4 Months And Counting, An Acting Intelligence Chief In The Hot Seat It's the longest that the director of national intelligence role has been unfilled since its creation 15 years ago. And the delay has implications for the U.S. intelligence community and beyond.
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4 Months And Counting, An Acting Intelligence Chief In The Hot Seat

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

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

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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")

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