It’s quite an accomplishment, but in only five months, the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has already put himself in the running to be considered among the most destructive intelligence officials in U.S. history.
During his confirmation hearing in May, Mr. Ratcliffe testified that he would not allow outside influence to affect his work, claiming that he would be “entirely apolitical” in the position.
Instead, he seems to have jumped into the partisan fray. On Monday, Mr. Ratcliffe seemed to bolster an unconfirmed news report by The New York Post related to the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son in the Ukraine. Mr. Ratcliffe suggested on Fox Business that the Obama-Biden administration had committed (unnamed) criminal abuses of power and that voters should take these supposed actions into account in the upcoming election.
Such personal political commentary for a sitting intelligence leader is virtually unprecedented. Michael Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, tweeted that Mr. Ratcliffe’s actions were “reprehensible” and worthy of a “tin-pot dictatorship.”
Mr. Ratcliffe had already broken norms by mining and declassifying material that might help President Trump get re-elected. He has controlled how information is shared with congressional Democrats, while supplying select, out-of-context material to those Republicans trying to grasp any shred of evidence that might fit their theory of a deep-state conspiracy to investigate President Trump’s connections to the Kremlin.
While a traitor or mole inside our spy agencies can do tremendous damage, only a deeply partisan intelligence leader can undermine the very system of trust that underpins our intelligence establishment.
During World War II and the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, falsified reports; limited and controlled sources; dismissed reporting by allies, the O.S.S., the C.I.A. and U.S. code breakers; and actively tried to suppress anything that challenged MacArthur’s preconceived views.
As David Halberstam wrote in “The Coldest Winter,” his history of the Korean War, General MacArthur believed it was crucial that “his intelligence reports blend seamlessly with what he had intended to do in the first place. What that meant was that the intelligence that Willoughby was turning over to MacArthur was deliberately prefabricated.”
General MacArthur’s unwillingness to listen to others left the United States and its allies blindsided when the North Korean Army invaded South Korea in June 1950, and again when the Chinese stormed into Korea later that year, leading to one of the worst military defeats of U.S. forces and the longest retreat in U.S. history. General MacArthur even advocated using nuclear weapons to stem the retreat. It wasn’t the failure to collect or analyze intelligence that led to the catastrophe, but the failure of leadership. Maj. Gen. Willoughby shaped intelligence to fit what his master wanted to hear.
Mr. Ratcliffe, like Maj. Gen. Willoughby before him, seems to think his job is to serve only his boss, who requires that everyone agree with him at all times. As General MacArthur is often quoted: if you control intelligence, you control decision-making. Intelligence professionals call this politicization and see it as a poison that can harm national-security decision-making.
We can see today, through Mr. Ratcliffe, just what can happen when the office is politicized.
Rather than operating as an honest steward of the large and important intelligence community, Mr. Ratcliffe appears to regard the nation’s secrets as a place to hunt for nuggets that can be used as political weapons — sources and methods be damned. Even if the particular material he declassifies is not especially sensitive, the failure to provide proper context, sourcing or background only serves to confuse the public and distract voters.
That may be the point. Creating a fictional narrative for political purposes requires corrupting a system that relies on in-depth, contextual and all-source analysis. However, if you are sending damaging signals to allies, potential sources or even your own officers, it is child’s play to concoct any story you wish by plucking selective details from the millions and millions of pages held by the intelligence agencies.
But exploiting the intelligence community in this manner fundamentally debases it — in ways the American public cannot always see. Hastily considered declassification of selective secret material runs the risk of exposing sources and methods, assisting foreign adversaries and undercutting the trust of our allies. And why would allies or potential sources be willing to share their secrets with intelligence officials who won’t hesitate to publicize their information if they see short-term political benefit? In the end, our defenses are weakened.
In the world of intelligence, credibility is paramount. Our allies and sources must trust us. And policymakers need to trust that intelligence professionals are providing the very best, unbiased analysis. If that bond of trust is breached, and motives and honesty are questioned, the intelligence is worthless. Mr. Ratcliffe and his enablers need to understand that once the credibility of our intelligence community is surrendered, it will be extremely hard to recapture.
John Sipher is a former chief of station for the C.I.A. and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.
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