The high-stakes confirmation hearing, which was limited in size to allow for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, came as the work of the American intelligence community was repeatedly featured in the headlines by persistent and often politically charged questions about the origin of the epidemic. .
Ratcliffe withdrew his nomination after being selected for the role by Mr. Trump for the first time last August, in part due to the scrutiny of his media’s qualifications – some of which appeared to be overestimated. He should answer questions, particularly from skeptical Democrats, about why he is better prepared for the role now than he was eight months ago.
“I must say that, even if I am ready to give you the benefit of the doubt during this hearing, I do not see what has changed since last summer, when the president decided not to proceed with your appointment because concerns about your inexperience. , partisanship and past statements that seemed to make your record better, “committee vice-president Mark Warner of Virginia said Tuesday. “This includes particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, who have long been a bipartisan cause on this committee. I will speak frankly: I still have some of the same doubts that I had in August. “
But Republicans who seemed lukewarm, if not opposed, to Ratcliffe’s appointment last summer appear to have warmed up since. Committee chair Richard Burr said he believed there was “no substitute” for the appointment of a Senate-confirmed DNI. The agency currently has no Senate-confirmed officials in its ranks – it normally has at least half a dozen.
In his opening remarks, Burr noted that Tuesday’s audience would be more sparse given the social distancing measures, but that the smaller crowd did not reflect the level of importance of the audience. The senator from North Carolina said his newly sprouted beard was a tribute to the late Senator Tom Coburn, who often went without shaving in times of crisis.
Burr welcomed Ratcliffe and said he expected Congressman to lead the intelligence community “with integrity.”
“I know he is ready to lead the intelligence community, which has continued to do its vital work under increasingly difficult conditions,” said Burr.
In his opening statement, Ratcliffe promised to oversee the unbiased intelligence community and “tell the truth to the government.”
“If confirmed, I hope to be a stabilizing force,” said Ratcliffe. He also congratulated the members of the intelligence community and promised to represent them fairly.
Ratcliffe was pressed for political independence by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Susan Collins, and reiterated his support for whistleblower protections and his commitment to present impartial information to the president. Collins asked him if he would include a political consideration when issuing the intelligence briefing to the president.
“I will present the unvarnished truth which will not be concealed from anyone,” replied Ratcliffe.
Acting DNI Richard Grenell, whose relationships with congressional supervisors and members of the press have quickly become confrontational since taking office in February, has drawn critical former intelligence officers who have said the head of the US intelligence community should have neither the time nor the interest in fighting on Twitter. Burr and Warner also sent a joint letter to Grenell insisting that the personnel changes, of which he has personally announced a number, should be suspended until a permanent director is confirmed.
Perhaps most importantly for Ratcliffe, Collins said in a pre-hearing statement that after speaking with him late last week, she concluded that Ratcliffe “had the experience necessary to meet the statutory standard to fill the post ”. As co-author of the 2004 legislation that gave rise to the role of the DNI, Collins was seen as having a vested interest in protecting the integrity of the office, and therefore as a potential swing vote.
“His knowledge of cybersecurity is particularly important given the challenges our country faces,” said Collins. She also said she had discussed the importance of “objective analysis” with Ratcliffe.
Member of two high-level committees – the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, which he joined in 2019 – Ratcliffe caught the attention of the President with his vocal defense of him during hearings related to the council’s inquiry Robert Mueller and during the subsequent indictment. investigation.
But other members of Ratcliffe’s intelligence committee and some officials in the intelligence community wondered if he had spent enough time in the substance of intelligence work to navigate the multidisciplinary community of 17 multi-billion dollar agencies – and if his loyalty to Mr. Trump could become a handicap in the role of DNI, which has always been separated from politics.
He was pressed on the same issue Tuesday, as Democratic Senators sought to demand promises that Ratcliffe would protect the intelligence community’s apolitical mission from the White House’s political preferences – and pressures -.
Part of the discussion focused on electoral security – a topic that is said to have sparked the President’s anger and led to the ouster of former acting DNI Joseph Maguire. The intelligence community has repeatedly stated that the Russian government, as it did in 2016, would seek to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, but the question of whether Moscow again shows a preference for M Trump has sparked protests from the president.
Ratcliffe was also asked to address long-standing intelligence challenges related to “hard targets” like North Korea, Russia and Iran. Intelligence officials who offered public assessments of these and other issues last year were later reprimanded for ” naive“By the president, whose policies diverged in some respects from what the assessments indicated.
Trump’s criticisms of the work and leadership of the intelligence community have resurfaced with some frequency. In an interview on Sunday, the president again appeared to question the competence of former intelligence community leaders – presumably that of Mr. Maguire, whom Trump himself selected after Ratcliffe’s first withdrawal – while discussing the briefings given to him at the start. of the coronavirus epidemic.
” [T]The intelligence agencies, which have now – now, because before they weren’t … are now run very competently with great people, “said Trump,” and great people coming. ”