Defending pick for spy chief, Trump says US intelligence agencies have 'run amok'

US President Donald Trump repeatedly has criticised the US intelligence community since taking office.
US President Donald Trump repeatedly has criticised the US intelligence community since taking office.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday (July 30) defended his choice for the next US spy chief as someone who could "rein in" intelligence agencies that "have run amok", fuelling concerns Mr Trump seeks assessments that support his own views.

Mr Trump's choice of Republican Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas as the next director of national intelligence, has been greeted with scant enthusiasm by his fellow Republicans and charges by former intelligence officials and Democrats that he is unqualified and will frame intelligence to suit the President.

Mr Ratcliffe, a member of the House Intelligence Committee for six months, would replace Mr Dan Coats, whose judgments on Iran, North Korea and Russia's interference in the 2016 elections clashed with Mr Trump's views, earning the President's disdain.

Returning to the White House from an appearance in Virginia, Mr Trump on Tuesday said Mr Ratcliffe "is going to do an incredible job, if he gets approved" by the Senate.

"I think we need somebody like that in there," he continued. "We need somebody strong that can rein it in. Because, as I think you've all learnt, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They have run amok."

Mr Trump denied he had a "conflict" with Mr Coats, saying he was"a friend of mine" and a "terrific person". But, he added, "Dan made statements and they were a little confused".

Mr Trump has repeatedly criticised the US intelligence community since taking office, questioning its conclusions that Russia's election interference was aimed at boosting his candidacy over that of his Democratic opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton.

 
 

Mr Coats has defended the assessment, while Mr Ratcliffe denied there was evidence of Russian interference, accused the FBI of pursuing a biased investigation and echoed Mr Trump's baseless charge that the Obama administration spied on his campaign.

In January, Mr Trump attacked Mr Coats and other intelligence agency chiefs on Twitter after they told Congress that Iran was adhering to the 2015 pact designed to block its development of a nuclear bomb and North Korea was unlikely to comply with Mr Trump's demand that it eliminate its nuclear arsenal.

Asked about Mr Trump's comments, Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an e-mail: "The men and women of our intelligence community deserve our thanks and support, not more baseless attacks."

"It's striking how the President so often seems completely incapable of viewing matters of intelligence and national security through any lens but his own political well-being," he added.

Mr John Sipher, a former senior CIA officer who spent 28 years in the agency's clandestine service, said Mr Trump's comments were "especially bad because, as President, he runs the intelligence community and has access to everything. Despite that, he maintains these crazy fictions that shore up his base".

Mr Coats, who served for more than 20 years in Congress and as a US ambassador to Germany, steps down on Aug 15. Mr Trump has not yet formally nominated Mr Ratcliffe and it is unlikely the Senate would hold a confirmation hearing until after Congress returns from summer recess in September.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell - whose support is critical to Mr Ratcliffe's confirmation - was somewhat circumspect on Tuesday when asked if the three-term lawmaker was qualified to oversee the 17 US civilian and military intelligence agencies, whose combined annual budgets total more than US$60 billion (S$82.1 billion).

"I haven't met him yet. I look forward to meeting with him," said Mr McConnell. "I would, you know, lean towards the President's nominees and I'd rather not address that until I've actually had a chance to meet him and discuss his background and qualifications."

 

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, added her voice to concerns that Mr Ratcliffe lacked the "extensive national security experience" that the post of director of national intelligence requires by law.

"Congressman Ratcliffe has served for four years in the House and was mayor of a small town in Texas. This isn't a learn-as-you-go position and shouldn't be given out to political supporters," she said in a statement.

Mr Ratcliffe gained attention last week when he defended Mr Trump during a hearing in which former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified on his two-year probe into Russia's election interference and possible obstruction of justice by the President.