John Ratcliffe, the newly confirmed director of national intelligence, sent letters to congressional leaders on Friday, stating that his office would no longer conduct most oral intelligence briefings on issues related to election security; instead there would be written updates.
The shift, he said, was because of leaks from the intelligence committees, and the new system would ensure that intelligence information “is not misunderstood nor politicized.”
Democrats and other critics questioned how, exactly, written information would limit leaks to the press.
Amid the other challenges facing the country, a change in the mode of passing information from the intelligence community to Congress may not seem like a big deal. And some Republicans downplayed the news. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, said the change is “blown so way out of proportion,” and “I can probably count on one or two fingers the things that are actually classified in those briefings.”
Unfortunately, none of the people the president keeps tapping for intelligence roles seem to know much about the last five decades of reforms that have brought greater accountability and oversight to America’s most secretive agencies. But for the intelligence community, the decision signifies a significant step toward the erosion of congressional oversight, the politicization of intelligence and the expansion of executive overreach.
In simpler vernacular, it smacks of the very thing that Mr. Trump has used to stoke outrage in his followers — the formation of a politicized national security apparatus that can serve as a personal weapon for the president. A “deep state.”
Republican and Democratic administrations over the past 45 years have been able to count on an intelligence community that is professional, nonpartisan, comfortable speaking truth to power and — when it screws up — restrained by congressional and Justice Department oversight. While some argue that secretive government agencies still wield too much power, it was far worse before a series of significant bipartisan reforms in the 1970s.
After its inception in 1947, the C.I.A. engaged in secret warfare all over the world. It interfered in elections, covered up its failures and shunned accountability. It overthrew the freely elected leaders of Iran and Guatemala. And it lied to Congress, which failed miserably to hold the agency to account. When Frank Church, the chairman of a special Senate committee to investigate the C.I.A., finally investigated abuse of power, he labeled the agency “rogue elephant.”
J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. was arguably worse. Hoover trampled on civil rights and engaged in warrantless wiretaps and black-bag jobs for presidents — including more than a decade of surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr.
A series of bipartisan governmental reforms during the 1970s sought to prevent further abuses by both the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., and to increase public confidence in government. Executive orders, as well as legislation, reined in executive overreach, ensured greater accountability and established congressional oversight. The reforms were specifically developed to avoid the creation of a powerful, out-of-control, secret bureaucracy not accountable to the public.
By the time I joined the C.I.A. in the 1980s, the bipartisan reforms had been institutionalized through ethical and professional standards that were a part of mandatory training. Clear rules governing covert action, accountability, legal boundaries and expectations of congressional oversight were in place.
From Day 1, C.I.A. officers are drilled on the nonpartisan nature of their mission. There is no greater sin than politicization of intelligence.
For those on the outside, it is hard to explain the centrality of unbiased reporting and a culture of speaking truth to power. To withhold or color intelligence for any reason is anathema to professionals. It is better to provide unvarnished intelligence that may be uncomfortable than to skew conclusions to fit political preconceptions.
Indeed, some of the C.I.A.’s most devastating failures involved allegations of politicized analysis, like the report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Ratcliffe, whose earlier, planned nomination was initially dropped because both Republicans and Democrats thought he was eminently underqualified, was only later confirmed to push the then-acting director, Richard Grenell, from the position. Mr. Grenell — also unqualified for the job — seemed more interested in cherry picking and declassifying information to damage President Trump’s opponents than serving as a steward of the intelligence community.
Mr. Ratcliffe, a fawning loyalist of President Trump, knows that nothing can trigger his boss’s fury faster than issues related to Russia and elections.
On a practical level, Mr. Ratcliffe is surely not the right person to conduct detailed congressional briefings and manage follow-up questions. But if he defers to career professionals, he risks that an awkward truth might spill out.
Mr. Ratcliffe also seems to not understand that a document is only the starting point for analysis. Intelligence professionals write to be easily understood, but also write to be interrogated. They know that in-person briefings are necessary because a document can be misread no matter how precise.
The experts who brief Congress are there to both distill conclusions and provide context. They want to know what these politicians think so they can query sources with new questions. When Mr. Ratcliffe prohibits give-and- take, he says, in effect, that he alone knows what Congress needs.
Most troubling, since much of the written intelligence destined for Congress passes through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, members of Congress cannot be confident that they are getting unbiased and unaltered intelligence. Lying is easier via strategic omission, or if Congress has no means to challenge the material it receives.
Every step to limit the executive branch’s cooperation with the legislature erodes the ability to conduct oversight and portends larger concerns. The erosion of congressional checks and balances on executive power has been significant since 9/11.
President Trump’s administration has accelerated the process by refusing to comply with document requests and by blocking witnesses from testifying at the congressional impeachment hearings and speaking to investigators from the special counsel Robert Mueller.
If the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, insisted on in-person briefings from Mr. Ratcliffe’s office, the White House would most likely acquiesce — but Mr. McConnell has shown no interest in restraining the president. And the Republican Party’s assault on the news media and “fake news” has weakened the public’s faith in journalists to expose abuses of power.
Our intelligence agencies are powerful organizations that must be regulated and monitored. Eroding their professional and nonpartisan nature is flirting with danger. So is removing the checks on power that congressional oversight provides.
President Trump has put intelligence professionals in an uncomfortable position — navigating between Congress and the White House, and between their oath to the Constitution and obligation to protect the American people and a responsibility to support a duly elected president.
If our powerful secret agencies become handmaidens to the political whims of whoever sits in the White House, then our democracy and security are at risk in ways that are hard to imagine.
John Sipher is a former chief of station for the C.I.A. and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.
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