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John Ratcliffe's brief tenure on Intel Committee shows modest engagement with intelligence issues

Experience of Trump's intel chief questioned

As the newest Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe has demonstrated a prosecutor's acumen in political battles stemming from the panel's investigations of President Trump and his associates. But he has shown less zeal for the day-to-day work of intelligence oversight, according to public records, committee members and other officials familiar with Ratcliffe's work.  

Now nominated by the president to succeed Dan Coats as director of national intelligence — a role that requires "extensive national security expertise" by statute and an apolitical stance by tradition — Ratcliffe's record of defending the president while criticizing some of the work of U.S. intelligence agencies has prompted questions about his suitability for the role.      

While Ratcliffe's fellow intelligence committee members describe him nearly universally as "bright" and "personable," colleagues of both parties say the learning curve for understanding the expanse and intricacies of the work of intelligence agencies is steep, and that in his brief tenure on the committee, Ratcliffe has done only some of the things that would prepare him for a role atop the 17-agency intelligence community.

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Rep. John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, listens as former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies in Washington, D.C., on July 24, 2019. Andrew Caballero-reynolds / AFP/Getty Images

He has personally visited at least a few of the agencies he would be charged with managing — including the CIA, National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), according to his office, though only ODNI would confirm those visits occurred in the past six months and in his capacity as a congressional overseer.  

In April, Ratcliffe traveled on a week-long congressional delegation (CODEL) to South America led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but a congressional source said Ratcliffe had not yet traveled overseas with the intelligence committee as part of an oversight CODEL.

"This is the bread and butter of committee business and oversight," said the source, who requested anonymity to discuss non-public matters.

"Just understanding the intelligence community is a major investment in time and energy," said Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, who has served on the committee for seven years and chairs an intelligence subcommittee on which Ratcliffe sits. 

"It's not taking anything away from John — who I think is a decent guy — to say that he just hasn't been doing this very long," he said. "I think it's going to be very challenging for him to be successful."

GOP Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who joined the committee in 2011 and announced his retirement earlier this week, said Ratcliffe "doesn't have a lot of depth with the 17 agencies at this point in time," but said he is "a good, quick learner and a really smart guy."

"Bringing those lawyer-type skills, where you're responsible for digging into an awful lot of things that you may not know much about right off the bat in order to ... get what you want done," Conaway said. He believed that Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor, would "do a good job" as the country's top intelligence official.

But with six months as a member of the intelligence committee, Ratcliffe, who sits on three other House committees and six subcommittees, may simply not have had the bandwidth to absorb essential facts and context about how the 100,000-member, multi-billion dollar, multi-agency, multi-disciplinary intelligence apparatus operates, intelligence and congressional officials said.  

"This is really hard," Himes said. "You're not going to ask a guy with six months of experience to run a hospital. And I promise you that running the intelligence community is a hell of a lot more complicated than running a hospital."

Ratcliffe and the committee's public hearings

The House Intelligence Committee conducts the vast majority of its work behind closed doors and, often, beyond the walls of the Capitol. But a CBS News review of the eight open hearings the committee has held to date show that Ratcliffe engaged comparatively little during those sessions with the substance of intelligence topics in the panel's purview.

While in open session, he did not ask any questions related to the work of the intelligence community — or unrelated to the Mueller investigation — in his six-month tenure on the panel.

Ratcliffe asked multiple questions during last week's hearing with the former special counsel, as well as at a hearing in June about the counterintelligence implications contained in Volume I of Mueller's report — where he almost exclusively engaged a minority-invited witness. His forceful questioning of Mueller was said to have reinforced his standing with the president, who had earlier considered him for other cabinet posts, including attorney general.

But Ratcliffe was either absent or silent during the committee's other public hearings on different, intelligence-related topics. Though some of them — including one hearing on "Putin's Playbook" and another on the national security implications of climate change — did not appear designed to maximize bipartisan engagement, others tackled topics with which the intelligence community is known to be currently and intensely grappling.

Ratcliffe did not question expert witnesses invited to hearings focused on the threat posed by China, or about the challenges of "deep fakes" and artificial intelligence. 

He was not present at all for a hearing on "Diversity and Inclusion in the Intelligence Community," which featured testimony by senior intelligence community officials, including one from ODNI, about recruitment and retention efforts. A spokeswoman for Ratcliffe said he was "at the Department of Justice reviewing classified documents during that time period."

Ratcliffe's participation in open hearings is only one partial and imperfect indicator of his level of engagement with the committee's work. In general, the open hearings have been attended only sparsely by Republican members, and scheduling conflicts can require members of either party to dip in and out, depending on their obligations.  But all other Republicans and Democrats on the panel asked multiple questions at multiple open hearings. 

Committee business

"Unlike other topics, members of Congress generally are not following the vast system of U.S. intelligence," said Michael Allen, a former majority staff director for the committee under Republican chairman Mike Rogers. "The most effective members have spent the time in the SCIF taking briefing after briefing and developing expertise," referring to a sensitive compartmented information facility used for viewing intelligence.

"The best members also make sure [to take] visits around Washington — but also abroad to understand what's happening in the field," Allen said.

At the intelligence committee, Ratcliffe sits on two subcommittees — one on "Intelligence Modernization and Readiness" and a second on "Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research," which is chaired by Himes.

CBS News reached out to the offices of every Republican member of the committee with a request to discuss the typical learning curve for new members and Ratcliffe's level of engagement. None other than Conaway agreed to an interview. (The news of Ratcliffe's nomination emerged after members of the House departed for a six-week recess.)

Conaway declined to comment on Ratcliffe's attendance record at closed-door briefings and meetings but said his ability to dive into the substance of intelligence-specific oversight work had likely been curtailed by the "bifurcation" between the panel's regular work and Democrats' "misguided continuation" of investigations related to the original Russia probe. (Conaway led the committee's own Russia probe, shuttered last spring, while then-chairman Devin Nunes stepped away from it amid an ethics investigation from which he was later cleared.)

"The ability to learn, the ability to talk and communicate — he's got those tools," Conaway said of Ratcliffe. "He'll have to bring those to bear to catch up on everything that is going on in the [agencies] and all the roles that ODNI brings to the table."

"I expect him to bring that same commitment to good hard work that he's shown previously," he added.

For his part, Himes, the most senior Democrat on the committee after its chairman, Adam Schiff, said Ratcliffe had "shown up and done the work" as part of the subcommittee but broadly, and in effect, was "still figuring out what the acronyms mean."

"That's not his fault," Himes said. "I've been doing this now for seven years, and there are still vast swaths of the intelligence community that I'm still learning about."

One Democratic member who had spent more than two years on the committee and requested anonymity to speak candidly said understanding the depth and complexity of the intelligence community's work required an enormous and unavoidable amount of "butt time" — time spent in the committee's secure spaces reading sensitive materials and receiving briefings.  

"I worked on intel stuff more than any other committee than I was on in Congress, and that includes CODELS," said former member Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida who retired from Congress last year. "It was really up to each individual member — there were members who did the bare minimum and there were members who did a lot."

But, he added, "It really should not take you long to get up to speed with the amount of briefings and the availability of material."

Rooney never served with Ratcliffe on the Intelligence Committee but got to know him over the course of discussions about Ratcliffe's potential appointment. Along with former South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, who also retired last year and also served on the committee, Rooney recommended to Republican leadership that Ratcliffe be added to the panel.  

"I got the sense that he was very earnest, very serious when it came to understanding these issues," Rooney said.

The qualities of the director of national intelligence

"Knowledge and experience matter significantly to the success of a DNI. They need to know the national security issues of the day, the capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses of the agencies, and the people," said former CIA acting director Michael Morell, now a CBS News senior national security contributor. "The last piece is more important than people often think, as the DNI's authorities are quite limited and getting the job done requires just the right touch with the leadership of the agencies."

The five men who have previously held the post each had years, and often decades, of either military, diplomatic or intelligence expertise — or a combination thereof. 

Ratcliffe has some experience overseeing terrorism cases as a federal prosecutor in Texas, where he eventually became an interim U.S. attorney during the Bush administration. He also served as mayor of Heath, Texas, a town of about 7,000 people, and was first elected to Congress in 2014. He was appointed to the intelligence committee in January 2019, and also sits on the Judiciary, Homeland Security and House Ethics committees. 

"It's a very difficult job with a lot of egos coming from 16 different directions," Rooney said. "You need someone who is smart, likeable, patient and someone who, if I'm the head of one of those agencies, I feel like I'm being listened to. Johnny has that."

"Even Dan Coats had to come back into the system and meet and learn people and build relationships," Conaway said. "That should not be a disqualifier under any circumstance, because while the confirmation process may be going on, [Ratcliffe will start] working and building those relationships now."

Congressional leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will first consider Ratcliffe's candidacy — have said in recent days they don't know or have yet to meet Ratcliffe. Two sources also told CBS News the White House had not yet finished vetting Ratcliffe, whose nomination has not been formally announced.  

It was not immediately clear how extensive Ratcliffe's relationships within the current intelligence community itself are, though he would have had occasion to interact with at least some of its members during committee briefings. He has said during appearances on Fox News that the intelligence community "did spy" on the Trump campaign and suggested the CIA may have been involved in triggering the Russia investigation in 2016. Attorney General William Barr has opened an inquiry into the origins of that investigation and in May was granted sweeping declassification powers — normally reserved for the DNI — by the president.

"The president gets to pick who he wants working for him and he trusts John to be able to do the job," Conaway said.

"I'm also confident that if John's not up to the task, the president will fire him," he added. "The president is not hesitant about reevaluating certain circumstances. But I believe John's up to the task, but it's really more important that the president believes he's up to the task."

What "the task" for Ratcliffe might be is still uncertain, though some critics suspect that he might be pressured to declassify materials or otherwise portray intelligence in manners favorable to the president. In remarks to reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Trump, who has several times complained about elements of the law enforcement and intelligence communities as being part of a "deep state," praised Ratcliffe and said he hoped he would "rein in" intelligence agencies that had "run amok." 

The president also said statements made by Coats, who resigned with a record of unflinchingly delivering intelligence assessments even when they did not comport with the policy preferences of the White House, were "a little confused."

"I'm not sure specifically what the president's making reference to," Conaway said. "I'm not aware of [the agencies] running amok, but the president — he works with them every day."

Himes, like other Democrats, expressed concern about Ratcliffe's apparent willingness to prioritize politics. "There's not a human on the planet who doesn't understand why [Ratcliffe] is in this role — it's not because of his three decades of experience in the [intelligence community]," he said. "The question is, does he follow the William Barr model and view himself as a defender of the president?"

"If that is true, there will be incalculable damage done to the intelligence community," Himes said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi's record at open hearings. Though he was not marked present on the transcript of a hearing on "The Rise of Authoritarianism," he did ask questions.

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