Update: August 2, 2019
After this story was published, President Donald Trump announced that John Ratcliffe was withdrawing from consideration for director of national intelligence. “Our great Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe is being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media,” Trump tweeted Friday afternoon. “Rather than going through months of slander and libel, I explained to John how miserable it would be for him and his family to deal with these people … John has therefore decided to stay in Congress where he has done such an outstanding job representing the people of Texas, and our Country. I will be announcing my nomination for DNI shortly.”
John Ratcliffe, President Donald Trump’s selection to replace Dan Coats as director of national intelligence, has often touted his experience as a “terrorism prosecutor” — a label that fellow congressional Republicans and the media have uncritically adopted.
That experience appears to qualify him for the top position at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was created after 9/11 to coordinate the activities of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. The law that established the position requires its holder to have “extensive national security expertise.”
But Ratcliffe, in fact, has no record of prosecuting terrorists. In the one terrorism-related case he claims to have worked on — the prosecution of the Texas-based Muslim charity Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development — he played only a tangential part. For years, Ratcliffe has exaggerated his role in the Holy Land prosecution as a way of bolstering his national security bona fides, suggesting that he was involved in building the case and bringing the alleged terrorists to justice.
For years, Ratcliffe has exaggerated his role in the Holy Land prosecution as a way of bolstering his national security bona fides.
A third-term Republican representative from Texas who has proven a staunch Trump loyalist and conservative warrior — the Heritage Foundation gives him a perfect score this session — Ratcliffe is a former mayor of Heath, Texas (population: 8,953). He also served as the anti-terrorism and national security chief (from 2004 to 2007) and the U.S. attorney (from 2007 to 2008) for the Eastern District of Texas, which stretches from the northern suburbs of Dallas to the Arkansas and Louisiana borders.
During his four-year tenure at the Justice Department, Ratcliffe’s office did not prosecute a single defendant on terrorism-related charges, according to Justice Department records that detail such prosecutions nationwide.
After leaving his post as U.S. attorney, Ratcliffe joined former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s law firm, whose website in 2009 listed Ratcliffe as “a special prosecutor in one of [the] nation’s first post 9/11 terrorism financing cases.” More recently, on Ratcliffe’s congressional website, the politician describes himself as having served “by special appointment” on the case against Holy Land, whose founders were indicted in the Northern District of Texas, which neighbors the one in which Ratcliffe served.
In the Holy Land case, prosecutors alleged that the charity and its executives were supporting Hamas by raising money in the United States and sending it to charities in the West Bank and Gaza that were allegedly working with or were fronts for the terrorist group. The first trial, in 2007, ended with a hung jury and a partial acquittal of one defendant. A second trial the following year found the defendants guilty on all counts.
The Holy Land Foundation was the largest of several Muslim charities in the United States that were shut down after 9/11. Although critics of the Holy Land prosecution argue that the executives never intended to support terrorism and that the prosecution was designed to have a chilling effect on Muslim charities, the defendants were given sentences of 15 to 65 years in prison. The American Civil Liberties Union described the prosecution as “discriminatory enforcement of counterterrorism laws.”
It was by any measure a high-profile terrorism case for the Justice Department, which declared in a press release that the Holy Land Foundation “provided approximately $12.4 million in funding to Hamas through various Hamas-affiliated committees and organizations located in Palestinian-controlled areas and elsewhere.”
But Ratcliffe’s involvement in the case was minimal. He is not listed on any court documents related to the prosecution nor was he mentioned in any of the hundreds of news stories written about the investigation and trial. Linda Moreno and Joshua Dratel, who represented defendants in the Holy Land trials, said they were not aware of his involvement. “I don’t have any memory of him being involved in that case,” Moreno said.
Two of the prosecutors assigned to the Holy Land case, both of whom agreed to speak to The Intercept on background, confirmed that Ratcliffe was not part of the prosecution team. Instead, he was brought into the case to field an independent inquiry for the Northern District of Texas. Following the first trial, according to the two prosecutors, allegations surfaced internally about possible inappropriate contact between a juror and Justice Department employees. Ratcliffe, as the neighboring U.S. attorney, was asked to lead an independent inquiry; he found no wrongdoing. That was the extent of Ratcliffe’s involvement.
Ratcliffe’s communications director, Rachel Stephens, acknowledged that Ratcliffe was not involved in prosecuting the terrorism case but instead was asked to “investigate issues related to the outcome of the Holy Land case.” Stephens added: “Because that investigation did not result in any criminal charges, it would not be in accordance with Department of Justice policies to make further details public.”
Stephens did not dispute the absence of any records indicating that Ratcliffe has ever prosecuted alleged terrorists. “Mr. Ratcliffe handled top secret, secret, and confidential national security information as part of his daily responsibilities,” Stephens said.
That’s a far cry from Ratcliffe’s U.S. House of Representatives biography, which says that he “put terrorists in prison.” After Trump nominated Ratcliffe to serve as director of national intelligence, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas echoed that claim, boasting about Ratcliffe’s record of “putting terrorists in prison and defending American sovereignty both at home and abroad.”