National Security Agency (NSA)

Breathe Easy: Rick Ledgett’s Retirement is Not a Political Protest

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, February 4, 2017, 5:59 PM

Late Friday, word came out of NSA that the highly-respected Deputy Director Rick Ledgett would be retiring in the spring. Understandably, people wondered whether this was the first indication of trouble out of the intelligence community under President Trump. Was this a sign that principled career officials were resigning in protest; were they being pushed out in favor of political allies of the White House? As the news broke, one of us (Susan) acknowledged those concerns, while cautioning against over-reading the timing. Of course, it would be an alarming thing if Ledgett were resigning over matters of principle. Of course, it would be bad if an important career position was suddenly filled by a loyalist to the President. On the other hand, it is not particularly unusual for Deputy Directors to serve three or four year terms (Ledgett has been in his role since 2014) and there was no evident reason to be worried.

Predictably, in the current climate, the presumptions tended to favor alarm and a lot of people were convinced the timing was no coincidence. Politico somewhat ominously wrote “The agency did not explain the timing of Ledgett's decision, including whether it is related to the advent of the Trump administration.”

Fortunately, anyone who was concerned can rest easy. This afternoon in an email to Ben, which we share with his permission, Ledgett offered reassurances that his retirement has nothing to do with the current political environment:

You may have seen press reporting about my pending retirement, in which there is speculation about the timing. It's really simple—with the pending split of NSA and US Cyber Command off the front burner, there's not a need for me to stay longer. I had always planned to retire in 2017, at the 3-4 year mark in the job, and with Mike Rogers staying longer, the responsible thing for me to do is go short so my successor has time to get fully up to speed before the next transition. This is not about politics, or health, or family issues. I'm at 40 years of service in the USG, and am looking to new challenges and ways to serve in new ways.

Ledgett’s note should, in our opinion, put any speculation to rest. We are as alarmed as anyone by the possibility of politicization of the intelligence community. But readers can be quite sure that, as a person of integrity, he is not lying about his reasons for stepping down. Even if you’re not inclined to take Ledgett’s word at face value, as we are, the effectiveness of resigning in protest—even on an issue he was unable to discuss—would be rather dramatically undercut by his insisting there was no protest. If Ledgett is saying this, that’s good enough for us (though rumors he actually resigned over the agonizing defeat of his beloved Dallas Cowboys will likely persist at Fort Meade).

Finally, we note that the selection of the next Deputy Director also cuts against the idea that this is some Trumpist coup: George Barnes is a career officer of NSA with a sterling reputation.

We’ll be the first to tell you when we think there’s a problem at NSA, an agency we care about a great deal. For right now, breathe easy. Sometimes a retirement is just a retirement.

With that, we wish Rick Ledgett and his family well as they open a new chapter and offer sincere gratitude for his many years of service to the nation.