Storm clouds loom as Trump loyalist Grenell becomes acting intelligence chief

The past few days have seen a whiplash series of events within the leadership at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). These changes could shape the future relationship between President TrumpDonald TrumpSt. Louis lawyer who pointed gun at Black Lives Matter protesters considering Senate run Chauvin found guilty as nation exhales US says Iran negotiations are 'positive' MORE and the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and between the IC and the public.

The president’s selection of Amb. Richard GrenellRichard GrenellCleveland businessman jumps into Ohio Senate race: Trump 'victories' need to be protected Tanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief Juan Williams: Hypocrisy runs riot in GOP MORE as acting director of national intelligence (DNI) has raised eyebrows with many national security experts. Grenell lacks experience with the intelligence profession, a feature all previous DNIs have brought to the position since ODNI was created in 2004. He similarly lacks experience overseeing a complex enterprise like the U.S. intelligence community. 

In addition, Grenell’s status as a political loyalist to the president opens up questions regarding the objectivity and impartiality required as DNI, since one of the principal responsibilities entails delivering the best all-source intelligence support to policymakers and warfighters vital for U.S. decision-making on national security.


There are questions already regarding the temporary nature of Grenell’s appointment, since he was not put forward as a permanent candidate for the DNI position, which requires Senate confirmation. In addition, there are reports that the previous acting DNI, Vice Admiral Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireJudge dismisses Nunes's defamation suit against Washington Post Retired Navy admiral behind bin Laden raid says he voted for Biden Congressional Democrats request FBI briefing on foreign election interference efforts MORE, a distinguished Navy special operations officer who was confirmed as the national counterterrorism center director (which also sits under ODNI), was asked to resign following a contentious but truthful briefing to Congress last week by the ODNI senior elections threat executive — who is also an expert on Russia’s efforts to meddle in the upcoming presidential election. It increases concerns that the current acting deputy DNI is likewise stepping down and the current ODNI general counsel is departing at the end of next month, further disrupting ODNI leadership 

While there is certainly cause for concern about these changes, it is not yet clear if Grenell or a permanent DNI will embark upon a plan to further hamstring ODNI. A move to politicize intelligence briefings to Congress and the American people, or even just to marginalize ODNI, reduce its role as an integrator or chip away at its budgetary authority could have profoundly negative effects on national security, as key threats could receive less attention, focus, resources and capabilities. 

That appears to be in no one’s interests and would open up further political liability, since one of the president’s key roles as commander-in-chief is ensuring the nation’s security against all threats, foreign and domestic. 

Conversely, despite the rapid turnover at the top of ODNI and the new team that will settle in, perhaps the overall function of ODNI will not be affected as much and it will continue to proceed with its main mission of ensuring integration and collaboration across the intelligence community, and overseeing the complex IC budget process with the White House and Congress.

As mentioned earlier, ODNI was created in 2004 as a byproduct of the 9/11 Commission to address a number of intelligence and law enforcement gaps that were exploited by al Qaeda in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, and is authorized under a statute known as the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA). The organization’s remit has expanded beyond counterterrorism since 2004, and critics have argued that it has drifted away from its core mission and created more bureaucratic layers between the intelligence community and the customers they support. Dismantling ODNI is not possible without congressional legislation. But hollowing it out by ineffective appointments would weaken national security and leave the nation exposed to serious threats.   


Time will tell whether ODNI heads into further turbulent waters based on who serves as DNI and the direction the organization goes. The need to maintain the confidence of the American people is essential. As a former intelligence professional who served in two counterterrorism-specific roles in ODNI from 2010 to 2017 and a former counterterrorism policy executive who served proudly with a myriad number of intelligence community colleagues respectively, we believe politics should remain separate from the craft of intelligence in order to deliver the best results for the president and the nation. 

This rule needs to be followed in order to avoid long-term harm to our national interests at the expense of short-term political gain. History has shown the dangers of politicizing intelligence. The attacks underway against American democracy make it more important than ever that the top priority needs to be ensuring that the American people, not just the president, get to know the truth.

Javed Ali is a Towsley policymaker in residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and has over 20 years professional experience in Washington, DC on national security issues. Tom Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and has over 35 years professional experience in Washington, DC on national security issues.