is in place; Shiao will then be deputy director.

Earlier this month President Trump nominated Christopher Miller, a former Army Special Forces officer who worked on counterterrorism issues at the National Security Council before moving to the Pentagon late last year. It is unclear when a confirmation process for Miller will begin.

"Acting DNI Grenell is excited and proud to promote Lora and Clare to these critical positions, where they will lead the nation's efforts to counter terrorism," said ODNI spokesperson Amanda Schoch. "Lora and Clare are both NCTC veterans, with more than 25 years of combined experience at the Center. They are well-respected career intelligence officials, with deep analytic, operational and leadership experience serving in the Intelligence Community and are recognized for their focus and commitment to workforce issues, including recruitment, development, retention and morale."

"Under their direction, NCTC is well-postured to lead the counterterrorism mission into the future," Schoch said.

Created in 2003 amid an extensive restructuring of the intelligence community following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NCTC is a signature branch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It comprises officials detailed from several other agencies – including the CIA and FBI – and is responsible for analyzing, integrating and sharing terrorism-related intelligence across the government. It has in recent years come under scrutiny as the administration's national security focus has shifted away from counterterrorism efforts toward strategic competition with world powers like China and Russia.

But separate from broader organizational reforms to the intelligence community, President Trump has also made moves to staff some major intelligence agencies with officials he perceives as being personally and politically loyal to him. Last month he abruptly announced the replacement of acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire with Richard Grenell, an outspoken ally of the president who is now concurrently serving as acting DNI, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and a special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations.

Mr. Trump subsequently re-nominated Republican congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas to serve as permanent DNI, though it is also unclear when Ratcliffe's confirmation process might be initiated. The first time Ratcliffe – who publicly defended the president during special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into his presidential campaign and during the impeachment inquiry that concluded last month – was nominated to the role, his candidacy was sunk by questions related to his national security experience.  

The series of leadership swaps at ODNI was originally set in motion last August, when Mr. Trump's first director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, as well as his deputy, career intelligence official Sue Gordon, were effectively removed from their posts. Maguire took the helm at ODNI in an acting capacity after Ratcliffe's nomination foundered and, along with a career CIA official who had been detailed to the office as its No. 2, remained in place until his replacement by Grenell was announced by Mr. Trump in February.

Though Maguire did face a time limit as interim chief, he could have remained acting director until a permanent nominee was confirmed – as Grenell is now doing. Maguire appeared to run afoul of the president, however, after an ODNI official delivered an election security briefing to the House Intelligence Committee that turned contentious.

At NCTC, Shiao will replace outgoing acting director Russell Travers, a former Army intelligence officer with over four decades of experience. He served as NCTC's deputy director since 2017 and as its acting director as of August 2019, when Maguire, then the Senate-confirmed NCTC director, was first tapped to lead ODNI.

ODNI officials have said Travers "wanted to retire" and "did not want another assignment," though his sudden replacement prompted concerns and some criticism from former senior intelligence officials, who questioned whether his replacement was part of a politically charged purge.

On Friday, nine former NCTC directors and other senior ODNI officials – including Maguire – wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post expressing concern about personnel changes at U.S. intelligence agencies. The op-ed was published before the nominations of Shiao and Linkins were announced.

The officials called the "unceremonious removal" of Travers and his deputy, another career official who will now return to the National Security Agency, the latest in a "deeply destructive path" being pursued by the Trump administration to remove apolitical experts.

"To be clear: This is not just about protecting a few senior officers. These unceremonious removals send a damaging message across the intelligence community," the officials wrote. "Every current officer sees that speaking truth to power in this administration is an immediate career-killer."

Officials at ODNI have previously said that Grenell is now overseeing an effort studied but not implemented by previous directors to "refocus or transfer activities at ODNI to eliminate duplication of work with other agencies."

"Since assuming his new role on Feb. 20, Acting DNI Grenell and the ODNI leadership team have embarked on a careful review of these studies completed prior to his arrival, with an eye to implementing key recommendations," spokeswoman Amanda Schoch said earlier this month.

"Acting DNI Grenell has emphasized with ODNI leadership this review is not an effort to purge, as some have erroneously suggested," she said. "The goal is to make sure scarce Intelligence Community resources are used in the best way possible."

"Further details will be provided as more specifics of the review are finalized," Schoch said.

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