Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Former Intelligence Chiefs: Trump’s Removal of Experts is Deeply Destructive to our Nation’s Safety

  • Joseph Maguire
  • John Brennan
  • Michael Leiter
  • Matthew G. Olsen
  • Nicholas Rasmussen
  • Andrew Liepman
  • Geoffrey O'Connell
  • Michael V. Hayden
| Mar. 20, 2020

The United States — and the world — faces a historic threat to its health, well-being and economy. The global covid-19 pandemic challenges all of us: the public, cities, states and, of course, the federal government. But as we collectively fight this deadly disease, the intelligence institutions that help protect us all from current and future threats are also under attack from an insidious enemy: domestic politics. We cannot let the covid-19 pandemic be a cover for the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration.

The most recent illustration of this unprecedented attack is the continuing dismissal of career intelligence professionals — officers who have ably served both Republican and Democratic administrations regardless of their personal political stripe. Specifically, the unceremonious removal this week of the leadership of the National Counterterrorism Center. The NCTC, though not as recognized an entity as its intelligence community counterparts such as the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency, is one of the crown-jewel creations of the United States’ post-9/11 reforms.

Created to “connect the dots” and coordinate U.S. counterterrorism operational planning, the NCTC brings together representatives from across the federal government to maintain critical watch lists, monitor threats in real time and make sure that the disparate elements of the massive federal bureaucracy respond in a coordinated fashion. In short: Since 9/11, the NCTC has helped do for counterterrorism what the U.S. government is now trying to piece together against its new viral threat.

Although we were heartened to see President Trump nominate an experienced Special Operations officer to serve as the next Senate-confirmed director of the NCTC, we are deeply dismayed — and perplexed — as to why he would simultaneously gut the center’s leadership of critical institutional knowledge. The NCTC’s just-dismissed acting director, Russell Travers, began his career as an Army intelligence officer more than 40 years ago. He stood up the NCTC’s predecessor organization while the embers of Ground Zero still smoldered. He built the terrorism watch list from a set of index cards into the envy of countries around the world (and, it should be noted, as the model for the president’s own aspirational watch list to screen travelers to the United States for threats other than terrorism). Travers and his deputy, a career National Security Agency officer, were the epitome of what we strive for in national security: nonpartisan experts who serve the president and the American people with no regard to personal politics.

Now both are gone, to be replaced by as-yet-unnamed acting heads who will undoubtedly know less and who will be more beholden to the intelligence community’s politicized leadership. The next acting heads might or might not be gone themselves in a matter of months if the president’s nominee is ultimately confirmed. In the meantime, who manages the critical security tasks, including watch-listing and ensuring that the government-wide counterterrorism structure remains well integrated?

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Clapper, James R. , Joseph Maguire, John Brennan, Michael Leiter, Matthew G. Olsen, Nicholas Rasmussen, Andrew Liepman, Geoffrey O'Connell and Michael V. Hayden.“Former Intelligence Chiefs: Trump’s Removal of Experts is Deeply Destructive to our Nation’s Safety.” The Washington Post, March 20, 2020.

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