The U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is a very important federal national-security Cabinet position that we usually don’t hear much about. But a recent changing of the guard has produced inflammatory news headlines as Representative John Ratcliffe (R-TX) steps up and into the role vacated by outgoing Dan Coats (R-IN).
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates the DNI to:
- Head the sixteen-member United States Intelligence Community, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA)
- Direct and oversee the National Intelligence Program
- Serve as an advisor, upon invitation, to the president of the United States and his executive offices of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council about intelligence matters related to national security
Republican Coats was U.S. Senator for Indiana from 2011 to 2017. After retiring from the Senate, on January 5, 2017, newly-elected President Donald J. Trump asked Coats to become the nation’s fifth DNI. Senate confirmation by a vote of 85-12 on March 15, 2017, was followed by his swearing-in ceremony on March 16, 2017.
DNI Coats was at odds with Trump’s assessments of foreign threats, volatile countries such as North Korea and Russia, and reluctant to participate in the Mueller investigation to prove or disprove that the President colluded with Russian agents to influence the 2016 election.
According to a Bloomberg analyst, “Coats minced no words when warning of the threat Russia and other foreign actors pose to American elections and resisted Trump’s pressure to insert himself into the government’s investigation of Russian interference.”
Trump distanced Coats and kept from the NDI information disclosed during meetings with top foreign leaders. Coats criticized “Trump’s comments in Helsinki seeming to question the unanimous U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election” and said:
“It’s undeniable that the Russians are taking the lead on this. They are the ones that are trying to undermine our basic values. We need to make sure that we call them out on this, that they are not able to make sure they can do this in elections coming up.”
President Trump stopped getting daily intelligence briefings from Coats in the past year. On July 28, 2019, Trump announced that Coats would step down from his position as director of national intelligence on August 15, 2019. The President said he was nominating Rep. Ratcliffe to succeed Coats as the director of national intelligence.
Ratcliffe won his congressional seat in 2014 and was re-elected in 2018. The Texan Republican is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and the House Ethics Committee.
But Ratcliffe’s recent claim to fame, and the reason some observers believe Trump tapped him for the job as the nation’s sixth NDI, is the schooling he gave FBI special counsel Robert Mueller during the House Judiciary Committee hearing held July 24, 2019, to discuss the inconclusive two-year, multi-million-dollar investigation into alleged Russia-Trump collusion.
Ratcliffe began by confirming that Mueller had testified that his inquiry team had followed Department of Justice (DOJ) standard procedures during their probe, which failed to exonerate Trump despite a lack of evidence of wrong-doing:
“Today, you said at all times the special counsel team operated under, was guided by and followed Justice Department policies and principles. So which DOJ policy or principle sets forth a legal standard that an investigated person is not exonerated if their innocence from criminal conduct is not conclusively determined? Where does that language come from, Director?”
Mueller had no ready answer and didn’t seem to understand the question until Ratcliffe restated it with an example. Ratcliffe then answered his own question:
“I’ll tell you why. It doesn’t exist. The special counsel’s job, nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him. It’s not in any of the documents. It’s not in your appointment order. It’s not in the special counsel regulations. It’s not in the OLC opinions. It’s not in the justice manual, and it’s not in the Principles of Federal Prosecution.
“Nowhere do those words appear together because respectfully, respectfully, director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence. It exists for everyone. Everyone is entitled to it, including sitting presidents. And because there is a presumption of innocence, prosecutors never, ever need to conclusively determine it.”
Ratcliffe also pointed out that even though “the very first line of your report says that…it authorizes the special counsel to provide the attorney general with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the special counsel,” the special counsel failed to do so:
“On Volume II with respect to potential obstruction of justice, the special counsel made neither a prosecution decision or a declamation decision. You made no decision. You told us this morning and in your report that you made no determination so respectfully director, you didn’t follow the special counsel regulations.”
Republicans are calling Ratcliffe a staunch defender of the U.S. president. Democrats are labeling Ratcliffe a toady and stooge, calling his interrogation at the Mueller hearing a “performance.”
Popular journalist, legal analyst, and television personality Glenn Kirschner, a former career federal prosecutor who worked with Robert Mueller, tweeted on July 29:
“I heard Ratcliffe say the Mueller report was authored by ‘Hillary Clinton’s…defense team.’ This kind of idiotic conspiracy-theory nonsense disqualifies him to be Director of National Intelligence (he lacks the requisite intel experience, judgment [sic] and allegiance to the truth).”
History will be the judge of who is the idiotic conspiracy theorist in this sordid tale of high-level U.S. treachery and treason. Now that Attorney General Bill Barr has summarized his interpretation of the Mueller Report, federal investigative gun barrels are likely to swivel toward exposing possible Democratic interference in the 2016 election.
This would explain why liberals are calling Ratcliffe, who has promised to get to the bottom of the Russia probe, a “dangerous pick” for director of national intelligence. The question is: dangerous for whom?