Trump Faces Deadline On Acting Director Of National Intelligence

Feb 18, 2020
Originally published on February 18, 2020 4:53 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The head of U.S. intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has held that position in an acting capacity for six months. As required by law, President Trump will soon need to choose a permanent head of national intelligence that may or may not be Joseph Maguire.

NPR's Greg Myre is here to explain.

Hello, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So Admiral Maguire - as we said, he's been doing the job for six months now. Why wouldn't President Trump just make him the permanent intelligence chief?

MYRE: He could. He's got pretty solid credentials - 36 years in the Navy, retired as a vice admiral. He was running the National Counterterrorism Center before he took over this job. But he got off to a very awkward start with President Trump. Maguire was immediately thrust into the whole Ukraine whistleblower complaint saga. He'd only been on the job for a month or so, got called before the House Intel Committee, was somewhat reluctant witness. Democrats wanted him to be more forthcoming. Republicans - they really didn't want to hear a lot about that. But here's what Maguire had to say about the whistleblower.

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JOSEPH MAGUIRE: I think the whistleblower did the right thing. I think he followed the law every step of the way.

MYRE: So the president wasn't exactly thrilled with those comments. Maguire's kept pretty quiet since then. Trump hasn't really said much about him yet either, but he is going to have to make a decision about him.

KELLY: Yeah. So what's going on here? - because the president has had this fraught relationship with his spy chiefs since Day 1. Actually, before he was sworn into office, he's had this fraught relationship. But they serve at his pleasure. He gets to pick them. Why hasn't he been able to settle on someone for this and other key posts that he is comfortable with?

MYRE: Yeah - not really clear. He - the president does like temporary acting advisers in general, and he's done this with national security positions as well. But he's not allowed to have an acting director of national intelligence indefinitely. So this is, like, a key job that we don't hear a lot about. It's someone who oversees the 17 different intelligence agencies, a position set up after 9/11. And you could argue that it's maybe even more important under this president, who goes in a lot of different directions, doesn't speak clearly in terms of what his policy is and that you would want a united, organized, coherent intelligence community offering a very clear position. And this is a job that requires a Senate confirmation, which means there could be a fight. If it's not Maguire, one name that has surfaced has been a Utah Republican congressman, Chris Stewart, who's a very staunch Trump supporter. But we have nothing solid at this point.

KELLY: It's worth just remembering that there was some friction with the past director of national intelligence - with Trump's first DNI, Dan Coats, back before he left this past August.

MYRE: Right. So we kind of got in this current drama a year ago with this Washington ritual where the intelligence chiefs go up on Capitol Hill and talk about the threat assessments. And Dan Coats, the - who was the director of national intelligence at that time, spoke about this consensus report that the intelligence community had put together. So he was not just offering his opinion. But Coats and others kept saying things that were not really aligned with the president on a number of issues, North Korea being one of them. Trump had said North Korea - he didn't see it as a threat any longer. But here's how Dan Coats saw it at the time.

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DAN COATS: We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.

MYRE: So Trump was not very happy with that. And by the summer, last August, Dan Coats was gone, and he'd been replaced by Joseph Maguire.

KELLY: Yeah. This Washington ritual of the threats testimony, threats assessment - which, by the way, is one of the very few windows we have to hear these people testify on the record - is it happening this year?

MYRE: It's not on the schedule. Normally, it happens in January or February. Adam Schiff, head of the House Intel Committee, did offer an invitation for the intel chiefs to come up on February 12. That hadn't happened. It seems there's still some discussions underway, but nothing has been fixed. And as you know, this would be highly unusual - very rare to see these officials. But this is the one time a year where you get them all together to hear their assessment of the major threats.

KELLY: That is NPR's Greg Myre.

Thank you very much, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.