Trouble at the top

20 February: President Trump has appointed yet another new Director of National Intelligence in his efforts to find a stooge who will rein in the US intelligence services. He has dismissed acting DNI, Vice Admiral James Maguire, following a briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee that produced classified evidence that Russia is seeking to assist Trump’s re-election bid in this year’s Presidential election. Maguire only replaced the last DNI, Dan Coats, in July 2019. Trump is reportedly “furious” that this news has come out and blamed Maguire for not bringing the services to heel. He has been replaced by Richard Grenell, a rabid Trump loyalist who is currently the US ambassador to Germany. He has little relevant experience and appears to have been appointed purely on the basis of his political affiliations. He is a regular contributor to the highly partisan Fox News.

Trump is increasingly frustrated that he cannot bend the US intelligence services to his will. He has placed what he thought were compliant figures at the top, such as Gina Haspel at the CIA, but damaging intelligence continues to be produced. This has forced Trump to the uncomfortable position of denouncing his own intelligence services: last year when he claimed that they were “extremely passive and naive” because their assessment of the Iranian threat did not coincide with his. The difference between the two positions was that the US intelligence services supported their view with detailed evidence and analysis.

What Trump fails to understand is that the intelligence services are not like big corporations. Changing the managers at the top does not prevent field officers from producing key intelligence. Once this data is in the system, it is hard for Trump’s placemen to ignore it or bury it. If they do, they risk being exposed by covert or overt whistleblowers. For all his blind loyalty, Grenell may find it difficult to produce the compliant intelligence services that Trump desires. We may well be reading about yet another change of DNI in the near future.

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