Sue Gordon’s Rock and a Hard Place

By Suzanne Kelly

Suzanne Kelly is CEO & Publisher of The Cipher Brief and is the founding Managing Editor of The Cyber Initiatives Group.  She has spent her entire professional career working as a journalist based in the U.S., Europe and Kosovo.  She is a former Intelligence Correspondent, Executive Producer and Anchor for CNN and CNN International and is author of the book, Master of War: Blackwater USA's Erik Prince and the Business of War.

One of the country’s leading Intelligence professionals made her way quietly to the White House late Thursday afternoon to deliver her letter of resignation to the Oval office.

The message, on a simple, hand-written note, ended weeks of speculation about the fate of Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Susan M. Gordon after her boss, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, steps down on August 15.

The message was short and sweet, “I offer this letter as an act of respect & patriotism, not preference.  You should have your team.  Godspeed, Sue.”  The journey that led to its writing is a true tale of what is wrong with today’s relationship between the White House and the Intelligence Community.

With news of her boss’ departure in late July, Gordon found herself between a rock and a hard place.  News outlets reported that Coats was retiring because he was tired of the politics that came with the job and tired of feeling heat from the President when intelligence assessments didn’t match up with the President’s own views on serious threats like Russia and Iran.  Coats’ official resignation letter offered no clues about his motivation for stepping down other than to say “As we have previously discussed, I believe it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

The President took to Twitter to announce Coats’ departure and added a single sentence to the end of his Tweet that signaled a clue about his intentions for Gordon, saying “The Acting Director will be named shortly.”  That’s when the space between a rock and a hard place got a bit tighter.   According to legal statute, Gordon, a career intelligence official, would have been the person to take on the acting role in the absence of a DNI.

In the two years since taking on the role of PDDNI, Gordon had become comfortable navigating tricky territory.  She was often asked by critics of the President how she could justify working for him.  She was always confident in both her answer and her focus, which was centered on staying out of political mudslinging while publicly stating her willingness to speak truth to power.  That included to the President.

It’s reasonable to assume that her openness may have impacted the President’s view of Gordon. Trump barred her from an intelligence briefing at the White House, according to The New York Times, though a White House spokesperson denied it.  The President did publicly say “I like Sue Gordon,” but there were very few other indications that he was seriously considering her for the top role, or even for the acting role, pending Senate confirmation of a new nominee.  A source with close ties to the White House claimed the President’s public comments about her were just an act.

The lack of support was deafening.  Lawmakers from both political parties translated the deficit of enthusiasm from the White House, combined with the President’s first intended nominee, Congressman John Ratcliffe – who had little intelligence experience but had proven himself loyal to the President during the Mueller hearings – as a serious concern that the President was looking for loyalty over intelligence experience.

Ironically, the rock and hard place that Gordon had navigated got even tighter when democrats began showing their support for her on social media.  Accolades from democratic Congressman Adam Schiff led to a backlash tweet from Donald Trump, Jr. who concluded “If Adam Schiff wants her in there, the rumors about her being besties with Brennan and the rest of the clown cadre must be 100% true.”  Trump Jr. was willing to let an unproven rumor guide his thinking on Gordon and label her as a member of the political opposition.  The President said nothing to directly counter his son’s message.

Several people who work in or close to the current administration – many of whom are intelligence professionals – voiced quiet support for Gordon – but no one would publicly state why the White House wouldn’t support her for the role of DNI.  No one.  It’s not clear whether Dan Coats offered his endorsement of Gordon behind closed doors.  He certainly didn’t do it publicly, which left many questions lingering.  So the guesswork began and Sue Gordon became Washington’s latest mystery.

What Do We Know About the Real Sue Gordon?

Gordon spent 27 years at CIA, rising to senior executive positions in all of the agency’s directorates including operations, analysis, science and technology and the agency’s largest directorate, the Directorate of Support.  She served as Director of the Information Operations Center and became a senior advisor on cyber to Director John Brennan, but she never quite became the ‘besties’ that Donald Trump Jr. assumed.  Insiders say the two had very different personalities and styles and Gordon eventually left CIA to become Deputy Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.  That was before she took on her current role as PDDNI in 2017, becoming the nation’s number two intelligence professional.

While her resume sums up the depth of her experience with intelligence issues, it was early in her career that Gordon’s innovative approach to intelligence problems and her willingness to embrace the private sector aligned her more with what would have once been considered a Republican approach.

In 1998, the CIA worried that it was losing its technical edge.  In the rising age of the Internet, the country’s premiere intelligence agency needed better search engines, tighter security around its online searches for data and new ways to quickly share what it had found.

Under then-CIA Director George Tenet, Gordon led the agency’s embrace of venture capitalists and became the lead driver behind a new partnership intended to deliver cutting-edge technological solutions for agency use. A Washington Post piece from David Ignatius back in September of 1999 laid out the premise of the venture capital effort that would become In-Q-Tel.

Gilman Louie, who served as In-Q-Tel’s first CEO, praised Gordon for her hard work launching the project.  “There could not have been an In-Q-Tel without her vision and her work to set it up.  She was – and is – a ‘pathfinder’ for many of us involved in national security,” said Louie on Thursday, after news of Gordon’s resignation.

Even later in her career, Gordon never lost that focus on how important it was for the government to continue to find ways to work with the private sector.  She told Wired late last year that Silicon Valley needed to understand that there didn’t have to be two sides to national security.  “I had a meeting with Google where my opening bid was: ‘We’re in the same business.  And they’re like ‘What?’ And I said: ‘Using information for good,” she told the magazine.

Communicating messages like that in a post-Snowden era are difficult enough, but she had proven that she was willing and able to take them on.

When Gordon spoke at The Cipher Brief’s 2019 Threat Conference earlier this year, her focus was on a shifting threat landscape.  She talked about the intelligence community of the future, saying the government can no longer think of the private sector as a supporting command, but that instead, it is the government that will be supporting the private sector, as much of the innovation and technological development that the IC will come to rely on, is being developed outside of DC.

It is the loss of that kind of innovative vision that will be felt most by the Intelligence Community, according to national security professionals who worked with her.

General David Petraeus, the former D/CIA and former Commander of U.S. Central Command who keeps his own politics out of the public arena told me that, “Sue Gordon served our country and the intelligence community exceedingly well – and she did so as professionally and as apolitically as was possible.  She was a true standout at the CIA when I was the Director of the CIA and that is why I selected her to be the Director of Support, where she did a characteristically exceptional job.  She was equally impressive as the Deputy at NGA – which, of course, led to her selection to be the Principal Deputy DNI, where she once again did a magnificent job. My hope, of course, is that she – and the DNI, another great American public servant – will be replaced by leaders who also focus on getting the analysis right, speaking truth to power, and promoting the best and brightest IC professionals, while leaving the politics to those in Congress and the White House.”

Michael Allen, who is currently a Managing Director at Beacon Global Strategies but also served as the Staff Director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence under Republican Chairman Mike Rogers told me, “Sue embodies the can-do excellence of U.S. intelligence and her energetic leadership will be tough to replace. The IC deputies is where hard problems come home to roost and she was the steady anchor as PDDNI. She commanded respect as a trusted agent and that allowed her to challenge bureaucracy, pursue innovative solutions, and push for early adoption of new technology. I have a feeling she’ll continue to be a force outside of government.”

A New Horizon

A short time after Gordon delivered her note to the Oval Office, President Trump took to twitter and named a new Acting Director of National Intelligence effective August 15th.  It was almost as if the plan had already been in place, and the White House was just waiting for Gordon to get fed up with a lack of support and make the first move.

The current Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Joseph Maguire, a retired Navy vice admiral, will take on the role of Acting DNI until a new nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

“Admiral Maguire has a long and distinguished career in the military, retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2010,” the president tweeted. “He commanded at every level, including the Naval Special Warfare Command. He has also served as a National Security Fellow at Harvard University. I have no doubt he will do a great job!”

There are few who would argue that the President should be able to pick his own team.  Based on the leaked note that Gordon wrote to the President, she is chief among them.  While many hope for Maguire’s success, he is not in an enviable position.  He will be closely scrutinized by those looking to see whether he is willing to contradict the President when IC findings do not align with his own views – and whether the President will tolerate it. There is one thing we do know about his new role, however.  He will have to prove adept at operating between a rock and a hard place.

Read  Experts Weigh in on Gordon’s Departure in The Cipher Brief


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