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Trump Names Counterterrorism Chief as Acting Director of National Intelligence

FILE - Joseph Maguire, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2018.

Updated Aug. 8, 10:20 p.m.

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump has wiped the slate clean in the U.S. intelligence community, overseeing the departure of the nation’s top two intelligence officials.

Trump accepted the resignation Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon late Thursday, less than two weeks after announcing the agency’s director, Dan Coats, would also be leaving.

“Sue Gordon is a great professional with a long and distinguished career,” the president said on Twitter, adding he had “great respect for her.”

Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted Joseph Maguire, a retired admiral who has been serving as director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, would take over as acting director of national intelligence Aug. 15, the day the resignations of Coats and Gordon are to take effect.

Trump had sparked speculation that Gordon, a 30-year veteran of the intelligence community, was on her way out when he tweeted he was planning to name an acting director following Coats’ resignation last month.

Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Chain of command

By U.S. law, in the absence of a director of national intelligence, the principal deputy director of national intelligence is supposed to become the acting director.

When asked earlier this month about his reluctance to allow Gordon to assume the role of acting director, Trump told reporters, “I like Sue Gordon.”

“She’s there now and certainly she’ll be considered for the acting,” he added. “That could happen.”

Unlike outgoing Director of National Intelligence Coats, who publicly clashed with Trump on several occasions, Gordon tended to avoid any public spats.

Asked about Trump during an appearance in Washington last October, Gordon said “he has a penchant for action,” describing him as “really interesting.”

But like Coats, Gordon held a firm line on the threat from Russia, especially when it came to the upcoming presidential election in 2020.

At a conference in Washington in June, Gordon called Moscow a “significant cyber influence threat.”

“Their real goal is no longer to acquire the information but to alter our decision-making,” she added, the comment coming just a day before Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 Summit in Osaka, Japan.

In her resignation letter, Gordon wrote it was an honor to serve as the principal deputy director of intelligence for the past two years.

“As you ask a new leadership team to take the helm, I will resign my position,” she wrote. “I am confident in what the Intelligence Community has accomplished and what it is poised to do going forward.”

But in a note with the letter, Gordon made clear she was not leaving of her own accord.

“I offer this letter as an act of respect & patriotism, not preference,” she told Trump. “You should have your team.”

Reaction from Intelligence Community

Former U.S. intelligence officials were quick to react to Gordon’s resignation on social media.

“Sue Gordon’s forced resignation as deputy DNI today is an assault on intelligence,” Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff and former senior director of the White House Situation Room, tweeted.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former veteran CIA officer who served as the spy agency’s Europe division chief, was even more pessimistic.

“This is a sign Trump is going to do something unacceptable in his efforts to control intelligence & law enforcement and consolidate power,” he tweeted.

Some key lawmakers also expressed a mix of appreciation for Gordon’s career and distress and what they perceived as her ouster.

“This is a real loss to our intelligence community,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner, a Democrat, said in a statement late Thursday. “Once again the president has shown that he has no problem prioritizing his political ego even if it comes at the expense of our national security.”

The committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Richard Burr, likewise lamented Gordon’s departure, calling it “a significant loss.”

“I will miss her candor and deep knowledge of the issues,” Burr said in a statement.

But Burr also praised National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Maguire, the president’s choice to lead the intelligence community in the interim.

“I’ve known Admiral Maguire for some time and I have confidence in his ability to step into this critical role,” Burr said.

Career in the Navy

Maguire, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 2010 after a 36-year career as a naval special warfare officer, has led the NCTC since December 2018.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Maguire assured lawmakers he would not allow politics to influence how intelligence would be presented to the president.

“I am more than willing to speak truth to power,” he said told lawmaker at the hearing last year.

Coats also expressed confidence in Maguire to lead the U.S. Intelligence Community on an interim basis.

“I am pleased that the President has announced that Joe will serve as Acting DNI,” Coats said in a statement late Thursday. “Joe has had a long, distinguished career serving the nation and will lead the men and women in the IC [intelligence community] with distinction.”

Trump has not indicated whom he intends to nominate to serve as director of national intelligence on a permanent basis.

Last month, Trump nominated Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe as the next head of the U.S. Intelligence Community. But Ratcliffe withdrew his nomination days later, following growing questions about his credentials and experience.

Many reports have indicated possible nominees for permanent director include Republican Congressman Devin Nunes and U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra, a former congressman from Michigan.