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4 Months And Counting, An Acting Intelligence Chief In The Hot Seat

Dec 20, 2019
Originally published on December 20, 2019 7:59 pm

Before the words "Ukraine" and "impeachment" dominated headlines, before most Americans had heard of Marie Yovanovitch or Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — Adam Schiff sat down to write a cryptic letter.

It was September. Schiff is the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. On fancy committee stationery, a big seal at the top, Schiff drafted four frustrated-sounding pages and addressed them to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.

"So far as the Committee is aware, this marks the first time a Director of National Intelligence has ever sought to overrule the [Intelligence Community Inspector General] and conceal from Congress a whistleblower complaint," reads the letter, dated Sept. 13, 2019.

When Schiff released the letter that evening, it was the first public mention of the whistleblower, a U.S. intelligence official whose complaint set in motion forces that have since resulted in the impeachment of President Trump. Attached to the letter: a subpoena, demanding that Maguire come testify.

He did. Maguire's appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, on Sept. 26, marked the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry. It also marked an uncomfortable turn in the spotlight for Maguire.

"My life would have been a heck of a lot simpler without becoming the most famous man in the United States," he told Congress, adding that at the time he learned of the complaint, he was still so new to the job that he was using a Garmin to commute to work.

It's debatable whether Maguire was, then or now, the most famous man in the U.S. He has kept a low profile since his testimony and declined NPR's interview request.

What's not debatable is what an awkward position he found himself in: caught between a White House looking for loyalty and subpoena-wielding lawmakers looking for answers.

Then, there's the "acting" part of his title. Maguire took over as acting DNI more than four months ago, on Aug. 16. That's the longest period of time without a Senate-confirmed DNI since the position was created in 2004.

Creation and conflict

To understand how this matters to the U.S. intelligence community and beyond, it's instructive to recall why the post seemed like a good idea in the first place. It came about in the atmosphere of fear and soul-searching that followed Sept. 11, amid determination that such an attack should never happen again. Commissions were formed; reports were written; everyone had an opinion.

"The most fundamental problem," wrote Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in one congressional report in 2002, "is our Intelligence Community's inability to 'connect the dots' available to it before September 11, 2001, about terrorists' interest in attacking symbolic American targets."

By the time the 9/11 Commission, set up to investigate the attacks, dropped its book-length final report in July 2004, a consensus had formed. In essence, it was that the U.S. intelligence community — a collection of more than a dozen agencies, organized at different times for different purposes under different government departments — had failed to coordinate in ways that could have prevented the attacks.

The central, crowning recommendation of the 9/11 Commission report was the creation of a new position, overseeing the work of all U.S. spy agencies — someone who could force them to talk to each other.

Tasked with drafting the legislation was Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, then the chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "I felt a sense of urgency because this was already 2004," Collins said in an interview this week.

But there were many questions and turf battles: How should the office be organized? Who should lead the intelligence briefing delivered each morning to the president? Who gets the final say when spy agencies disagree? And who controls the purse strings?

Under the existing system, many of those duties were handled by the director of central intelligence, who also had a large agency to run, the CIA.

For that reason, many CIA officials and allies opposed the creation of the DNI position. Robert Gates, who served as DCI in the early 1990s, expressed that criticism in a 2004 interview with NPR.

"It would be like the captain standing at the helm of an aircraft carrier, trying to steer the thing with all of the cables connecting the steering to the rudder cut," he said. "He would have a nice title and no real authority."

Collins recalled that the position was also opposed by the then-secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

"His department was going to lose considerable power over the intelligence community's budget, which was funneled through the Department of Defense," she said.

But President George W. Bush endorsed the plan. After months of hearings and negotiations, Congress produced a bill — the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act — that Bush signed on Dec. 17, 2004.

An evolution of opinions

John Negroponte became the first director of national intelligence. Bush nominated him for the position in February 2005, while he was serving as ambassador to Iraq.

Of the conflict between DNI and CIA, "some water had to go under the bridge," he said.

"I believe that there are many people, particularly the career professional intelligence officers in the CIA today, who still do not accept the fact that there was a directorate of national intelligence created to oversee them," Negroponte told NPR this week. "I think that difference lingers to this day."

Michael Morell, a longtime intelligence official and two-time acting CIA director, said in an interview that his view of the DNI has evolved over time, from opposition to support. Among the things that changed his mind: a different approach to compiling the president's daily brief, or PDB.

In the pre-DNI era, the director of central intelligence was the president's principal intelligence adviser. Because the DCI led the CIA, it was usually CIA material that was given top billing in the briefing, even if another agency disagreed. Under the DNI, Morell explained, disagreements and caveats are given a much more detailed airing.

"The president got a better sense of what his entire intelligence community thought. He was told of differences of view between CIA and others. He was told why those views mattered," Morell said. "I think that makes for better intelligence support for the president."

In the 15 years since its creation, the office of the DNI has expanded to a staff of thousands. The exact number is classified. A sleek headquarters building has gone up in Northern Virginia. Looking back, Collins said the DNI experiment has been largely successful, though not perfect.

"I do hear a criticism that the DNI office has grown too big, that it has become too bureaucratic. But compared to where we were prior to 9/11, we have come an enormous way."

"Work in progress"

The first DNI, Negroponte, hesitated when asked whether the position of DNI has worked.

"I wouldn't say it hasn't failed. I'm not sure it's worked fully. I think it's still a work in progress," he said. "Those problems of coordination don't just go away because you say they should."

Negroponte pointed to last week's Justice Department inspector general report, which detailed 17 mistakes and omissions made by FBI agents in applying for secret court orders to surveil onetime Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The FBI's application suggested that Page was a Russian asset but left out key details, including that Page had previously worked with the CIA.

The FBI is promising changes. And no one ever claimed that a strong DNI would prevent every mistake, or solve every problem. There is broad agreement, though, that failing to fill the post is not a healthy situation for U.S. intelligence agencies.

"It is definitely a problem that the president has not nominated a permanent, Senate-confirmed DNI," Collins said. "If the people in the intelligence community do not know whether the acting DNI is going to be there next week, they are going to be less responsive to his concerns, to his directives. And that is a problem. So I would urge the president to make a choice."

Morell, the former acting CIA director, agreed. "I was acting director of CIA twice, so I know what I'm talking about here. You don't feel as empowered as you would if you are Senate-confirmed."

So how awkward a position does Joseph Maguire find himself in, four months and counting after being named acting DNI? Morell noted that Maguire is a U.S. Navy vice admiral, with 36 years of military service.

"This is a guy who's actually been shot at in combat," said Morell. "This is a guy who's endured a lot. But what I think he's learning is that the political fire is often more challenging than the actual weapons fire."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Yovanovitch, Vindman, Sondland - a few of the people who've become household names as the impeachment drama has played out. With the House vote now behind us, we wanted to catch up with another central character from the very beginning, a man who occupies, at least for the moment, one of the most critical perches in the U.S. government.

Our story begins late on Friday, the 13th of September, which is when Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, released a cryptic letter. And we're going to let our co-host, Mary Louise Kelly, pick it up from here.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: The letter runs four pages on official stationery - the big seal of the Intelligence Committee on top. It is signed sincerely, Adam B. Schiff. It is addressed to this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH MAGUIRE: Now, here I am, sitting before you as the acting director of national intelligence.

KELLY: Joseph Maguire. That's him testifying before Congress, end of September. He had received Schiff's letter, which contained very few details, but which marked the first public mention of the whistleblower complaint. The letter accused Maguire of improperly withholding that complaint from Congress and subpoenaed him to testify.

Now, we heard Maguire say there he's the acting director of national intelligence. And talk about timing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: Director Maguire, what was your first day on the job?

MAGUIRE: My first day on the job was Friday, the 16th of August. And I think I set a new record in the administration for being subpoenaed before any...

MALONEY: Yeah, yeah. You had a heck of a first week, didn't you, sir?

MAGUIRE: I've got that much going for me, sir.

KELLY: The questions there from New York Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney driving home the point that Maguire took over the job of running U.S. intelligence just four days after the whistleblower, a U.S. intelligence official, filed the complaint. Maguire suggested this was not the way he'd envisioned the job going.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGUIRE: Now I also want to say, sir, if I may, my life would have been a heck of a lot simpler without becoming the most famous man in the United States.

MALONEY: Don't doubt that it all, sir.

KELLY: Debatable whether Joseph Maguire was then, or now, the most famous man in the United States. But if it felt that way, it speaks to the extraordinarily awkward position the acting DNI found himself in, caught between a White House looking for loyalty and lawmakers looking for answers. Since his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, Maguire has kept an exceedingly low profile, no interviews - we asked for one.

We're going to spend these next minutes looking closely at the DNI job, whether it matters that we are now past four months and counting with an acting director at the helm, the longest period without a Senate-confirmed permanent leader of U.S. intelligence since the job was created 15 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH: Today, I'm asking Congress to create the position of a national intelligence director.

KELLY: George W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden, 2004. Over in Congress, they were listening.

SUSAN COLLINS: We were breaking for the August recess. And I decided to call our committee back into session, and we began the hearings.

KELLY: Republican Susan Collins of Maine - she chaired the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

COLLINS: I felt a sense of urgency because this was already 2004. The terrorist attacks had happened on 9/11/2001.

KELLY: And the 9/11 Commission had just released its final report. It zoomed in on a failure to connect the dots, that the CIA, the FBI and others weren't sharing what they knew. The report had ideas for how to prevent anything like 9/11 from ever happening again. The central, crowning recommendation - a new position, someone who could force intelligence agencies to talk to each other. So Collins and Joe Lieberman, then the committee's top Democrat, got to work.

I remember you couldn't figure out what you were going to call this position to start with. It was the NID for a little while.

COLLINS: I was going to say it. For a while, it was the NID. And I remember Joe Lieberman saying, we can't call it the NID. That sounds too much like the NET. And it has to be the DNI.

KELLY: Doesn't sound empowered, even...

COLLINS: Exactly.

KELLY: What to call it was the least of their problems. Senator Collins told me the turf battles were endless.

COLLINS: It was vehemently opposed by not only the CIA, but particularly the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, because his department was going to lose considerable power over the intelligence community's budget, which was funneled through the Department of Defense.

KELLY: But as you heard, his boss, President Bush, was on board. And in December 2004, Congress passed the most sweeping intelligence overhaul in nearly 60 years. By the following February, Bush was announcing his pick for the nation's first director of national intelligence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: Vesting these authorities in a single official who reports directly to me will make our intelligence efforts better coordinated, more efficient and more effective. The director of the CIA will report to John.

KELLY: John was John Negroponte. At the time, he was U.S. ambassador to Iraq. I tracked him down here in Washington this week and asked about that last bit of the president's remarks, that the head of the CIA would report to him.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: That's correct.

KELLY: Did it work out that way?

NEGROPONTE: It did. No, it did. But, you know, it took some socializing and some...

KELLY: Explain. Explain socializing. That feels like a diplomatic term.

NEGROPONTE: Some water had to go under the bridge (laughter).

KELLY: In the 15 years that that water has been flowing under the bridge, the office of the DNI has expanded to a staff of thousands - the exact number is classified - a sleek headquarters building has gone up in northern Virginia. So has all this worked? Has having a DNI made us safer? Again, the sponsor of the original legislation, Senator Collins.

COLLINS: I do believe that it has been successful, but it's not perfect. I do hear a criticism that the DNI's office has grown too big, too bureaucratic. So I'm not saying that we got it perfectly right. But compared to where we were, we have come an enormous way.

KELLY: I heard a similar view from Mike Morell, who was among those who required some socializing, to use Negroponte's word. Morell served more than 30 years at the CIA. He was President Bush's briefer on 9/11 and ended up the agency's deputy director. Morell opposed creating the DNI, thought the more obvious solution was to bulk up the authorities of the head of the CIA.

MIKE MORELL: But I evolved over time significantly. So by the time I left government in 2013, the last week that I was deputy director, I actually got in my car and drove to Capitol Hill and met with Senator Collins and Senator Lieberman to actually thank them. So I was - I started out in one place, and I ended up in a completely different place.

KELLY: Pressed as to why, Morell, who now hosts the "Intelligence Matters" podcast, pointed to his former gig, delivering the president's daily brief. In the old days, he says it was pretty much only CIA material that made the cut. Whereas now, with a DNI overseeing everything, the president's likely to hear from, sure, the CIA, but also the State Department's intelligence branch or the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA.

MORELL: So when CIA wrote a piece, say, on a China issue, and DIA had a different view, it would actually say at the bottom of the page, DIA has a different view. Here it is. Here's why they have a different view. And here, Mr. President, is why this matters to you, this difference matters to you. So - and I think that makes for better intelligence support for the president.

KELLY: John Negroponte, the original DNI, has mixed feelings about the job he once held.

Here we are 15 years later. As an experiment, has it worked?

NEGROPONTE: I would say it hasn't failed. I'm not sure it's worked fully. I think it's still work in progress.

KELLY: On the positive side, Ambassador Negroponte points to changes he helped put in motion, such as integrating the FBI more closely into the broader intelligence community. Then he pauses and adds, mistakes still get made.

NEGROPONTE: Obviously, we see that from the inspector general's report just now with respect to Carter Page and all that. That was an egregious - seems to have been an egregious mistake of some kind, which shows that those problems of coordination don't just go away because you say they should.

KELLY: The reference there to the DOJ inspector general who just last week delivered a report documenting all kinds of errors in the FBI's application to surveil one-time Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Now, can we draw a direct line between the DNI role and the FBI cock-ups? No. What is fact is last week saw President Trump tweeting the FBI is, quote, "badly broken," which brings us back up to this moment - the president attacking what he has come to call the deep state, the House voting to impeach the president following an inquiry originally put in motion by a U.S. intelligence community whistleblower, the usual array of national security threats on the radar from Iran to China to North Korea, and no sign of a nomination for the top job in U.S. intelligence.

COLLINS: It is definitely a problem that the president has not nominated a permanent, Senate-confirmed DNI.

KELLY: Republican Senator Susan Collins.

COLLINS: If the people in the intelligence community do not know whether the acting DNI is going to be there next week, they are going to be less responsive to his concerns, to his directives. And that is a problem. So I would urge the president to make a choice.

KELLY: I put her argument to someone with firsthand experience, Michael Morell.

MORELL: You know, I was acting director of CIA twice, so I know what I'm talking about here. You don't feel as empowered as you would if you are Senate-confirmed because you know you're not going to be there that long.

KELLY: Just how awkward a position, then, does Joseph Maguire find himself in four months and four days after being named acting director of national intelligence? Morrell points out that Maguire's a Navy vice admiral, 36 years in uniform.

MORELL: This is a guy who's actually been shot at - right? - in combat. This is a guy who's endured a lot. But I think what he is learning is that the political fire is often more challenging than actual weapons fire.

KELLY: Navigating impeachment era, Donald Trump-dominated Washington, in other words, is a different game, Morrell adds, I hope he's learning fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.