Dan Coats reported for his last day as the country’s spy chief on Thursday. His experienced deputy is out the door too, leaving an acting director with only limited intelligence background set to take the reins.
And deep uncertainty lingers about who will get President Donald Trump’s nod to fill the job permanently.
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The departure of Coats leaves only a short list of qualified — and willing — candidates to serve as the director of national intelligence, even as threats from Russia, Iran and elsewhere continue to mount.
The most talked-about contenders, intelligence and national security veterans say, include former Michigan Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who has gotten praise from Trump despite the sometimes-rocky reception he’s received in his current role as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.
Coats himself has recommended former Rep. Mike Rogers, another Michigan Republican and previous House Intelligence chairman, an ex-intelligence official told POLITICO. Other possibilities include California Rep. Devin Nunes, a close Trump ally who has been a divisive figure as both the chairman and the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
Potential nominees whose names have surfaced also include Kevin Meiners, a senior official in Coats’ office; Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst who served as national security adviser John Bolton’s chief of staff; and Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Trump and White House officials have said the president has a list of three candidates he intended to consider for the job but haven’t revealed the names. The president has a history of keeping his picks for Cabinet-level personnel closely guarded, meaning there could be more under consideration or a dark horse contender could emerge.
For now, Coats’ role will be filled by Joseph Maguire, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, who is set to become the acting director of the Office of National Intelligence on Thursday until the Senate approves Trump’s eventual nominee. That process has already proven problematic — Trump’s first pick, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), dropped out after he received scant support from his fellow Republicans amid questions about whether the congressman had exaggerated his resume.
Former national security and intelligence officials who spoke to POLITICO said that regardless of whom Trump names, the nominee should possess a history of being apolitical — or at least bipartisan. The person also needs to understand the business of managing the 17 civilian and military agencies that make up the country’s intelligence apparatus, such as budget decisions about where to devote analysts and resources or where to launch the next billion-dollar spy satellite, and must command the respect of organizations like the CIA and NSA.
“People are going to be paying especially close attention to who it is and whether or not that person has any history of substantive engagement with intelligence, either as a consumer or as a practitioner,” said Katrina Mulligan, managing director for national security and international policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, who spent nine years as a senior official in the ODNI.
Trump mentioned Hoekstra last week after announcing the departure of Coats’ No. 2, Sue Gordon, who had been in line to assume the role of acting director.
“He’s great,” Trump said of the former congressman. “He’s doing a fantastic job in the Netherlands right now.”
The praise suggested to those following the nomination that Hoekstra is leading the small pack of potential DNI picks.
Hoekstra took some early flak in the Netherlands after becoming ambassador there in 2017, making unfounded claims about the “Islamic movement” sowing unrest in Dutch cities and then denying he had made the videotaped remarks.
Within the intelligence community, Hoekstra is viewed “as more a partisan” choice than some other potential candidates, according to a former ODNI official. The official also noted that Hoekstra chaired the Intelligence Committee from 2004 to 2007 and was its ranking member from 2007 to 2011, in an era before Russia’s resurgence, the rise of digital warfare and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s devastating leaks about the government’s most secret spying programs.
“A lot has changed since then,” the former official said.
Even through Coats recommended Rogers, it’s unclear how much weight the suggestion will carry with Trump. The president routinely, and publicly, disparaged the analysis offered by Coats and the rest of the intelligence community, especially over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.
Rogers, a former FBI agent, probably meets the qualifications of someone who is not viewed as a partisan and has a background in national security, the former ODNI official told POLITICO.
“He’s a Republican but he’s not somebody who has been identified as a rabid defender of the president. He was very effective as the [House Intelligence] chair and pretty well-respected within the intelligence community,” the former official said. Rogers’ time as chairman also “gave him a degree of exposure to the nuts and bolts of intelligence and the authorities of the DNI.”
Rogers has other supporters within the intelligence community. Doug Wise, a retired CIA officer and former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the nation “would be exceptionally well-served if Trump was to appoint him as the DNI.”
“That would be a very comforting appointment to many of us in the IC and formers like myself who really worry about this appointment,” said Wise, who interacted with Rogers as the CIA’s chief of station in Iraq and then as the agency’s chief of operational training.
He said Rogers was a “probative chairman” who could be “very, very hard on us, very demanding, [and] had high standards for appearances and for compliance with oversight, but at the same time he was very fair and he was very supportive.”
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, who worked alongside Rogers for four years as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the former congressman “understands that there is no room for politics when it comes to our national security. He’s tough, he’s fair and he’s independent — he will speak truth to power.”
In a statement, Rogers said he was “honored” if Coats “thought of me in that way.”
Some intelligence veterans dismissed the possibility of Nunes getting the nod, despite his close ties to the president.
“Nunes would never be able to get confirmed,” the former ODNI official said, adding “most people” inside the White House recognize he would be a non-starter in the Senate. “The problem may be that there’s one person who doesn’t,” meaning Trump.
Others downplayed the possibility of Trump going with Fleitz, the former CIA analyst. He left his White House post last year to serve as president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank that has been critical of “radical Islam.”
Former officials didn’t rule out the possibility that Trump would just choose to nominate Maguire, who has already been confirmed by the Senate, to be DNI.
Maguire, a former Navy SEAL who retired as a vice admiral, “would be pretty well-received within the intelligence community,” according to the former ODNI official, noting that much would depend on how his relationship with Trump fares over the coming weeks or months.
However, Mulligan of the Center for American Progress disagreed, saying Maguire “doesn’t know the first thing about running the [intelligence community]. He’s a special ops guy with a [counterterrorism background] which is only a sliver of what the IC is all about.”
Trump has offered no timeline for how long Maguire would stay in the acting role. “I’m in no rush because we have a great acting [director],” he said last week.
The president also said he was speaking with the Senate Intelligence Committee about a number of candidates. “I want to get somebody that everybody can really come together with,” Trump said.
Another former intelligence official said the lack of urgency — following the five-day whirlwind that surrounded Ratcliffe’s aborted candidacy — shows that “the blowback was so strong and sufficient” that the administration is changing course and has “taken on the feedback about the importance of having someone who has strong experience working in intelligence-related fields.”
Trump specifically has gotten “the message he’s not going to be able to install a purely ‘yes man’ or ‘yes woman’ in that position,” the official told POLITICO.
The official warned against keeping an acting spymaster for too long, though, so that policy decisions can be made within the clandestine community and to ensure its interests are represented in the administration.
“Given the fast pace of change and the things happening in the current national security environment it’s going to be important to have someone who feels the ownership and the full responsibility of being in that position and doesn’t feel like they’re just holding all the pieces together,” the official said.