Just hours after Donald Trump took the stage on election night to deliver his acceptance speech, critics warned that the inexperienced new leader would inject a previously unknown level of instability into the world of U.S. intelligence and security.
That remains a strong possibility, especially after Mike Rogers, the hawkish former chair of the House Intelligence oversight committee, and Matthew Freedman, who had been in charge of the planning for the National Security Council, left the transition team on Monday in what NBC described as a “Stalinesque purge.”
But the national security establishment has one hope left: Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, remains in charge of intelligence hiring, and his record harkens back to a GOP establishment focused on powerful espionage and influence on the world stage. He’s reportedly favored to be the new director of National Intelligence, replacing James Clapper.
In other words, there’s still a chance the spies will be just fine.
Burgess’s 38-year military career has reassured some former spies and intelligence experts that the administration might not devolve into amateur-led chaos.
Unlike Gen. Michael Flynn, one of Trump’s trusted campaign advisors, Burgess hasn’t made outspoken comments in support of the incoming president’s more rash positions, like jailing his one-time opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“Burgess is a fairly well-known figure and, by comparison with Gen. Flynn, at least, a fairly conventional one,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, wrote in an email to The Intercept.
The Republican Congress, along with the Pentagon, has consistently praised Burgess as one of the “quiet heroes.” He has advised Congress on wide-ranging intelligence topics, such as threats posed by al Qaeda, North Korea and its potential nuclear capabilities, and the increase of intelligence sharing among the many spy agencies. He was one of the earliest defense officials to caution the administration to place a high value on cyber security — something he advocates for in his current job as a senior counsel for research security and cyber at Auburn University.
“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,” former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2007. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, also lauded Burgess’s leadership in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of the DIA.
“We must always tell our leaders at all echelons what they need to know not what they want to hear,” Burgess said when he retired as DIA director. “As our nation’s intelligence professionals we have a non-negotiable obligation to the American people to call it the way we see it.”
However, for advocates of transparency and limiting the vast powers of the espionage establishment, Burgess is less than ideal. “Burgess has a traditional view of national security secrecy, and has resisted moves to modify and modernize classification policy,” Aftergood wrote, noting that Burgess refused to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act — some that were later released by his successors.
Additionally, Burgess was reportedly one of the architects of the expansion of the DIA’s powers, adding hundreds of new foreign spies to its ranks, rivaling even the CIA in numbers. “The plan reflects the Obama administration’s affinity for espionage and covert action over conventional force,” wrote Greg Miller of the Washington Post, at the time of the original shift.
Earlier in his career, Burgess served as the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Southern Command, at a time when torture at Guantanamo Bay was well underway. When the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned him in 2004 concerning torture at Abu Ghraib, he insisted he had no previous knowledge of complaints about abuses there.
Whoever Burgess taps, intelligence officials remain hopeful that Trump’s views will moderate once in the White House. “National security looks different from the Oval Office than it does from a hotel room in Iowa,” former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden told the Cipher Brief, an online national security publication.
Burgess did not respond to request for comment from The Intercept.