Trump's nomination of an unqualified DNI undermines bipartisan intelligence reform

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy  Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE’s naming of Ambassador Richard GrenellRichard GrenellRNC pushes back against call for chair's resignation over LGBT outreach Biden names nominee for US ambassador to Germany Grenell still interested in California recall bid MORE, a hyper-partisan media strategist and former Fox News commentator with a thin resume in international relations, to be the next acting Director of National intelligence (DNI) undermines Congressionally mandated reforms of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). These reforms stemmed from inaccurate claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion and lingering concerns about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Congress was united on the need for intelligence reform, passing the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) with overwhelming bipartisan majorities.

The overarching goals of these reforms were to ensure IC agencies: (1) worked in a more integrated way than they had in the lead up to both the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq WMD mistakes; and (2) would present U.S. policy makers with factually-based assessments, untainted by either politics or policy preferences. To drive reform efforts, the IRTPA created the position of the DNI to provide overall leadership for the IC and an organization to support the position, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The law states: “Any individual nominated for appointment as DNI shall have extensive national security expertise.” The first DNI, Ambassador John Negroponte, a distinguished career diplomat with multiple ambassadorial and National Security Council assignments, clearly met the requirements of the law, as have the four DNIs appointed since: Admirals Michael McConnell and Dennis Blair, Gen. James ClapperJames Robert ClapperUS intelligence community 'struggled' to brief Trump in 2016, CIA review shows An unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Hillicon Valley — Justice Department takes on Uber MORE, and Sen. and former Ambassador Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE. Even Trump’s last acting-DNI, Joseph Maquire, was a former Navy admiral and head of the IC’s National Counterterrorism Center.


Trump’s naming of Richard Grenell to the acting-DNI position breaks with both the tradition that the DNI has substantial senior-level experience in national security matters and the letter of the law, which requires such experience.

Grenell’s background is in media relations and politics.

He served from 2001–08 as the spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He started a public relations and media strategy company in 2009 and became a regular commentator on Fox News, where he established himself as a reliable promoter and defender of hyper-partisan Republican attacks on the Obama Administration, an approach he also took in supporting Trump’s nomination and campaign for the presidency.

Grenell brought this hyper-partisan approach to his assignment in 2017 as Trump’s ambassador to Germany, where he has alienated officials, politicians and the public with whom he should be working, and generated negative headlines about — but few supporters for — Trump administration policies.

Trump has either attacked or been dismissive of the IC since his inauguration. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was during a July 2018 Helsinki press conference with Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinIran announces naval drills with Russia, China Blinken calls for 'global action' against Russia amid Ukraine tensions Putin's options extend well beyond invasion MORE when Trump sided with Putin against the U.S. IC with regard to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. More recently, following January 2019 congressional testimony on national security threats facing the U.S. in which DNI Coats and other IC agency leaders contradicted his views on Iran, North Korea, and ISIS, Trump tweeted that the IC leaders were wrong, too passive, and suggested “Intelligence should go back to school.”


Trump’s nomination of Grenell makes it clear he wants the person leading the IC telling him what he wants to hear, not what he needs to know – and certainly not someone who would let facts get in the way of supporting Trump’s positions on national security issues, such as North Korea, Russia, and Iran.

The people of this country, senior policymakers, and the men and women of the IC deserve a seasoned leader as DNI — and the law requires it.

We face too many challenges as a nation to have a media cheerleader for the president like Grenell leading the IC.

IC staff put their lives on the line daily to obtain and analyze information needed to keep America and its people safe. They do so in the expectation that the facts and analysis they produce will be used, regardless of whether they meet some political or policy test — or some presidential whim. Similarly, our allies share intelligence with us because they believe it will be used professionally, not politically.

The IC worked hard and successfully to implement the lessons of the 9/11 and Iraq WMD episodes. This occurred in large part because the men and women of the IC were committed to doing better and had confidence that their leadership, particularly the DNI, supported their efforts to do so. The DNI position has worked the way Congress intended when it passed the IRTPA in 2004. 

Trump’s nomination of a media cheerleader with no experience in intelligence or running large organizations is a gross dereliction of his duty to protect the American people and uphold the law. The Senate on a bi-partisan basis must not compound the error by acquiescing to it. Instead, the Senate, led by the Intelligence Committee, should make it clear that it will not accept Grenell as acting-DNI — and press the White House to nominate a credible DNI candidate who meets the requirements of the law.

Kenneth C. Brill was a career Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2005-2009).