Trump's intel chief pick vows to 'speak truth to power'

John Ratcliffe made the promise in his opening remarks at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Image: Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, arrives for a House Intelligence Committee hearing on impeachment on Nov. 13, 2019.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, arrives for a House Intelligence Committee hearing on impeachment on Nov. 13, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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By Ken Dilanian

John Ratcliffe, the Texas congressman whose bid to be director of national intelligence fell apart last summer amid evidence he exaggerated his biography, promised the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday that if confirmed he would “speak truth to power” and protect spy agencies from political pressure.

“Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I will provide, if confirmed, will not be impacted or altered as a result of outside influence,” Ratcliffe said in opening remarks at his confirmation hearing in the Capitol. “Above all, my fidelity and loyalty will always be to the Constitution and rule of law, and my actions as DNI will reflect that commitment.”

Ratcliffe appears to have the Republican support necessary for a favorable vote by the committee, which would boost his chances for confirmation.

One of President Trump’s most ardent defenders throughout the Russian election interference investigation and the Ukraine impeachment saga, Ratcliffe on Tuesday presented himself as an independent truth-teller who would stand up to the president.

He distanced himself from some of Trump’s rhetoric about an intelligence community “run amok” without criticizing the president directly. And he promised to insure that intelligence is presented accurately within the government, even if I may anger Trump.

“Anyone’s views on what they want the intelligence to be will never impact the intelligence I deliver,” he said. “Never.”

Republicans who had expressed doubts about him last year—particularly the committee chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina—have changed their minds and are now supporting him. Two committee sources say Burr ultimately decided that Ratcliffe was better suited to the role than the current acting director, Richard Grenell, a GOP political operative who became ambassador to Germany and lacks intelligence experience.

Ratcliffe is a former U.S. Attorney in Texas who began serving on the House Intelligence Committee last year.

The law that created the director of national intelligence mandates that “any individual nominated” for the job “shall have extensive national security expertise.”

Democrats have questioned whether Ratcliffe meets that test. They are also concerned about his defense of President Trump during the impeachment process, including his criticism of the CIA whistleblower whose complaint set in motion the investigation of the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

“I have to say that, while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in this hearing, I don’t see what has changed since last summer, when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship, and past statements that seemed to embellish your record,” said Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this Committee. I’ll speak plainly: I have the same doubts now as I did then.”

After he was nominated last summer, NBC News was the first to report that a claim on his web site that he “put terrorists in prison” appeared to be exaggerated, given that he had never personally prosecuted a terrorism case.

He told the committee in a questionnaire submitted recently that he worked on 34 terrorism cases while U.S. Attorney in East Texas, but he did not specify what role he played, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Some former intelligence officials have expressed concern that Ratcliffe is a Trump loyalist who could undermine the spy agencies.

Writing in the New York Times this week, former CIA official Douglas London noted that the DNI “can restrict dissemination of intelligence that might embarrass or damage the president and his allies, and declassify strikes at his adversaries. Doing so could affect what is collected; that, in turn, would undermine the whole community’s ability to warn homeland agencies about threats like the current pandemic.”

Ratcliffe told the committee: “As the president’s principal intelligence advisor, I would ensure that all intelligence is collected, analyzed and reported without bias, prejudice, or political influence.”

Ratcliffe told the committee: “As the president’s principal intelligence advisor, I would ensure that all intelligence is collected, analyzed and reported without bias, prejudice, or political influence.”

Asked by Republican Susan Collins whether he would provide Trump intelligence he didn’t want to hear, even if it put his job at risk, Ratcliffe answered, “Of course.”

Told by Collins that some experienced intelligence analysts were concerned that he might “attempt to shade the conclusions in order to avoid alienating the president,” Ratcliffe answered: “I don’t shade intelligence for anyone.”

Collins has said she supports his nomination.

Ratcliffe said his top priority would be examining the geopolitical and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its origins.

"The American people deserve answers, and, if confirmed, I pledge that the (intelligence community) will remain laser focused on providing them.”

Under questioning, he promised to provide Congress with all the intelligence reporting on coronavirus from the beginning, as part of their effort to understand what warnings were issued, and when.

“We face enduring challenges on other fronts as well,” he added. “These include: China, from the race to 5G to preventing cyber espionage; Russia, and its continued efforts to undermine our democracy by interfering in free and fair elections; Iran and its continued pursuit of nuclear capabilities, ballistic missiles, and sponsorship of terrorist groups; North Korea, and its continued possession of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. And transnational issues like cybersecurity, safeguarding our supply chains, and of course, preventing terrorist attacks or a resurgence of ISIS.”

Asked by Independent Sen. Angus King to provide an example of when he disagreed with the president, Ratcliffe cited his opposition to Trump’s initial decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

During the hearing, Ratcliffe struck a tone of moderation that contrasted markedly with the fire-breathing rhetoric he employed during House hearings on impeachment and the Russia investigation.

When former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress in July, Ratcliffe attacked him over a passage on his report saying prosecutors could not exonerate the president on the question of obstruction of justice.

“You managed to violate every principle and the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra prosecutorial analysis,” Ratcliffe told the former FBI director and Vietnam combat veteran.

In the Ukraine matter, Ratcliffe repeatedly criticized the CIA whistleblower whose complaint set the impeachment investigation in motion, including accusing that person of lying.

On Tuesday, Ratcliffe said he supports whistleblowers.

"My issue was not with the whistleblower," he said, but with what he viewed as an unfair House process.