Dismantling Weaponized Intelligence Agencies

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Dismantling Weaponized Intelligence Agencies

Sep 27, 2023 21 min read
Kevin D. Roberts, PhD


Heritage Trustee since 2023
Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty Images

The ominous specter of political persecution and the erosion of constitutional safeguards by U.S. intelligence agencies now loom as genuine threats to the bedrock of our republic. In recent years, both the FBI and the CIA have overstepped their bounds by engaging in unwarranted surveillance of American citizens, particularly those who hold conservative viewpoints. Shockingly, they have even wielded the threat of domestic terrorism investigations against parents who dared to raise their voices during school board meetings.

Former Director of Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, joins Kevin to dissect the critical issues plaguing the U.S. intelligence community today. Together, they explore avenues for conservatives to reform this system, preserving our vital capabilities in the face of a mounting threat from China while staunchly defending against insidious political abuses.

Following the harrowing events of 9/11, John Ratcliffe assumed the pivotal role of Chief of the Anti-Terrorism and National Security Office in East Texas, serving diligently under President George W. Bush. This marked the beginning of a distinguished career in public service, including his election to Congress and his appointment as Director of National Intelligence by President Donald Trump in 2019.

John Ratcliffe: Worse than the CIA is the FBI. I mean, I find it reprehensible, unconscionable. There isn’t a word strong enough. Not just what they did to the former president, and I would say that if he were a Democrat, but to pro-life activist friends, to conservative activist friends, who I can tell you there are dozens, hundreds of these men and women that when they go to sleep each night, they’re worried about the FBI knocking on their door. For this reason, they happen to believe in conservative principles.

Kevin Roberts: Welcome back to The Kevin Roberts Show. There is so much going on as we begin autumn and in Washington, D.C., so little of that is actually good. We’re going to talk about some heavy topics that actually are a little distressing, but we’re going to talk about these topics this week with a guest who, in spite of his expertise in difficult topics, someone who’s had great leadership roles in this country as a congressman, director of national intelligence, remains one of the most hopeful people I know, and he is truly a great public servant. Of course, you have to account for my bias that our guest, John Ratcliffe is a fellow Texan, so I love him for that reason. But John and I are going to have a really good conversation this week and I’m really glad that you’ve joined us. Director John Ratcliffe, thank you for being here, sir.

Ratcliffe: Hey, you bet. Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure.

Roberts: Yeah, we were just talking about how glorious East Texas is. One of the many spots of God’s country in this country.

Ratcliffe: Absolutely. Yeah. We’re both fortunate that we’ve spent a good portion of our lives in Texas.

Roberts: So thanks for your service as a member of Congress, as director of national intelligence, obviously a great career before those two stops. As you know on this show, we always try to get into someone’s story so people understand how men and women in public service get to where they are today, and as you and I have gotten to know each other pretty well over the last year, you really are one of the most thoughtful people I know, so I’m curious how it is that you can-

Ratcliffe: Very nice to say that.

Roberts: ... Well, it’s heartfelt. I’m curious, what were the key moments in your upbringing and your early professional career that landed you not just as a member of Congress in a very well respected one I would add, but also is President Trump’s Director of National Intelligence?

Ratcliffe: Well, everyone does have a unique story. Mine certainly falls into that category. I was fortunate, just by way of background, both of my parents were teachers and really instilled a great foundation. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table and my mom correcting my English every day of my life. But really, I saw my parents serving the public in that respect. As you know, teachers are so important and we see particularly today when we don’t have teachers dedicated to the right things, the influence that it can have on kids, so I’m fortunate that my parents pointed me in the right direction.

But having said that, I early on decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and so I was really focused and probably too much so in that regard, graduated college early, went to law school, was really focused on being a great lawyer, going out, making a lot of money, being successful, all of those things, and I found that the way I was practicing law and civil practice really wasn’t the reward that I thought it was going to be at the end of the day, and probably the most profound event in my life, and for many of us that have lived through it as it turned out was 9/11. We just had the 22nd anniversary of 9/11. In my case, I was a partner in a law firm on a 63rd floor of a skyscraper in Dallas, Texas, and you’re watching what’s happening in New York.

As you recall, Kevin, just this massive sense of patriotism. I love the fact, I think back where Republicans, Democrats singing on the steps of the capitol, American flags everywhere, and I had this sense of, “I never served my country, I didn’t serve in the military. Is there something I could do?” So I did something that was really crazy, which was left that position when the Department of Justice said, “We’re going to change our priority and make the prevention of terrorism the number one goal,” and established terrorism prosecution units within each US attorney’s office, I applied for that.

Roberts: From this Dallas law firm? Amazing.

Ratcliffe: Yeah, from the Dallas... People thought I was crazy. I mean, I literally applied for a job that paid about one-tenth of what I was making and was fortunate probably because they thought, “Why would this guy do this?” But it’s the best decision I ever made. It’s the best job I ever had. All of a sudden, I’m not just a lawyer, I’m a lawyer standing up representing the United States of America, and it really just sort of put me on a path to public service, and I found that even though I wasn’t making any money, I was enjoying my life so much more.

That’s really what led me on a path where I ultimately ran for Congress, won a race that I had no business winning. We’ve talked about that before, and really, sort of those guiding principles. I think back to that moment and that time and how things changed for me, and it didn’t make a lot of sense, but I really felt a sense of purpose, and obviously, it’s taken me on this path to I never would’ve dreamed of, but all along the opportunity to make America better.

Roberts: That’s a very inspiring story, truly. Our audience, of course, is a great composition of America. Younger, older, in-between, but I hear often from younger colleagues, younger friends on the Hill around the country who pay attention to the guests in spite of the host of the show because they’re looking for some guidance in career and life, and we have some topics we’ll cover, so we’ll move on, but just to hang on, the point I find especially in the world of D.C. that when there are thoughtful men and women in D.C., they’re on the show or other Heritage events that people just sort of stop and listen because this is the point. We’re not used to people in D.C. being thoughtful, being pensive. It doesn’t mean that they’re not firm and courageous and all of those things, but I think as I know what motivates you, which is to retake this country for common sense, for founding principles, for ordered liberty, that we can do that in a way that doesn’t mean we have to be throwing bombs all the time.

Ratcliffe: Right.

Roberts: But you, my friend two days ago had a wonderful Wall Street Journal editorial that had some heat in it and I loved it and so there’s a time and place for that and this was about the CIA and about China and about COVID, so tell us about what you wrote and why.

Ratcliffe: Well, unfortunately, there’s a whistleblower that came out saying that in the case of the CIA’s approach to the origins of COVID, and it’s again, it’s a whistleblower, it’s an allegation, but that within the CIA, six analysts who assessed that the lab leak was the most likely source of the COVID pandemic, not some natural zoonotic transmission from a bat to a human, were pressured and ultimately essentially paid off with financial rewards to change that opinion.

The reason it’s important, when I was director of national intelligence, you oversee 18 different intelligence agencies, but CIA is the premier intelligence service in this country and it’s sort of the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and so all of the other agencies for a whole host of reasons are reluctant to take a different position, so as long as the CIA sits on the sideline, it’s often hard to get to the truth.

The reason I wrote the op-ed was this was consistent with what I encountered when I was DNI, where CIA’s assessments were at times at odds with what the intelligence was telling us. I want folks to be real clear we have the best intelligence collection enterprise of any country in the world, but when you collect intelligence, human intelligence, signals intelligence, all types of intelligence, there’s a process where that intelligence gets analyzed into conclusions or assessments that then go to policymakers, and that’s where sometimes politics comes into play.

What now two whistleblowers within the CIA have said is that in the case of China and COVID that the CIA folks within mid-level management to high-level management didn’t want to make assessments on China that they thought would be helpful to President Trump and his policies and that was something that I encountered on a daily basis there and so when the second whistleblower came out, I felt it was important to step out and talk about it in a very public way, and as you said, it brought some heat, and obviously there are folks that won’t be happy, but I understand the importance and role that our intelligence community has to play, and it’s an institution that like the FBI and the Department of Justice and where the American people have to have faith and trust that we’re doing the right things for the right reasons and that’s really in question right now.

Roberts: In a huge way about the institution of the agency of the CIA, but also the institution of government, most institutions, generally, and COVID actually had a lot to do with that because even if you were to ascribe the best of intentions, which I’m no longer willing to do, I think there was a lot of injustice and evil behind this, particularly with the Chinese Communist Party, you realize that the government had a real credibility gap, and one of the things we’re trying to get at in this COVID commission that you are very kindly chairing for The Heritage Foundation isn’t just that, but what are the lessons learned for the sake of public policy in the future, but sort of underlying that as the point you just made, which is to restore the American people’s confidence in government regardless which party is in power.

Ratcliffe: Right. Absolutely, and so something that really underscores this point, as you know, when I was in Congress, I was on the Intelligence Committee and Congress has a role in overseeing, has an oversight role over the intelligence community. Well, it wasn’t until I became the director of national intelligence and walked in and said, “Show me the intelligence that we have that says there’s Russian collusion. Show me the intelligence that says that there’s support that this was a natural development of the COVID from a zoonotic transmission.”

The fact is the intelligence didn’t show that, and so as an elected official for the American people with oversight, I wasn’t getting the truth. I literally had to become the director of national intelligence to get the truth, and so that’s why I think, look, a lot of the good work that the intelligence community does has to stay necessarily behind closed doors. We don’t want it in public view. But there is a level of transparency that the American people deserve and you have to give that for the truth to be out there and for people to have that faith and trust, so hopefully I’ve done that.

Roberts: I think you have. Worse than the CIA and the situation you highlighted in that op-ed, and here I will bring some heat to the conversation not aimed at you, but aimed at the agency, is the FBI. I mean, I find it reprehensible, unconscionable. There isn’t a word strong enough. Not just what they did to the former president, and I would say that if he were a Democrat, but to pro-life activist friends, to conservative activist friends, who I can tell you there are dozens, hundreds of these men and women that when they go to sleep each night, they’re worried about the FBI knocking on their door. For this reason, they happen to believe in conservative principles, so here at Heritage, we’re ready to tear it down and start over from scratch. I believe there ought to be a Federal Bureau of Investigation. But tell me, if you had a magic wand to reform the FBI, what that would look like.

Ratcliffe: Yeah. So what’s heartbreaking for me is as we talked about, my career started in public service in the Department of Justice and working with still lifetime friends from the FBI who are wanting to serve the country in the same way.

Roberts: Plenty of good men and women still in the agency.

Ratcliffe: Absolutely. But yeah, in the last 6, 7, 8, 9 years, you’ve seen this troubling... It’d be one thing if it was a one-off event, but it’s not, it’s a persistent pattern of politicization for political reasons to influence how the FBI and the Department of Justice is approaching things, and it breaks my heart, frankly, because that’s again where I started, and again, even both in Congress and as the director of national intelligence, to think that the senior-most people in the FBI and at the Department of Justice would play that role, but I’m the one that declassified much of the intelligence that we’re now talking about here that shows that it was a Hillary Clinton campaign trick and that there was never any Russian collusion, and yet our country was turned upside down because of that whole hoax. I mean, the president used that word early on, “witch hunt.” It’s absolutely true.

Roberts: It’s 100% accurate

Ratcliffe: And folks don’t want to focus on that, so I’m with you. I think that you hear these calls, “Defund the FBI.” Really, what we need to do is to turn it inside out, dump it upside down, and there are reforms and part of the Transition Project is to make those recommendations so that hopefully when you have a principal leader in the White House and a principal person at the top of the Department of Justice, they’ll go back to putting it in a position the FBI and the Department of Justice where they can even more so probably than the intelligence community. This is where the faith and trust that people have to believe that when we’re prosecuting people that we’re doing it because they truly violated the law, where people are being persecuted, it’s because they’re taking actions that are worthy of that type of investigation, and it’s simply not happening for all the reasons that you talked about.

Roberts: Yeah, and I know this, so I know you have to know this in spades, given your experience that there are men and women inside the FBI who, of course, are great patriots like anyone in this audience like you who are virtuous and they just feel a sale, the very reason that they want to serve the country is undermined by a handful of really bad apples.

Ratcliffe: Yeah. I will say this, one thing to that regard is I’m hesitant to now just say it’s a few bad apples because it’s been a problem for so long that if you talk about it that way, people think it’s a small problem and it’s not. It’s become a cultural problem. Well, it’s one of these things where what we’ve seen, and it’s really started in the Obama administration where they’ve embedded partisans at the highest mid and senior-level management within these institutions that are there that now over the course of time have influenced it, so the problem is it’s becoming a bigger problem, and we need to take that on in that respect because it’s going to require those kind of major structural reforms that you and I both believe are necessary.

Roberts: No, thank you for that. The FBI therefore exemplifies the problem with the American administrative state writ large, right?

Ratcliffe: Yeah.

Roberts: You’ve been a vital part of Project 2025, our Transition Project, which starts with policy and with people. One part of that before a presidential transition is a legislative action, which is this 702 reform. Talk to us about what that is for people who don’t know and how it’s relevant.

Ratcliffe: Well, 702 is part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The problem is to this point of weaponization is unfortunately now the American public hears the word “FISA,” and it’s no pun intended, it’s a four-letter word because they know that there are examples where this very important surveillance tool has been misused to spy and violate American civil liberties.

Now, when I say it’s a very important tool, let me just tell you that as the DNI, my responsibility was to present the president’s daily brief, to brief the President daily on the very most relevant cogent intelligence that he would need to make decisions to keep our country safe and a significant percentage of that comes from the provisions of 702, which allow us to surveil foreign actors engaged in bad activity that mean to harm us and degrade our national security.

The problem is what we have seen, particularly in the Obama administration and now carrying forward into the Biden administration, and it occurred even during the Trump administration through these embedded partisans, if you will, was to turn that important tool inward on American citizens and even members of Congress who have been spied upon, and so I think it’s important, I hope we can get to the point where we get it back to the important tool that it’s meant to be, but it’s going to have to have significant guardrails just like everything else that we’ve talked about and that’s something that Congress is looking at right now and I’m working with them to try and preserve it because it does make America safer when used appropriately.

Roberts: Yeah, it sounds like your position is exactly Heritage’s, which is that we have huge concerns, I mean, significant concerns about the abuse.

Ratcliffe: And should.

Roberts: And yet as my colleagues in our Meese Center for Legal Research would say, the initial component, the initial motivation for that is still very important as it relates to national intelligence, particularly given the threat we have from China.

Ratcliffe: Right. Well, yeah, here’s the thing. People don’t like to talk about these things publicly or highlight them, but one of my predecessors, James Clapper, who was the director of national intelligence, lied to Congress. Now I’m on air saying that he lied to Congress, but the fact is he did, and so that’s an irrefutable position about FISA. In other words, he was asked whether it was being used to spy on Americans and he said no very clearly when it had been repeatedly and so as much as that is uncomfortable to talk about, we have to, if we’re going to prevent that type of abuse from going forward.

You talk about China. I want to comment on this ‘cause you talked about me being hopeful and now I’m telling you all the things that we’ve got to fix. I think it’s important for people to understand this. I talk about China a lot because it’s our greatest geopolitical threat and as DNI, I did something that DNIs don’t do, which was write an op-ed to the American people in The Wall Street Journal highlighting exactly that.

But I don’t want people to lose sight of this, is that I have every confidence that America, that the United States will prevail over the Chinese Communist Party and China for a whole host of reasons, just like we’ve overcome the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan. But the current administration and their approach to this very important, our most strategic geopolitical foe, is helping China, and it’s making it more difficult.

So at the end of the day, what helps us and where people should take hope is just like all autocratic societies, they’re selling a bad product, they’re selling something. What the United States has going for us is that even though we have challenges and people that work against it, at the end of the day, we have a foundation that’s built on the principle of embracing the human spirit and free will and the ability of a person to go as high and as far as their own hard work, determination, and ability will carry them. The Chinese Communist Party, it takes the absolute opposite approach, and you can only suppress the human spirit so long. We’ve learned that historically. But the Biden administration’s prolonging that and our ability to overcome China as the absolute threat that they are.

Roberts: One of the ways they’re prolonging that is this emphasis by President Biden and so many radical left policymakers on climate change and it isn’t just that the climate change picture is at the very least, a lot more complicated. I would trend toward using the word “hoax,” but I’m not going to say that with you on the show. But let’s just pause it, that there’s something there. When we basically make all policy through the lens of climate change, it benefits the Chinese, and so it aggravates that existing threat that China poses in ways that the average American who probably intuits, “There’s more nuance to this climate change than Biden lets on,” just wouldn’t apprehend how much more powerful that conversation makes the Chinese.

Ratcliffe: Right, because they don’t abide by... We can have all the paper straws we want in this country offset to a factor of a million by the environmental actions that China takes to contaminate and pollute the world and so they love the fact that we slow down, we add regulations, and we do things in the name of climate change that are only going to have an incremental impact over hundreds of years.

To that point, as the director of national intelligence, I had to prioritize intelligence, and we did a worldwide threat assessment and China, it was a 35-page summary of all of our intelligence concerns and our national security threats and China was on the top of the first page and climate change was near the end of the last page. I mean, so when you line up, what’s disingenuous about this administration is they took that list and they flipped it to put climate change, as I’ve heard the president say, “Our greatest national security threat.” Our intelligence says absolutely very much different.

Roberts: So I’d sit here and talk to you for hours given your expertise, but I know that you’ve got some work to do, and obviously, Heritage always has work to do, so I’ll ask you one final question for now, but we’ll be sure and have you back. I can only imagine that you have seen intelligence about the worst of the worst, and even though you’re naturally optimistic, I’m sure sometimes that was sort of discouraging. You’re also thoughtful about the position that the American Republic is in. There’s a lot of conversation right now about whether we’re managing decline and there’s a lot of evidence to support that we might be managing decline, or if, in fact, there’s a path ahead, however narrow. I know you well enough that I think you got up this morning hopeful about the American future, and I’d be curious, given all of those challenges, you’re very well aware of, why?

Ratcliffe: Well, again, I believe I am hopeful, and I again believe that to the point that I made, the human spirit rises to the top and we are so fortunate that our founding fathers just embraced those principles in the structure of a government that has now persevered for two-and-a-half centuries and we’re still the world’s superpower. We’re still the place where everyone’s trying to leave to get to. All of those things really speak to what our great leaders have always talked about and America is the shining city on the hill and we still are. The problem is we have these episodes and moments where there are people that try and take it down. We can’t take it for granted. As Reagan said, “We’re always one generation away from extinction with regard to the amazing principles that are set forth in our Constitution.”

But we have people that are constantly fighting. You and I are fighting because we’re willing to change our careers, to dedicate ourselves to these principles because we know how important it is, we know that the amazing lives that we’ve had, we want our kids and our grandkids to have that, and there are more of us than there are of them with respect to people that want to tear this country down or want to make it a global society where there are no borders and everyone’s operating the same way and so that’s why I’m optimistic. I’m going to go across the street to Capitol Hill today and I know there are more people that think the way that you and I think about this country and preserving this country and are willing to fight for this country than there are working against our best interests and for the interests of our adversaries.

Roberts: The key seems to remind the majority that they should not be silent silently because that’s the other side that wants them to be silent, right?

Ratcliffe: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, we’ve talked about the importance of speaking out and speaking truth to the American people. Isaiah 1:17, “Do right, seek justice,” and it’s a principle that as we talk about all of these things is a great pursuit.

Roberts: John Ratcliffe, thanks for your service to the country. Thanks for being a friend and colleague here at Heritage and we look forward to working with you in the future.

Ratcliffe: Thanks, Kevin.

Roberts: Thanks for joining us for this great episode with former Director of National Intelligence, former Congressman John Ratcliffe. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. Obviously, there are some difficulties facing the American Republic, but there are also great men and women like John who are doing something about it. Until next time, take care. Keep the faith.

The Kevin Roberts Show is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. The producer is Philip Reynolds. Sound design by Lauren EvansMark Guiney, and Tim Kennedy