President Trump’s decision to name Richard Grenell to lead the country’s intelligence community raises a staggering array of questions, ranging from the staunch Trump loyalist’s preparedness for the job to his oversight of whistleblowers past and future.
Grenell, a vocal Trump loyalist who is currently the ambassador to Germany, brings to the job of acting Director of National Intelligence years of experience aggravating the German government coupled with a background in strategic communications.
The political operative’s appointment has raised questions of his fitness for the job. As director of national intelligence, Grenell will oversee the 17 constituent agencies of the country’s intelligence community, managing the flow of information gathered by the country’s spies to President Trump.
“It’s difficult to contemplate managing 17 different organizations without having any experience with the intelligence process overall,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a former director for Russia on the National Security Council and a former CIA intelligence analyst, told TPM. “I just think it’s quite dangerous in the sense that the right information might not get to the right people.”
Since DNI Dan Coats stepped down from the position in August 2019, the government has lacked a Senate-confirmed official in the job.
But that hasn’t stopped it from playing a key role in politics. The Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment first blew open after the DNI blocked a whistleblower complaint from being forwarded onwards to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
In that case, outgoing acting DNI Joseph Maguire interceded with the intelligence community inspector general to label the now-famous whistleblower complaint as not of “urgent concern,” in part because it focused on the actions of someone who was arguably not a member of the intelligence community: President Trump.
“The DNI, and in particular his inspector general, is the center of all whistleblower protection in the intelligence community,” Daniel P. Meyer, at attorney at Tully Rinckey who used to run the intelligence community inspector general’s whistleblower program, told TPM.
Grenell will have control over any new whistleblower complaints that come forward. But, more crucially, he will also be overseeing the agency that employed the Ukraine whistleblower, a target of criticism from the President and his allies.
“Grenell, when he comes in, will be responsible for the tone and tenor of how whistleblowers are treated in the intelligence community,” Meyer added.”That includes if he meets with [CIA Director] Gina Haskell and talks about the protection of the whistleblower who went to the Hill in the case of the impeachment trial – that’s part of his duties.”
The longtime Trump loyalist’s main responsibility will go less to handling whistleblowers, however, and more towards briefing President Trump on information collected by the intelligence community.
That’s a big task. Even with a staff mostly composed of career officials to process the information, Grenell will be trusted with delivering Trump information that he needs to know in his role as commander-in-chief, not data provided through political filters.
“He has the ability to stop things from being seen by the President,” Edmonds, the former NSC official, told TPM. “And he can cherrypick things or fortify things that the President believes.”
Grenell, a longtime GOP communications official, could prove to be suited for the task in a different way. With the mass of information supplied by the intelligence community coursing through him and onwards into the Oval Office, it’s a perfect opportunity for spin.
But what could make him different from other, past episodes in which politics have infected the collection, analysis, and delivery of intelligence is the proximity Grenell will have to the intelligence community itself.
“The President can do whatever he wants with intelligence, but as a member of the intelligence community, you can’t politicize the intelligence,” Edmonds said.