Intelligence experts interviewed by Yahoo News are skeptical that Richard Grenell, President Trump’s pick to replace Adm. Joseph Maguire as acting director of national intelligence, is a good fit for the job.
The White House announced Thursday that Grenell, the current U.S. ambassador to Germany, would become the second person since August to assume the temporary role of the nation’s top intelligence official.
Larry Pfeiffer, former CIA chief of staff and NSA Director Michael Hayden, who also served in the White House situation room, told Yahoo News that Grenell’s apparent access to the president is “normally a very good thing for the intelligence community” but warned that his background at Capitol Media Partners, a firm he founded specializing in political “spin,” might lead him to “tell the president what he wants to hear and not what he has to hear.”
Those assertions might be backed up by Grenell’s history of highly political, pro-Trump arguments on Twitter, including a suggestion that Russian interference actually helped former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over President Trump in the 2016 elections. Grenell deleted some of those tweets on the day he was announced as Trump’s candidate for acting DNI.
“The first priority for an acting director of national intelligence is remaining apolitical. The office of the DNI cannot be politicized,” said Chris Costa, executive director of the International Spy Museum and a 34-year intelligence community veteran who served as a senior adviser for counterterrorism on the National Security Council for President Trump, noting that Sen. Dan Coats was a former politician and performed his DNI duties well.
Grenell, who took up his Berlin post in May 2018, previously served as a communications chief at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. He later founded Capitol Media Partners and temporarily worked as foreign policy spokesperson for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Grenell has no direct intelligence or national security experience beyond his public affairs role at the U.N. and his coordination with intelligence officials in Germany. As ambassador to Germany, Grenell has played an important role in securing and welcoming home freed American hostages who receive medical care in Germany, a key diplomatic and security mission for the Trump administration. However, he suggested in a tweet Thursday that his tenure in his new role would be brief, and that the president “will announce the nominee (not me) sometime soon.”
While it’s unclear whether Grenell will vacate his post in Germany or attempt to do both jobs simultaneously, one former intelligence official familiar with the matter told Yahoo News that the intelligence staff was told to expect to see their new boss in the office in the Washington area on Thursday or Friday.
Costa also said that Grenell’s job as an ambassador creates some advantages. In that role, he would’ve “already acted as a very senior recipient, customer and consumer of intelligence; [he’s] presumably interacted with the FBI, CIA and other elements of the IC,” he continued.
However, Pfeiffer noted, the law that created the role of the director of national intelligence following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 stated that the holder of the position should have “extensive national security expertise,” without strictly defining those parameters. The DNI needs to coordinate 17 different intelligence agencies including his or her own office, conduct long-term planning and manage the intelligence budget.
The spirit of the law, Pfeiffer said, is to nominate not only someone with years of relevant expertise but “somebody with gravitas, somebody who can cajole and persuade,” because the law doesn’t extend extensive legal authorities to the DNI.
Some analysts Yahoo News spoke with said Grenell, who has a reputation as a Trump loyalist, would be a good fit to lead the intelligence community, while others offered him the benefit of the doubt or felt his temporary appointment would not significantly impact the work being done by ODNI.
A former senior intelligence official who asked not to be named to discuss a political appointment said that it’s not surprising that the president would appoint a loyalist as acting DNI, particularly with an election coming up and the fact that there is little time to vet and confirm a full-time intelligence chief.
The office of the DNI won’t collapse as a result of a political appointment or a temporary leader, according to the former official. “I think the DNI is pretty much a self-sustaining bureaucracy,” the former official said. It’s a “process place, not an action place.”
Despite Grenell’s reputation as a political figure, there’s hope that the other heads of intelligence agencies will “try to restrain him to the extent they can without angering POTUS,” said Douglas London, a recently retired CIA senior operations officer and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. However, he told Yahoo News he is “not optimistic” because “clearly their aversion to conducting the worldwide threat briefing” in public “reflects their disinclination to provoke POTUS reprisals.”
Traditionally, heads of the intelligence community host an annual public briefing with congressional overseers to discuss their vision of the top threats facing the United States. However, following the 2019 threat briefing, Trump lashed out at then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats for publicly representing the facts and analysis from the community that contradicted Trump’s opinions, such as the community’s lack of confidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would ever give up his nuclear weapons voluntarily. Coats and his deputy, the well-respected intelligence community veteran Susan Gordon, were pushed out of their roles in late summer.
Adm. Joseph Maguire, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, got called to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence after Coats’s departure amidst a high-profile controversy over an intelligence community whistleblower providing evidence that Trump had conditioned military aid to Ukraine on investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. That complaint, bolstered by numerous witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence Committee, led to President Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, although the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him in early February.
Maguire, who had not anticipated taking on the role, was apparently just as surprised by the sudden announcement that Grenell would replace him, according to one former intelligence official — although his tenure as acting DNI would soon be up anyway according to the Federal Vacancies Act. Maguire, in a statement published Wednesday evening, thanked President Trump for the “honor to work alongside the men and women of the intelligence community” and said he will “look forward to the next challenge,” without specifying what that might be.
Costa told Yahoo News that Maguire “did an excellent job as an acting under some tough circumstances,” while noting that “he can’t stay in as acting [DNI] forever, and the president may bring in whoever he wants to serve as acting DNI.”
Spokespeople for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council did not provide additional answers to Yahoo News as to whether Grenell would return from Germany to carry out the duties of acting DNI, or where outgoing acting DNI Maguire would be headed next. The State Department did not respond to an emailed query, and a phone call to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin went unanswered.
Not only has the Office of the Director of National Intelligence gone without a permanent director for more than six months, but the organization’s previous No. 2, Susan Gordon, has not yet been replaced either. Andrew Hallman, who was previously the CIA’s deputy director for innovation, is currently serving as the office’s principal executive and performing many of the duties of the PPDNI in the absence of a nomination from the president. Meanwhile, Jason Klitenic, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s general counsel, will reportedly leave his role early next month.
Given that President Trump has seemingly been working since before his inauguration to minimize the authority and role of the DNI, and publicly chastising his top officials like Coats on multiple occasions, it’s unclear whether morale, recruitment and retention for the DNI and the intelligence community as a whole has been significantly affected.
Pfeiffer, director of the Hayden Center at George Mason University, noted that top intelligence officials like Maguire, Hallman, Gordon and Coats have been “working really hard to make sure the people who are there are hunkering down and doing their job.” Within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, several senior officials maintain a level of independence. William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, just published a detailed new counterintelligence strategy and has toured the country discussing counterintelligence threats with academics, executives, state and local officials and others. Shelby Pierson, who heads the DNI’s election security unit, appears frequently and publicly to discuss the importance of election interference, despite President Trump’s reticence to chastise Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. “You’ve got people with important jobs continuing to do those important jobs,” said Pfeiffer.
However, he said, the president’s treatment of the DNI “can only have a corrosive effect on morale, recruitment and retention.”
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