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Dan Coats just resigned as Director of National Intelligence. Here’s why that matters.

Whoever succeeds him almost certainly will be a less independent voice.

- July 30, 2019

Rumors have been swirling for months that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), was on his way out. Coats, a longtime Republican Party stalwart who represented Indiana in both the House and Senate, had famously clashed with Donald Trump on numerous high-profile issues, ranging from Russian meddling in U.S. elections to the extent of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

On July 28, 2019, rumors became reality. Trump announced on Twitter that he would nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) to be the next DNI. Trump reportedly discussed the position with Ratcliffe on July 19. Several days later, Ratcliffe got “a chance to essentially audition for the president” during Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill. The last lines of Ratcliffe’s remarks capture the bent of his questioning:

It is too soon to tell whether Ratcliffe will get the support he needs in the Senate for the job. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee — which will oversee the confirmation — has purportedly signaled his unease in private about appointing someone so political to the DNI position. But if Ratcliffe gets the votes to become DNI, the ramifications could be significant.

Politicization of intelligence isn’t new — but here’s what’s unusual

Intelligence gathering is all about the facts. In an ideal world, policymakers receive unbiased intelligence reports regarding important foreign policy issues and make decisions with this information in mind. Politicization inverts this process. Instead of facts guiding policy, the desired policy may guide the factfinding.

Following the revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance last August, I wrote here that while politicization was not new, the frequency and degree of Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community were unprecedented and could exacerbate this problem.

As security studies scholar Josh Rovner has argued, politicization is especially likely to occur when there are clashes between policymakers and intelligence officials on high-profile issues: “Open disagreement between policymakers and intelligence agencies makes it more difficult to convince skeptical audiences of the wisdom of policy decisions.” There tends to be less politicization around low-stakes, low-profile issues.

Politicization can take many forms. It might be indirect, with policymakers sending subtle hints about the kinds of conclusions they want to see. An extreme version is when policymakers pressure intelligence agencies to deliver the specific findings they want. Trump has taken this a step further, publicly refuting statements by U.S. intel officials on several occasions.

But another form of direct politicization is manipulation-by-appointment — when policymakers appoint individuals they know will be pliable, and loyal. That is likely what’s going on with the Ratcliffe appointment. Following the Brennan incident, I noted last year that there was a strong possibility that Trump would likely appoint loyalists to senior intelligence posts.

Coats, an independent voice, was one obvious candidate for replacement. Trump and Coats disagreed on a number of high-profile issues, as noted. The decision to nominate Ratcliffe is almost certainly aimed at bringing the intel community closer to the president’s views.

Even by Trump’s standards, the Ratcliffe appointment is a departure. Trump initially appointed Mike Pompeo, also a former Republican House member who has been supportive of Trump, to be CIA director, then later shifted Pompeo to head the State Department. But Pompeo’s replacement at CIA was a career CIA official, Gina Haspel. Coats was a former politician, but widely respected on both sides of the aisle.

What are the implications?

Installing a DNI who is willing to lean on the intelligence community to produce reports that are favorable to Donald Trump’s policy preferences could have broad implications at home and abroad.

First, consider possible scenarios for U.S. policy toward Russia. The president has insisted (with a few rare exceptions) that Vladimir Putin didn’t meddle in the 2016 election; the intelligence community concluded otherwise. With another presidential election coming up in 2020, the question of what the United States will do to defend against Russian meddling is pressing. A DNI eager to please Trump by downplaying the threat could make it easier for the administration to justify a lackluster response.

The appointment of a more pliable DNI could also have significant implications for U.S. policy toward North Korea. Mirroring the Russia issue, there has been a similar disconnect between the president’s assertions that North Korea is headed towards denuclearization and intelligence reports about Kim Jong Un’s actual behavior, which cast doubt on this notion. If Ratcliffe is willing to go along with Trump despite what the facts say, it could make it easier for the administration to defend a policy of conciliation with Kim while the nuclear threat from North Korea continues to grow.

Finally, the nomination of Ratcliffe could influence how the U.S. approaches Iran. For months after the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 Iran deal, the intelligence community found that Iran was still complying with the terms of the deal despite Trump saying otherwise (although President Rouhani recently signaled that Iran would partially withdraw). If a DNI Ratcliffe is willing to greenlight skewed reports about Iran’s behavior, the likelihood that Trump might pitch preventive military action could go up.

Of course, it is not clear yet whether Ratcliffe will be confirmed as the next DNI. But whoever comes next almost certainly will be less independent than Dan Coats seemed to be. Ratcliffe has shown himself to be a staunch defender of the president as a member of Congress. If confirmed, he could assume a more independent role from his perch as DNI. If he did choose this route, however, it’s unlikely he would be in the job very long.

Michael Poznansky (@m_poznansky) is an assistant professor of international affairs and intelligence studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.