Coats testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., January 2019
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

At the end of July, Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence (DNI), announced his resignation. When he leaves office on August 15, the U.S. intelligence community will be left with two crises to confront. One is obvious and immediate: how to protect the objectivity and professionalism of the intelligence agencies against the rising tide of politicization by the White House. The second is more hidden and longer-term, but just as important: how to transform these agencies to cope with the dizzying technological breakthroughs that, as Michael Morell and I argued in an essay for this magazine earlier this year (“Spies, Lies, and Algorithms,” May/June 2019), are empowering U.S. adversaries. The next DNI must tackle both crises to safeguard the nation. 

So far, the political challenge has dominated headlines. President Donald Trump has compared intelligence officers to Nazis. He has accused the FBI of having “spied on” on his campaign. He has blasted intelligence reports that arrive at inconvenient conclusions, such as that Iran had been adhering to the nuclear deal even after the United States withdrew from it and that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. Most recently, he ominously declared that he was looking for a leader of the intelligence community who could “really rein it in,” by which it appears he meant that intelligence agencies should start agreeing with him more regardless of what the facts say.

That is certainly the message Trump sent with his short-lived nomination of John Ratcliffe, a Republican representative from Texas, to replace Coats. Ratcliffe’s chief qualification to become DNI appears to have been his eagerness to launch a televised partisan attack against Special Counsel Robert Mueller for having failed to exonerate Trump in the investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. A former small-town Texas mayor, Ratcliffe is a three-term Congressman best known for not doing his homework while serving on the House Intelligence Committee. As his colleagues told The Washington Post, Ratcliffe earned a reputation for skipping the reading, making fleeting appearances at classified sessions, and staying home rather than going on the committee’s foreign trips to learn how intelligence actually works.

This is no job for newcomers, sycophants, or lightweights.

Moreover, while the DNI’s most important job is speaking truth to power, Ratcliffe seemed to have trouble speaking truth about himself. Perhaps seeking to pad his thin résumé, he claimed accomplishments—putting terrorists in prison and overseeing counterterrorism investigations—that turned out to be fabrications. Within days, the nomination fell apart, leaving the leadership of the intelligence community in legal and political limbo as White House officials and legal experts battle over who could become acting DNI. 

HARD WORK

History suggests that expertise is essential for the DNI to succeed. This is no job for newcomers, sycophants, or lightweights. All five of the previous directors had extensive intelligence or foreign policy experience: John Negroponte was a four-time U.S. ambassador, John McConnell and Dennis Blair were admirals in the U.S. Navy, James Clapper was a U.S. Air Force general and career intelligence officer, and Coats served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and spent nearly three decades in Congress. Despite these credentials, each director’s record was mixed. While some struggled much more than others, each fought an uphill battle to successfully unite and reform the intelligence community. Why? Because even in the best of circumstances, the job is one of the toughest in Washington.

Much of the difficulty lies in managing a sprawling bureaucracy of 17 different federal intelligence agencies, each fiercely protective of its own turf, culture, and mission. The DNI also has the task of overseeing a $60 billion budget, large enough to raise unrealistic expectations but too small to adequately cover every conceivable threat around the world. And the director must serve as the chief intelligence adviser to the president, a thankless job that often means telling him things he needs to know but does not want to hear.

Created by statute in 2004 in response to the 9/11 attacks, the position was given great responsibility for coordinating and integrating the far-flung intelligence community, but not much authority to get the job done. With little ability to hire and fire, and limited power over purse strings, the job was considered so unattractive that President George W. Bush had to ask several people before Negroponte finally agreed to take it. Years later, Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s first CIA director, also turned down the job, choosing to stay at Langley rather than accept what was technically a promotion.

Notably, the DNI’s successes over the past 15 years have come more from informal arrangements than from its formal authorities. As Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, once wrote, “the only way to prevent fratricide” between the DNI and the director of the CIA “was to separate us at different altitudes,” with the former flying higher to set policy, provide overall direction, and manage conflict, and the latter staying closer to the ground to focus on operations and execution.

Today, the office of the DNI plays a critical role in solving community-wide problems that individual agencies cannot or will not deal with on their own—for example, modernizing information technology architecture. The DNI has also evolved to assume the lead on communications, defending intelligence agencies from criticism, even when that criticism comes from the Oval Office. Coats earned bipartisan praise for standing by the intelligence community’s mission to call things as they see them, rather than portraying them the president’s way.

Personality, too, has been essential, with effective DNIs serving less as commanders issuing diktats than as facilitators bringing agencies together.As Robert Gates, who was CIA director from 1991 to 1993 and secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, put it, a successful DNI must have a “constructive, positive chemistry with the other leaders in the intelligence community” instead of acting as “a strong executive big boss.”

THE NEXT TRANSFORMATION

But what the headlines over the Ratcliffe affair miss is that the next DNI faces an even harder job than past DNIs. After spending the Cold War combating the Soviet Union and then two decades adapting to the terrorism threat, intelligence agencies must now be transformed again. This time, the chief challenge is not a single, nation state, group, or ideology; it is technology.

The next DNI faces an even harder job than past directors.

Rapid technological advances—the open-source revolution powered by the Internet, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and more—are empowering adversaries, eroding the United States’ intelligence lead, and placing ever-greater demands on intelligence agencies to separate truth from deception and provide credible insights to decision makers at the speed of relevance. As Morell and I wrote, the intelligence community faces a moment of reckoning where it must adapt to these breakthroughs or risk falling dangerously behind.

In fact, the first breakdown of this new technological era has already occurred: U.S. intelligence agencies failed to quickly and fully grasp the magnitude of Russia’s operation to weaponize social media in the 2016 presidential election, an operation that probably began in 2014 and possibly earlier. Russia’s election meddling should serve as a wake-up call. Already, anyone with an Internet connection can follow fast-moving events on Twitter, see satellite imagery from space, and even collect information about Russian troop movements into Ukraine simply by checking social media posts. Secrets still matter, but this is a whole new world, one in which the intelligence playing field is getting leveled—and not in a good way.

The next DNI must embrace both the past and future, fiercely defending the enduring value of objective intelligence and developing a comprehensive strategy to regain the nation’s intelligence advantage in a new technological age. Such a strategy begins by drawing on the United States’ unique strengths: its allies, which extend the country’s global reach; its ethnically diverse population, which offers a natural edge when it comes to human intelligence collection; its democratic values, which have long encouraged foreign nations and individuals to join the American cause; and its propensity for innovation, which is unrivaled. A successful strategy also requires a broad-based effort that engages agencies across the intelligence community, as well as technology companies, civil society, and academia. Congress could play a role in driving this effort, but what will be most important is leadership from a new DNI. And in the current moment, that job is only going to get harder.

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