Pressure built on Donald Trump on Thursday to forge his national security team quickly in the wake of America’s chief spy-master, James Clapper, announcing his resignation.
Mr Clapper told Congress that he intends stepping down as the head of the National Intelligence Agency as soon as Mr Trump takes the oath of office on 20 January.
The departure of Mr Clapper puts a spotlight on former Army Lt Gen Ronald Burgess, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who is already leading the effort in the Trump transition team to identify future members of the National Security Council, the body within the White House responsible for guiding presidents on foreign policy.
Retired Gen Burgess may be a natural choice to fill Mr Clapper’s shoes. His 38-year military career saw him taking a number of senior positions directly related to America’s intelligence community and network of spies. He was appointed head of the DIA by President Obama in 2009 and he remained in the position until 2012.
His presence among Mr Trump’s inner circle as it tries to settle on senior appointments atop Trump Tower in Manhattan has offered a degree of reassurance to the conservative establishment in Washington. Many regard him as the last grown-up in the midst of amateurs on the transition team.
Unlike Mr Trump’s other top military advisor, former General Michael Flynn, who thrust himself into the forefront of the campaign offering a sometimes incautious defense of the Republican candidate, Gen Burgess avoided engagement in the rhetoric of the presidential race. If Burgess were indeed tapped as National Intelligence director, Flynn would be the leading contender to head the National Security Council in the White House.
The trust between Gen Burgess and many in the mainstream Republican foreign policy fold – and indeed with some Democrats also – is a product of his serving in an array of intelligence-related positions over more than a decade that frequently saw him on Capitol Hill giving closed-door briefings to members of Congress.
He has built a reputation, moreover, for offering straightforward and easy-to-grasp assessments of threats facing the United States whether related to Afghanistan, the terror networks, including al-Qaeda, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. In his latter years at DIA chief he also became particularly focused on the the growing cyber-threat.
“Boy, I don’t know a member of the [intelligence community] that has been more direct, more straightforward, and given us better briefings over the years than General Burgess,” Saxby Chambliss, a former Republican Senator from Georgia, said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2007, The Intercept reported.
“We must always tell our leaders at all echelons what they need to know not what they want to hear,” Gen Burgess said when he left the DIA. “As our nation’s intelligence professionals we have a non-negotiable obligation to the American people to call it the way we see it.”
Many Republican foreign policy specialists openly scorned Mr Trump while he was campaigning as a candidate, appalled by some of his statements on the trail that directly contradicted generations of party doctrine, for instance suggesting a weakening of US bonds to Nato and the prospect of Japan and South Korea taking more responsibility for defending themselves, perhaps even with nuclear arms. His comments lauding President Vladimir Putin of Russia was seen by some as the last straw in a candidate whose foreign policy instincts seemed to have gone haywire.
Their alarm only intensified in the days after Mr Trump’s election victory which saw other establishment hands shown the exits from the transition effort, notably former Congressman Mike Rogers, widely regarded as a serious foreign policy hand with mostly hawkish leanings.
Mr Rogers, a former chair of the House Intelligence oversight committee, was allegedly ousted as part of a rumoured “purge” of anyone and everyone with ties to Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey, who was himself pushed aside as head of the transition effort last week and replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
As part of that turnover another figure with ties to the party’s foreign policy establishment, Matthew Freedom, who was previously in charge of laying plans for a new National Security Council, was also invited to leave.
Further adding to the sense of dread were remarks of exasperation issued this week by Eliot Cohen, a former counselor at the State Department, about his experience trying to suggest possible names in the foreign policy sphere to the Trump transition, suggesting that jobs would be offered not on grounds of qualification but as rewards for political loyalty.
“It became clear to me that they view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls, instead of the sense that actually what you’re trying to do is recruit the best possible talent to fill the most important, demanding, lowest-paying executive jobs in the world,” he said.
Announcing his resignation on Thursday, Mr Clapper did not hide being relieved by the prospect. “I submitted my letter of resignation last night, which felt pretty good,” he told the House Intelligence committee. “I have 64 days left and I would have a hard time with my wife for anything past that.”Reuse content