Trump names Richard Grenell as acting head of intelligence

Former ambassador Richard Grenell's at times biting outspokenness has been a hallmark of a long career in Republican politics.


WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President Donald Trump on Wednesday (Feb 19) named Mr Richard Grenell, a loyalist who antagonised the German establishment as the US ambassador there, to be acting director of national intelligence overseeing the nation's 17 spy agencies.

By choosing Mr Grenell, who has little experience in intelligence or in running a large bureaucracy, the president signalled that he wants a trusted, aggressive leader atop an intelligence community that he has long viewed with suspicion and at times gone to war against.

Mr Grenell's at times biting outspokenness has been a hallmark of a long career in Republican politics and as a spokesman at the United Nations for former ambassador John Bolton.

Mr Grenell stirred controversy in Europe by intervening in domestic political affairs, attacking what he called "failed" open-border policies in Germany and criticising Germany's stances on Iran, military spending and Chinese investment in global telephone networks.

Now, overseeing the intelligence agencies, Mr Grenell will choose which spy reports and analyses are sent to the White House and which urgent threats to inform the president and congressional leaders about.

While intelligence directors have tried to serve as neutral arbiters of facts, Mr Grenell's experience as an ideological advocate prompted some former officials to express concern that he could colour the intelligence he presents to Mr Trump.

"This is a job requiring leadership, management, substance and secrecy," said Mr John Sipher, a former CIA officer. "He doesn't have the kind of background and experience we would expect for such a critical position."

Republican senators had privately pushed the administration to nominate a national security professional for the post, and advisers made clear that the president was not nominating Mr Grenell for the permanent job.

Mr Trump has installed acting leaders in other top government vacancies, giving him freedom to manoeuvre around the demands of Senate confirmation.

Mr Grenell, who has pushed to advance gay rights in his current post, is apparently also the first openly gay Cabinet member.

By law, the current acting director of national intelligence, Mr Joseph Maguire, has to give up his temporary role before March 12. Mr Grenell is expected to begin his new job Thursday. He is also expected to keep his current ambassadorship simultaneous with the new role, one administration official said.

Mr Grenell did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Trump can choose any Senate-confirmed official to replace Mr Maguire, who has served as acting director of national intelligence since the resignation last summer of Dan Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana.

Mr Grenell was confirmed by the Senate for his current job after a delay caused by parliamentary tactics that stirred a bipartisan outcry.

He would be the latest in a line of intelligence directors who have had varied policy experience including diplomatic or military backgrounds rather than stints in the intelligence world. But Mr Grenell is also an acerbic combatant who throws regular punches at "fake news" reporters and Mr Trump's opponents online.

While most of the previous directors of national intelligence have tried to take a non-partisan tone, Mr Trump has looked askance at officials who have tried to remain apolitical or neutral experts. He increasingly has looked to people for positions who he believes share his views.

"Grenell, from the beginning, was an ultra-right-wing sniper on social media," said Mr Douglas Wise, a former senior intelligence official. "He is certainly in line with the Trump agenda."

Intelligence professionals reacted with surprise and some with disappointment, questioning Mr Grenell's experience and temperament. The appointment demonstrated that Mr Trump little understands or values the intelligence community, said Mr Nicholas Rasmussen, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Personal loyalty is prized above relevant experience and demonstrated competence," said Mr Rasmussen, now acting executive director of the McCain Institute. "Professionalism and integrity are devalued. The signal this sends to our career national security and intelligence professionals is unmistakable."

When Mr Coats announced his resignation in July, Mr Trump initially nominated an ally, Representative John Ratcliffe, to be the next top intelligence chief - a job considered to be among the most nonpartisan in Washington.

But Mr Trump quickly dropped those plans after pushback from Democrats and some key Republicans who worried Mr Ratcliffe's loyalty to the president and lack of intelligence experience would make him nearly impossible to confirm. There were also concerns that Mr Ratcliffe exaggerated his resume.

After Mr Ratcliffe was dropped from consideration, Mr Trump promised to announce a new nominee soon. But the list of people with the requisite experience who have not been critical of the president is slim.

The administration considered, and discarded, a number of potential nominees, including Mr Pete Hoekstra, the US ambassador to the Netherlands and a former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Representative Chris Stewart, a committee member.

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