Update 5:10 p.m. ET 8/2: President Trump announced he was withdrawing John Ratcliffe's nomination Friday afternoon on Twitter.
WASHINGTON — John Ratcliffe, Trump’s new pick to lead U.S. intelligence agencies, has claimed he “put terrorists in prison” while serving as U.S. Attorney and Chief of Anti-Terrorism in East Texas under President George W. Bush.
But unless you count the angry husband who tried to pin a fake bomb threat on his “terrorist” Russian internet bride, or the guy who released “harmful” Asian carp into golf-course water hazards, you’ll find a hard time appreciating Ratcliffe’s anti-terror resume.
A VICE News review of Ratcliffe’s crime-fighting years in Texas found no sign that he ever prosecuted a terrorist. He also appears to have inflated his role in the major terror-financing case that occurred during his tenure in an adjacent district. Now, questions about Ratcliffe’s background are set to face fresh scrutiny when the Senate considers his nomination to replace Dan Coats as Trump’s director of National Intelligence.
When VICE News inquired about the dearth of terror-related cases on the congressman’s public record, a spokeswoman for his office insisted he was regularly involved in top-secret matters while working in law enforcement in Texas.
“Department of Justice records will confirm that as both Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas and as U.S. Attorney, John Ratcliffe opened, managed and supervised numerous domestic and international terrorism related cases,” including the terror financing investigation in North Texas, the spokeswoman wrote in an email.
But she didn’t offer any details.
“Hoaxes are terrorism crimes”
Ratcliffe didn't always appear so self-assured about his "anti-terror" credentials. When he first heard about the role investigating and prosecuting terror cases in the Eastern District of Texas, he thought “it was pretty unlikely” he’d get the job, Ratcliffe told the Dallas Morning News in 2005.
As mayor of Heath, Texas (pop. 7,000), he had no military or law enforcement background, and no “specialized training,” he said.
“There are times that I think I may be in over my head,” he said. But not all terrorism involves a grand, 9/11-style conspiracy, he noted, and part of the job might involve busting terror “hoaxes.”
“Threats and hoaxes are terrorism crimes because they undermine public safety and public confidence,” Ratcliffe told the paper.
Ratcliffe’s office did uncover at least one terror hoax, perpetrated by an enraged husband searching for his missing wife.
“There are times that I think I may be in over my head”
The man allegedly blamed his own bogus bomb threat on the Russian bride he “met over the internet,” who “voluntarily left him,” according to a press release from Ratcliffe’s office.
The husband demanded officials help him find the woman, alleging, “among other things, that she was a terrorist,” the press release said.
“ICE agents determined that there was no basis for the terrorist allegation, and came to suspect that [the man] had called in the tip in order to have federal authorities search for the wife,” the statement said.
A review of publicly available court records and press releases distributed by Ratcliffe’s office during his tenure as U.S. Attorney turned up no other incidents of potential terrorism. Instead, the files suggest a focus on immigration and drugs, with the occasional curveball, like the local man accused of smuggling “50 unsterilized Asian Grass Carp” from Arkansas onto a golf course in Texas without a permit.
The man “transported the fish across state lines in furtherance of his commercial business of retrieving golf balls from golf course water hazards,” Ratcliffe’s office said. A flood “would allow the fish to escape the golf course and threaten native vegetation, including endangered Texas wild rice.”
Holy Land Foundation
Central to Ratcliffe’s terror-fighting claims appears to be his involvement in a major case that took place during his years in Texas across the border in the state’s northern district: The prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, a charity group eventually found to have provided funding to the Palestinian group Hamas. But he appears to have inflated the extent of the role he actually played in the case.
“In 2008, Ratcliffe served by special appointment as the prosecutor in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, one of the nation’s largest terrorism financing cases,” a 2016 press release on Ratcliffe’s campaign website says.
“There are individuals that currently sit in prison because I prosecuted them for funneling money to terrorist groups,” Ratcliffe is quoted as saying.
But Ratcliffe’s investigation didn’t result in any criminal charges, his office said Tuesday. Instead, he was tasked with investigating issues that led to the case’s mistrial, his office said. His probe focused on allegations involving a juror and one of the defendants, according to NBC News.
“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,” Ratcliffe’s office said.
Jim Jacks, a member of the Holy Land Foundation prosecution team, said he remembers Ratcliffe was called in to probe a “collateral” issue that “never amounted to anything.”
“I think it’s inaccurate to say that he was ‘the’ prosecutor” in the Holy Land case, said Jacks, who is named in the DOJ statement announcing the verdict. “I think he would readily admit he was not the prosecutor on that case. But he did work on matters related to the case.”
Ratcliffe’s national security background appears strikingly thin compared with previous directors of National Intelligence, like James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who’d directed the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Even extensive experience as a terror prosecutor wouldn’t qualify someone to lead an intelligence organization, said Scott Olson, who spent six years as a prosecutor in Seattle and then 21 years in counterintelligence for the FBI, including a stint as legal attache in Baghdad.
“Intelligence is about what you know, prosecution is about what you can prove in court,” Olson said. “Being a terrorism prosecutor is primarily about being a prosecutor, not about being a member of the intelligence community.”
Ratcliffe’s primary draw may be his fierce loyalty to the president. Before he lashed out at former Special Counsel Robert Mueller during last week’s testimony, Ratcliffe had already caught the attention of Trump’s White House as a vocal supporter. But his performance last week reportedly dispelled concerns among Trump’s administration that he might be “too nice” for the job, according to CNN.
National security officials and Democrats haven’t missed the connection, and are already raising alarm about Ratcliffe’s lack of national security experience and cozy relationship with the president.
“I'm gravely concerned,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It appears that the president is trying to look for someone who will be a political loyalist rather than that independent voice standing up for the intelligence community.”
Cover: In this Wednesday, July 24, 2019, file photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas., questions former special counsel Robert Mueller as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday that the nation’s top intelligence official would step aside on Aug. 15, and that he would nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe to the post, following a report Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is leaving his job next month. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)