The writing had been on the wall that Sue Gordon would not be allowed the chance to be acting director of national intelligence, as she is lawfully supposed to.
Sue Gordon was a name Americans were never supposed to know—the exemplar par excellence of the legion of career, nonpartisan officials who devote a lifetime to anonymous government service. A former Duke basketball player, Gordon dedicated her life to US intelligence. She rose through the ranks as part of the first generation of women to assume top roles, becoming a deputy director of the CIA, then deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and, most recently, serving for nearly three years in a role known as the principal deputy director of national intelligence—the nation’s No. 2 intelligence leader, and the top career intelligence official in the US government.
Well-respected, personable, and a quiet, behind-the-scenes leader, she is—hands down—one of the most thoughtful, smartest, and impressive people I’ve encountered in a dozen years of covering intelligence and national security. I’ve always felt more confident in America’s safety after listening to her talk.
Her forced departure by President Trump, announced last night, is only the latest shuffle of top national security posts under this administration. The pattern began in Trump’s first weeks in office, with the firing of the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, and the dismissal of the acting director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement the same night, followed within days by the firing of the chief of the Border Patrol.
Just last week, Trump announced the departure of Gordon’s boss, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and his intention to nominate representative John Ratcliffe in his place. A fiery, conspiracy theorist member of the Tea Party who lacks any meaningful national security experience, Ratcliffe didn’t even last a week in the public spotlight after reporters began picking apart the exaggerations of his résumé.
The writing had been on the wall that Gordon would not be allowed the chance to be acting DNI—as she is lawfully supposed to—because she was insufficiently Trumpian. With Gordon out, Trump has named the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Joseph Maguire, to take over as he continues to recruit a permanent intelligence chief.
It’s easy to view the musical chairs of the Trump administration—where staffers and nominees often seem to be plucked from a casting call for the bar in Star Wars rather than the prim, careful vetting that usually marked past administrations—as just more of the daily noise that consumes America in the Trump era, where entire news cycles get dominated by the arrest of a rapper in Sweden or the possible commutation of former Apprentice contestant-turned-convict Rod Blagojevich.
It’s easy, too, to shrug off how Trump has run roughshod over the normal succession practices of the US government, elevating the supremely unqualified Matt Whitaker from chief of staff to be acting attorney general, purging the deputy secretary of DHS and rewriting the rules to install Kevin McAleenan as the acting head of that department, bringing Ken Cuccinelli to oversee an immigration agency he knew the GOP official could never be confirmed to lead. Sue Gordon made clear her departure was involuntary, more purge than retirement: The note that accompanied her resignation letter read, “Mr. President — I offer this letter as an act of respect & patriotism, not preference. You should have your team. Godspeed, Sue.”
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But such departures from regular order come at a cost. The policies and regulations that are supposed to guide succession and vacancies in the executive branch were developed to ensure that the most capable interim leaders would step into voids. The reason federal law says the principal deputy is supposed to become acting DNI in case of a vacancy is because lawmakers believed it was critical for the president to have reasoned, experienced advice. That meant Sue Gordon. Now, instead, the man in charge of coordinating the nation’s counterterrorism work will be pulled in new directions, overseeing the president’s daily intelligence briefing and the cat-herding role of the DNI.
It’s the latest sign that the vacancies across the nation’s national security apparatus might be stretching its leaders too thin—and putting people too green into roles that American lives depend upon.
Indeed, given the recent instability and humongous turnover—including the simultaneous departures of Gordon and Coats next week—the US seems poised to enter a new, dangerous phase of the Trump administration. The agencies we rely on to keep us safe seem poised instead for precisely the type of intelligence failure or geopolitical miscalculation that can cost American lives.
The safety and security of the United States depends on the smooth, symphonic collaboration of its 17 intelligence agencies, each of which collects and holds small pieces of the giant puzzle that is the world’s daily shifting geopolitics. There’s the eavesdropping of the NSA, known as “signals intelligence” or SIGINT; the human sources, spies, and analysis of the CIA, known as HUMINT; the tracking of the movements and posture of the world’s militaries by the Defense Intelligence Agency, known as the measurement and signature intelligence or MASINT; the NGA’s satellite and aerial imagery and measurement, known as GEOINT and IMINT; and much more, including the financial intelligence gathered by the Treasury Department, the diplomatic analysis by the State Department, the nuclear information gathered by the Energy Department, and the domestic surveillance on foreign spies, suspected terrorists, and transnational organized crime groups collected by the FBI, all of which is supported and backed up by sophisticated satellite technologies thousands of miles over our heads run by the National Reconnaissance Office, an agency whose very name and existence was classified until the 1990s.
As is to be expected from that list, the intel world is a complex, sprawling universe, composed of a black budget in the neighborhood of $60 billion and a workforce of some 100,000 employees—a fraction of the more than one million Americans who hold security clearances. The very role of the DNI was created after 9/11 precisely because the government recognized that simply coordinating and understanding all the parts of the black world required its own dedicated staff.
Yet there’s been little of that intelligence and national security symphony at play in the Trump era. Often, in fact, it’s hard to keep track of who is even in charge of what.
At the Department of Homeland Security, one of the 17 components of the intelligence community, we’re months into a power vacuum of an acting secretary—the third department leader in less than three years of the administration—with no confirmed deputy secretary, an acting chief of staff, an acting undersecretary for management, an acting chief financial officer, no undersecretary for science and technology (and no deputy undersecretary), no under secretary for strategy, policy, and plans, an acting head of public affairs, no chief privacy officer, an acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, an acting director at ICE, the oddly appointed acting director of US Citizen and Immigration Services, and an acting FEMA director, even as the country is in the midst of hurricane season. Overall, fewer than half of DHS’ top roles have permanent leaders.
Even this troubling but abbreviated list underplays the actual turmoil that has unfolded inside DHS even as the US faces a serious humanitarian crisis at the border. The current acting commissioner of CBP, Mark Morgan, installed just weeks ago, was actually one of the first firings of the Trump administration. He was cashiered as chief of the Border Patrol in Trump’s first week in office, replaced by Ron Vitiello, who spent just three months atop the border agency before becoming acting deputy CBP commissioner, then later moving over to be acting director of ICE, where Vitiello lasted just nine months before Trump soured on him, forced him out, and replaced him—twist!—with Morgan, who himself spent just weeks as acting director of ICE before shifting over to CBP.
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The Pentagon, which accounts for nearly half of the nation’s intelligence agencies, went months this spring without a confirmed defense secretary—and then, in quick succession, after the departure of the deputy defense secretary, reached deep into its own succession plan to first elevate the Army secretary and then, following his nomination for the top job, the Navy secretary. (It’s a good thing the Pentagon didn’t have to go further, since the next role in line, the Air Force secretary, has been vacant since the departure this spring of Heather Wilson.) Finally, after a rapid Senate confirmation process in July, Mark Esper was back in the Pentagon’s E-Ring to lead the Defense Department, followed quickly by David Norquist, the new Senate-confirmed deputy secretary.
Esper’s swearing-in ended the longest period the department had gone without a Senate-confirmed defense secretary in its roughly seven decades of existence. During this period, the US was still engaged in two wars, experiencing heightened tensions with Iran, conducting low-level military operations on multiple continents, and facing an increasingly brash China, an adversarial Russia where our nuclear treaties are falling by the wayside, and a North Korea that is resuming missile testing. All the while, of course, the Pentagon had also been spending nearly $2 billion a day on the nation’s defense, meaning that it had spent the rough entire annual GDP of Denmark or Singapore without anyone officially in charge.
In the months ahead, as part of the normal rotations, the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff will turn over, too, meaning that all at once nearly every leader at the Pentagon will be new to his or her job.
At the Justice Department, which is also on its third leader of the Trump era, there’s no nominee at all for the department’s No. 3 role, associate attorney general, which has been vacant since February. There’s no administrator or deputy administrator of the DEA—another of the nation’s intelligence agencies—and, amid a particularly horrifying outbreak of gun violence, there’s been no leader of the ATF for years. (Trump’s first nominee as ATF director, more than two years into the administration, Chuck Canterbury, had his Senate confirmation hearing just days ago, and it was such a fiasco it seems unclear if he will receive approval even from the GOP-controlled body.) Nor is there a confirmed head of the Bureau of Prisons.
The State Department—also part of the intelligence community, through its Bureau of Intelligence and Research—has been riddled with vacancies since Trump took office. In January, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled through the Middle East—a trip that took place during the government’s shutdown, meaning that the diplomats he was visiting were supporting his trip while working without pay—fully six of the nine countries where Pompeo touched down did not have US ambassadors in place: Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. While the State Department’s vacancy rate has improved in recent months, it’s a long way from normal. The top diplomat for Latin America resigned this week, amid disagreements over immigration policy, and another diplomat quit with a fiery Jerry Maguire–esque op-ed in the Washington Post, titled, “I can no longer justify being a part of Trump’s ‘Complacent State.’”
Many of these extended vacancies are part of Trump’s plan. He says he likes the “flexibility” that comes with temporary officials—they’re easier to shuffle, more desperate for his approval, more willing to do his bidding. It’s an illogic that has extended even to places completely unnecessary: Trump continues to insist that Mick Mulvaney is the “acting” White House chief of staff, a role that doesn’t require Senate confirmation, meaning that there’s no need for an “acting” moniker at all. (The technicality that Mulvaney is still officially the head of the Office of Management and Budget does mean he gets to make some extra money).
Leaders make mistakes when they’re new and learning on the job. It’s not a coincidence, looking through American history, that intelligence failures often come early in administrations—the Bay of Pigs, 9/11, even the Trump’s administration first covert mission into Yemen, which ended with the death of a Navy SEAL. Things slip the cracks, nuances get lost, details get overlooked, procedures are forgotten.
Past presidents have tried to avoid such wholesale turnover in their national security leaders. President Obama, recall, kept on Defense Secretary Robert Gates and when, in 2011, he had new appointees to jobs like CIA director, he actually extended FBI Director Robert Mueller—with the 100-0 approval of the Senate—for an additional two years past the end of his 10-year term, in order to ensure stability in the national security world. For Trump, though, the constant Game of Thrones–like turnover seems a feature, not a bug.
Intelligence professionals joke that the only constant in their world is change, but it’s hard to imagine that they ever meant that to apply to their own bosses. Buckle up: The next few months might turn out to be the most dangerous we’ve yet faced of the Trump era.