25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

Trump’s Intel Vacancies Put Americans in Danger

Wired 09 Aug 2019 03:47

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.

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