Last month, Trump replaced the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) with the lightly-qualified Stephen Grenell, former ambassodr to Germany. Grenell proceeded to fire the head of the DNI’s counterterrorism center. This prompted some wailing from the national security establishment and predictable praise for Loras Shiao, the career official whom Grennell chose to replace Travers.
Top former intelligence officials worried (in the page of the Washington Post) that a purge is underway, and for good reason. In his last assignment U.S. ambassador to Germany, Grenell distinguished himself by alienating the German government and embracing the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party. In short, he’s an anti-globalist Bannonite.
Grenell says he needs to reorganize the DNI and return some of its staff to the CIA and other agencies. That could be a good idea. As is now obvious, the United States has emphasized counterterrorism at the expense of its own safety.
U.S. intelligence agencies, while they warned about the possibility of pandemic, were boxed in by their own category error. Since 9/11, U.S. national security agencies have elevated counterterrorism far, far above global health policy. Now we know all too well that pandemics are an existential threat to the American people, and that lightly-armed networks of religious fanatics, like ISIS and al_Qaeda, are not.
Of course, there’s no reason to think Grenell or his master in the White House care about bureaucratic efficiency, much less re-thinking failed policies. The changes Grenell seeks will not affect policymaking about the pandemic–that has already been hindered by John Bolton’s foolish dissolution of the NSC’s global health directorate.
Given the behavior of Bill Barr at the Justice Department and Mike Pompeo at State Department, Grenell’s actions can only be seen as a power grab–an effort to disperse institutions that can resist the president’s whims.
At the same time, the dysfunction of the U.S. intelligence community—the failure of endless war, the failure of mass surveillance, the failure of “enhanced interrogation”–is very real. Anybody who doesn’t think that Trump’s assault on the intelligence community is enabled by these failures is not paying attention to public opinion.
In Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, high-minded declarations that U.S. national security was threatened by the president’s machinations, convinced exactly one Republican senator. The doctrine of national security is not only defunct. It is not credible.
The plague of COVID19 demands a fundamental rethinking of the “national security” doctrine at a time when the sclerotic national security agencies feel endangered. Without change, TNR’s Adam Weinstein notes, “the war on infection will be both authoritarian and open-ended in nature.”
So Trump’s purge of ODNI does not make America more vulnerable. You are no more likely to die in a terrorist attack now that you wre before. The odds of that are–and always were–infinitesimal. Trump’s purge just makes you more subject to the whims of an autocratic president.
(If you prioritize identity politics, you’ll want to know that Grenell is now the highest-ranking gay official in the Trump administration.)