Viewpoint: Move to Politicize the Career Civil Service is an Insider Threat to the Country

Two former-high-ranking intelligence community officials issue a stark warning about President Trump’s order creating a new category of federal employees.

Our nation’s security is being threatened, and not just from external actors, like nation-states who wish us harm. There’s also a threat from insiders that is far more subtle than an attack from a foreign adversary. That threat is the deliberate and wholesale replacement of career professionals—politically neutral and technically expert public officials in the federal government—with those whose main qualification is political loyalty. 

This is occurring not just at the top of key federal agencies—like the recent tweeted termination of the Defense secretary—but down through the ranks of competent career civil servants who are traditionally protected from politics. That is, until President Trump issued Executive Order 13957 on Oct. 21. Its ostensible purpose was to hold a potentially large group of career civil servants more accountable to the public by shifting them to a new employment category known as Schedule F. But we believe its true intent is to hold those employees accountable not to the rule of law, regulation, or science, but to a particular political ideology. 

The executive order is clearly intended to facilitate a wholesale “remove and replace” strategy in the upper reaches of the career civil service. It not only encompasses senior career positions in the national security establishment, but those in other parts of the federal government that have been thrust into the limelight by current exigencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. The order is clearly designed to insert political loyalists into career civil service positions that have significant employment protections, burrowing them in so they become difficult to find and root out.  

These career civil service positions matter. They are there to ensure the smooth operation of the federal government without regard to partisan politics.  The professionals who occupy these positions are in them because of their experience and expertise, whether that is in the collection and analysis of intelligence to support national security policy, the review and approval of drug trials like the vaccines that may mitigate COVID-19, or much less dramatic activities like the collection of census data, the reporting of economic and health statistics, and the prediction of the paths of hurricanes. These and a myriad more functions are essential to the operations of government and must remain untainted by political ideology. 

It is a basic expectation and right of every American that the core functions of the federal government—such as national defense, health care, law enforcement, oversight of banking and financial systems, and energy regulation—will be performed without regard to who someone may have voted for, or who happens to be president. Removing and replacing career professionals who do the day-to-day work in these areas with those who have a political agenda in order to sustain a particular partisan view or sow doubts about “deep state” conspiracies threatens our very democracy. 

While both of us have political opinions, and we vote to support them, our service to our country—in military uniform and in civilian service—has always been apolitical. We have served administrations from both sides of the aisle in our combined 80+ years of public service. Like all federal employees, we took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, not a particular person, party of political faction. And we would offer this same warning, whether this remove and replace strategy was the product of a Democratic administration or a Republican one.

Our nation is being threatened from the inside in the most subtle and insidious way. It is deliberate, with malice aforethought. If it is not addressed, the peaceful transition of power—one of the most sacred and treasured tenets of the nation’s government—could be threatened. 

Mike McConnell was director of national intelligence in the George W. Bush administration. A retired Navy vice admiral, he also served as director of the National Security Agency under President Clinton and vice chair of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. Ron Sanders was associate director of national intelligence and a Booz Allen vice president under McConnell, as well as human resources director for the Defense Department and the IRS. Sanders recently resigned his presidential appointment as chair of the Federal Salary Council in protest of Executive Order 13957.