US Ambassador to Germany Grenell Takes Charge of US Intelligence, for Now
By Jeff Seldin February 20, 2020
The soon-to-be acting chief of the United States' intelligence agencies says he won't be on the job for long.
In a tweet Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell confirmed he is taking the post only on a temporary basis and that, "The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon."
The U.S. has been without a permanent director of national intelligence since mid-August of 2019, when Dan Coats officially stepped down following a series of public clashes with President Donald Trump over intelligence assessments.
But so far there is no word from the White House on just when a permanent replacement will be nominated.
In the meantime, Grenell is set to take over from current acting Director Joseph Maguire, who by law cannot continue in an acting capacity beyond March 12.
Trump first announced the move to Grenell in a tweet late Wednesday.
In a statement Thursday, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham praised Grenell and his qualifications for the role.
"He has years of experience working with our Intelligence Community in a number of additional positions, including as Special Envoy for Serbia-Kosovo Negotiations and as United States spokesman to the United Nations," Grisham said, adding, "He is committed to a non-political, non-partisan approach as head of the Intelligence Community, on which our safety and security depend."
An administration official also confirmed to VOA that Grenell will keep his job as ambassador to Germany and continue to serve as special envoy for peace negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo as he leads national intelligence efforts.
Grenell, known as a staunch Trump loyalist, caused a stir in Germany upon assuming his diplomatic post, saying that he wanted to "empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders."
Some German lawmakers viewed the comments as unusually interventionist and Germany's Foreign Ministry demanded an explanation.
Grenell has also been especially outspoken about what he says are the dangers of doing business with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, urging Germany not to become a Huawei customer because of suspicions the company installs spyware in its products at the bidding of Beijing.
Despite White House accolades, the move is not sitting well with some former intelligence officials or with some key lawmakers, who cite Grenell's lack of intelligence experience and the president's refusal to name a permanent director.
"The president is marginalizing the position by refusing to nominate someone to be confirmed," said James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama.
"It is bad for continuity and stability," Clapper told VOA. "The over-arching message is the president simply doesn't care, and simply wants a hood ornament loyalist sitting in the chair."
The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Mark Warner, also criticized the selection of Grenell on Twitter.
"It appears the President has selected an individual *without any intelligence experience* to serve as the leader of the nation's intelligence community in an acting capacity," Warner wrote, further accusing Trump of engaging in "an effort to sidestep the Senate's constitutional authority to advise & consent on such critical positions."
Initially, following Dan Coats' resignation almost eight months ago, Trump announced he would nominate Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe, one of the newer members of the House Intelligence Committee, to serve in a permanent capacity; but, Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration following questions about his credentials and experience.
Instead, Trump turned to Joseph Maguire, a former Navy SEAL who had been serving as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Maguire won praise from lawmakers and former intelligence officials for his stated commitment to avoid politics and "speak truth to power," long seen as a critical function of the U.S. intelligence community. "
I think Joseph Maguire did as well as he could, under difficult circumstances, to stave off corruption of the intelligence community's mission," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.
But with Grenell stepping in, Pillar is voicing concern.
"Grenell not only has no intelligence experience, which is a negative, but is very much a partisan fighter and ideologue," he said. "Having Grenell as acting DNI promises to politicize the intelligence community more than it has been to date so far under Trump."
President Trump has had a rocky relationship with the U.S. intelligence community after it concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
On several occasions, he publicly clashed with his intelligence chiefs, once lambasting them on Twitter for being "extremely passive and naïve."
VOA's White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman and White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report
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