President Donald Trump praised his pick for acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, as an “excellent” choice and a “very talented man” Friday, but it remains unclear where the new acting spy chief stands on some of the most pressing national security issues facing the country today.
A long-time Navy SEAL who served as leader of the National Counterterrorism Center prior to Trump’s announcement Thursday elevating him to acting DNI, Maguire remains somewhat of an enigma despite his impressive military credentials and counterterrorism experience.
“Adm. Joe Maguire will be a superb acting DNI. He has both the operational experience and the intelligence background to provide the President the best advice possible about the threats facing the United States. He will not be shy about speaking truth to power and he will ensure all the facts are on the table,” a former national security official who worked with Maguire told CNN.
But while Trump has made clear his desire to bring to heel the US intelligence agencies – which have produced evidence he disagrees with on Iran, North Korea, Russia’s interference in US elections and other issues – Maguire has offered little on-the-record insight into his views despite successfully navigating the Senate confirmation process when nominated for the National Counterterrorism Center job.
The Iran question
A former senior intelligence official who talked to Maguire recently said that if he has spoken to the President it was likely only a handful of times, mostly because the administration never established a tempo of having regular counterterrorism briefings.
One of the issues Maguire has weighed in on is Iran, which he mentioned in a written response to Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, during his previous confirmation proceedings.
“I have no doubt that Iran is the number one state sponsor of terrorism today,” and Iran “is by far the most prolific financier of terrorist organizations in the world,” he said.
A more pressing question, however, will be how Maguire navigates his relationship with the President.
Despite working closely with intelligence professionals for years, Maguire is not widely considered to be part of the intelligence “establishment,” unlike outgoing Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, whose resignation Thursday allowed Trump to elevate Maguire to the acting job instead.
In a note attached to her resignation letter, Gordon made clear that it was not her preference to step down but she was doing so because the President deserved to have his “own team.”
Trump’s past squabbles with the intelligence community
Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly clashed with intelligence officials, including outgoing DNI Dan Coats, over their public comments acknowledging Russia not only interfered in 2016, but also poses a threat to future elections – an assessment that was reaffirmed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which the President has characterized as a “political witch hunt.”
But while White House officials have told CNN that the President was never going to allow Gordon to assume the acting or permanent position due to her perceived ties to intelligence officials like former CIA Director John Brennan and even Coats, sources close to Maguire say he is far from a partisan pick.
A former senior administration official said they couldn’t think of a better pick to serve in the interim DNI role than Maguire, noting he has a reputation of being level-headed and a “straight shooter.”
Maguire said as much during the confirmation hearing for his job at the National Counterterrorism Center.
“I promise to tell the truth and to be able to represent the information and the hard analysis from the intelligence community professionals as accurately and as forthcoming as I possibly can, and I am more than willing to speak truth to power,” he told Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Warner again emphasized the importance of that quality in a statement Friday.
Maguire’s audition for the permanent role
“When I supported Admiral Maguire’s previous nomination, I made it clear I expected him to empower the intelligence professionals he led to do their important work free from political interference. Given the circumstances of his appointment as Acting DNI, it is more important than ever that Admiral Maguire stands by that commitment to speak truth to power,” he said.
“His success or failure in this position will be judged by the quality of work produced by the intelligence community, not by how those intelligence products make the President feel,” Warner added.
While Gordon’s departure is widely viewed as a blow to the intelligence community due to her years of experience and long-standing commitment to the truth, a US intelligence official told CNN that Maguire is well respected among career professionals, particularly due to his military background.
However, several current and former intelligence officials noted that Maguire is stepping into a difficult situation, particularly due to his acting title.
Trump left the door open to nominating Maguire for the full-time job Friday but his future remains uncertain, particularly given the President’s apparent desire for a political loyalist.
When discussing his attempt to replace Coats with Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas on July 30, the President told reporters that the intelligence community needed “somebody like that that’s strong and can really rein it in. As you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They’ve run amok.”
And it was clear that members of the President’s inner circle saw the acting director position in political terms as well. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about Gordon on August 2, referring to Trump critic Brennan and saying that “if Adam Schiff wants her in there, the rumors about her being besties with Brennan and the rest of the clown cadre must be 100% true.”
For now, Trump appears satisfied with his choice of Maguire for the acting position, but it remains unclear how much he knows about his pick beyond the military credentials.
The two men have likely had little direct contact with each other prior to their conversation Thursday, as Maguire would have rarely found himself in the Oval Office while serving as counterterrorism center director, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.
David Shedd, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told CNN that Maguire had said in a recent conversation that he has had to do some counterterrorism coverage with the President but those interactions were “few and far in between.”
“I certainly did not get the impression he was in the Oval Office on a regular basis,” he added.