World / Crime & Legal

Spy chief's unlikely turn in the Trump-Ukraine spotlight

by Ryan Teague Beckwith

Bloomberg

After a career spent behind the scenes, Joseph Maguire was thrust on center stage this week thanks to his part in the Trump-Ukraine scandal.

The acting director of national intelligence was grilled publicly for hours by the House Intelligence Committee Thursday over what he called the “unprecedented” situation of a whistleblower complaint about the U.S. president that was initially withheld from Congress by the administration.

President Donald Trump named Maguire, who was running the National Counterterrorism Center, as his acting intelligence director on Aug. 8 — four days before the whistle-blower filed his complaint.

“I think I set a new record in the administration for being subpoenaed,” Maguire, 67, told lawmakers Thursday.

The public hearing was like nothing Maguire had faced before in his career: a pitched political battle over constitutional questions, aired live before an audience of millions.

Maguire’s demeanor was sober as he told lawmakers that “no one is above the law” and that no one in the White House has asked him for the identity of the still-anonymous whistle-blower.

Echoing his predecessor, Dan Coats, he reiterated that election interference remains his biggest concern.

“I think that the greatest challenge that we face is not necessarily, you know, from a strike with Russia or China or Iran or North Korea,” he said. “I think the greatest challenge that we do have is to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our election system.”

A former Navy SEAL, Maguire oversaw special warfare before retiring from the Navy in 2010 with the rank of vice admiral. He then served as president and chief executive officer of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit that provides aid to families of wounded or killed special operations members.

But he was pressed back into service in 2018 when Trump appointed him director of the National Counterterrorism Center. His confirmation was held up for months by Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who was using it as a chip to get more information from the administration and ultimately was the only senator to vote against him.

In August, Trump turned to him again after clashing with Director of National Intelligence Coats, a former senator who at times contradicted the president publicly on Russia, North Korea and other issues.

Trump initially wanted to appoint a loyalist, Rep. John Ratcliffe, to oversee the spy agencies, but he faced pushback from Republican senators who were concerned that he was too political and dismayed by stories that he may have inflated his resume.

“Our great Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe is being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media,” Trump tweeted as he announced Ratcliffe was withdrawing from consideration.

Rather than face another confirmation fight, Trump turned instead to Maguire to hold the post in an acting position — something the president has done at an unprecedented rate, arguing at one point that it allows him to move quickly and “gives me more flexibility.”

Still, the position wasn’t expected to be this high-profile.

Created through a 2004 law in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the director’s job is to oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies on everything from terrorist threats to cybersecurity attacks and foreign election interference.

One of the main duties of the director is to produce the president’s daily brief, a top-secret summary of intelligence given each morning to the president in some form since the end of World War II. According to various news reports, Trump rarely reads the brief, preferring oral briefings.

But in his first days on the job, Maguire received the whistleblower complaint from the inspector general of the intelligence community, who determined that it “appears credible” and was of “urgent concern.”

While the law requires the director of national intelligence forward it to Congress within seven days, Maguire withheld it based on the advice of White House and Justice Department lawyers until Wednesday, putting him at the center of an ongoing storm of controversy.

During Thursday’s hearing, a lawmaker noted that Maguire had taken the job just four days after the whistleblower’s complaint was filed, saying he had good timing.

“Well, congressman, I think that Dan Coats’ timing is better than mine,” Maguire joked.

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