- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2020

President Trump’s pick to be the next overseer of the nation’s intelligence agencies vowed Tuesday to keep political considerations out of his work, amid new reports of tension between the White House and intelligence analysts over China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe’s nomination to head of the Office of the Director on National Intelligence comes in the wake of President Trump’s firing of a small handful of top intelligence officials, including former inspector general for the intelligence community Michael Atkinson and former acting DNI chief Joseph Maguire.

In a committee room nearly empty because of coronavirus infection fears, Mr. Ratcliffe, who won fame as a fierce defender of Mr. Trump in last year’s impeachment battle, insisted he could do the job in the face of considerable Democratic skepticism.

“One of the things that I’ve made clear to everyone is that I will deliver the unvarnished truth,” the Texas Republican said in his opening remarks. “It won’t be shaded for anyone.”

“Whether you are talking about the president, whether you are talking about Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, anyone’s views on what they want the intelligence to be will never impact the intelligence that I deliver,” he later told Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican.

The nominee, questioned about Mr. Trump’s prickly relations with intelligence agencies on such questions as Russian interference in the 2016 election, the threat from Iran and the role of whistleblowers, insisted he did not want to “re-litigate” old disputes.

He did say that, if confirmed, an immediate priority will be to probe the origins of the coronavirus, as Mr. Trump and top aides escalate a war of words with China over the handling of the outbreak.

A U.S. intelligence consensus has reportedly concluded the virus most likely originated naturally, but Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo say they have seen evidence a Chinese lab in Wuhan could have played a role in releasing the new virus.

More generally, Mr. Ratcliffe said China was the country’s “greatest threat actor right now.”

“All roads lead to China,” he said.

Skeptical senators showed little signs the nominee’s pledges had changed their minds.

“The question should be: ‘Where did the virus come from?’, not ‘Don’t you think it came from a lab?’” said Sen. Angus King, Maine independent. “Because if they taint the intelligence before it gets to them, they’re going to make bad decisions.”

“I can’t comment on things that haven’t happened yet,” Mr. Ratcliffe responded, noting that he has not received a classified coronavirus briefing in “a while” due to the House’s extended recess.

In a first for Congress, the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was conducted during a pandemic that put 6 feet between lawmakers and aides in an effort to follow social distancing measures. There were almost no spectators and senators could only take their places on the dais in shifts.

Aides and staff members were advised to wear face masks, but senators were not required to do so.

Mr. Ratcliffe has come under fire over suspicions that he had exaggerated his national security qualifications — a debate that led him to withdraw his initial nomination for the post last August.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, again raised concerns over what he said was Mr. Ratcliffe’s “inexperience, partisanship and past statements that seemed to embellish [his] record.”

If confirmed, Mr. Ratcliffe would be replacing acting DNI chief Richard Grenell, who was tapped to the top spy post in February.

Mr. Grenell, the first openly gay member of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet, has been criticized for his lack of intelligence experience and has repeatedly sparred with members of Congress.

“Some have suggested that your main qualification for confirmation to this post is that you are not Ambassador Grenell. But frankly, that is not enough,” Mr. Warner told Mr. Ratcliffe in his opening statement.

Mr. Ratcliffe has represented Texas’ 4th District since 2015, and supporters point to his work on security and intelligence matters as a prosecutor, as well as his service on the House Intelligence, Judiciary, and Ethics Committees.

Despite doubts from minority Democrats, committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said he intends to “run this nomination as quickly through the committee, possibly next week,” and push for a full Senate vote shortly afterward.

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