Can we trust John Ratcliffe?

Can we trust John Ratcliffe?
© Getty Images

Republican Representative John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeSunday shows preview: Senate votes to raise debt ceiling; Facebook whistleblower blasts company during testimony Biden, Trump battle over who's to blame for Afghanistan Sunday shows preview: US grapples with rising COVID-19 cases MORE put on an Academy Award level performance for his Senate hearing this month to be the next director of national intelligence. I do not know him personally, but from the looks of it, he declared most of the right things without disavowing the president. “I will deliver the unvarnished truth,” he said if he is confirmed. “Whether you are talking about the president, whether you are talking about Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell, anyone who has views on what they want the intelligence to be will never impact the intelligence that I deliver.”

Sounds about right. The job of director of national intelligence is exactly what he described. I was a principal coauthor of the bill that created the position, which is similar to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The director of national intelligence oversees several intelligence agencies to ensure their analysis is accurate, reliable, and apolitical. This is a role that came out of the disastrous intelligence failures which led to 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and it is meant to prevent others in the future.

Ratcliffe has a notable record of sponsoring bills to address cyberthreats, including one that expands federal government cyberthreat detection and response capabilities and another that supports cyberthreat education for local law enforcement officials. Indeed, this cannot be overlooked since it is a promising indication that he is attune to the dangers of miscalculation that often follow an unforeseen cyberattack, which continue rising as our adversaries become more competent. But nor can his close alliance with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE during the impeachment hearings be ignored.

ADVERTISEMENT

That is why two questions loom over his testimony. Does Ratcliffe actually mean what he told us? Even if he does, can he really speak truth to power and survive in this job? There is also a third sleeper question. If he cannot speak truth to power and the intelligence community reaches the wrong conclusion about the existence of a bioweapon in a lab in Wuhan, will the United States be at further risk because we lose our capacity to work with China to curb further spread of this pandemic or any future one? Will we needlessly provoke a new trade war or even a new cold war?

No one excuses the bad behavior from China when it steals intellectual property, violates the human rights of its citizens, stifles press freedom, mistreats the Uyghurs, plunders plans for the F35, and expels American journalists. This has all made it much harder to put relations with Beijing back on the right path. But two wrongs do not make one right. Our goal should be to solve problems rather than creating new ones.

Sadly this feels too familiar. I was in Congress when we were presented with conclusive proof, or so we thought, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them. I voted for the war as I believed the intelligence at the time. But the administration oversold findings of a 2002 national intelligence estimate that was already flawed. A document that concluded it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” for the weapons of mass destruction programs of Saddam Hussein had been used to justify a war with untold costs in blood and treasure.

When intelligence is produced in a hurry, and especially to support those conclusions lawmakers have already reached, you get a bad product. As Rand Corporation found from the Iraq weapons of mass destruction task, “human intelligence was scarce and unreliable” and the “magnitude of the questionable evidence” had the effect of making the national intelligence estimate “more convincing and ominous.” Just because we believed Iraq had the ability to produce weapons of mass destruction does not mean it did. Indeed, the logic is also no different in the case of China.

Perhaps that is why Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE has hedged his claim that there is “enormous evidence” the coronavirus had originated in a lab in Wuhan. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have cited evidence that the coronavirus was not man made. The office of the director of national intelligence also published a rare public statement saying the same. Meanwhile, our allies Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and New Zealand have fully discredited the bioweapon theory.

Originating in a lab and getting dispersed by accident is nowhere close to the claim of deliberately releasing a bioweapon. As the news continues to surface about the timing of infections, such as France recently reporting an infection late last year involving a patient with no known connections to China, the Wuhan lab theory becomes even much less significant. The interconnected way that we live and work may hold the key.

There is no doubt Beijing covered up the extent of its outbreak and how it began. However, there is a major difference between believing what China might do and making dubious claims about what it did do. Understanding this difference, regardless of the political considerations, is the job of our director of national intelligence. Should we believe Ratcliffe?

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.