The man who stands at the center of a controversy over an intelligence community whistleblower’s complaint is hardly a deep-state bureaucrat or shadowy spy. Rather, Joseph Maguire, a retired Navy SEAL vice admiral and now the acting intelligence chief, is described by friends and colleagues as a politically astute extrovert with a renowned sense of humor.
“He many times referred to himself as the ‘baby kisser’ or as the political head of the organization,” said a longtime acquaintance of Maguire, who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y. “He wants to be the New York mayor. A lot of people know that’s his ambition. … He has said that openly.”
For now, however, Maguire is the acting director of national intelligence, and his political skills are being put to the test. When he showed up for work on Aug. 16, his first day in his new position, he was almost immediately presented with a political hand grenade in the form of a whistleblower complaint passed on from the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson.
That complaint is now at the center of Democrats’ call for an impeachment inquiry.
According to the Department of Justice, the complaint relates to “a confidential diplomatic communication between the President and a foreign leader,” reportedly President Trump and recently elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, although multiple news outlets have reported the subject of the complaint is wider than a single phone call.
The law requires the director of national intelligence to immediately share with Congress whistleblower complaints deemed an “urgent” concern. But acting on the advice of lawyers from his own office and from the Department of Justice, Maguire for days refused to do so on the grounds that the complaint was not directly related to intelligence matters. On Wednesday afternoon, the complaint was finally delivered to Congress, where House and Senate Intelligence Committee members are reviewing it.
That refusal unleashed an onslaught of criticism from senior Democratic politicians and transparency advocates. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has subpoenaed Maguire to testify before the panel, telling reporters that Maguire had made the “unprecedented decision not to share the complaint with Congress.” In the days since Schiff made the dispute public Sept. 13 by revealing that Maguire was withholding the complaint, the controversy has blossomed into an impeachment inquiry that threatens to bring down Trump.
Caught in the middle is Maguire, who friends and associates describe as an honorable man trying to do the right thing in an extraordinarily difficult situation not of his making. Those circumstances have earned him the sympathy of Dan Coats, the man he replaced in an acting capacity as director of national intelligence.
“I feel so bad for Joe,” Coats told the Economic Club of Indiana on Tuesday, according to the Indianapolis Star. “He is caught in a squeeze here and the lawyers are divided.”
Maguire will have an opportunity to explain his position Thursday, when he is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Maguire threatened to resign if the White House tried to prevent him from speaking freely to Congress. He quickly issued a denial. “At no time have I considered resigning my position,” he said in a statement. “I have never quit anything in my life, and I am not going to start now.”
Maguire had previously defended his conduct in another strongly worded statement issued on Aug. 24.
“In light of recent reporting on the whistleblower complaint, I want to make clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way,” he said. “I am committed to protecting whistleblowers and ensuring every complaint is handled appropriately.”
Maguire’s statement tracks with what his staff is saying, according to a former senior national security official. “I know from his workforce that he feels — and they feel — he is leading them with integrity right now,” the former senior official said. “He in no way wanted to be in the position he’s in.”
Maguire, who retired as a vice admiral in 2010 after a 36-year Navy career, was serving as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center when Coats’s resignation prompted Trump to make him the acting director of national intelligence. Multiple former officials suggested that Maguire’s career trajectory had perfectly prepared him to lead NCTC, where he had previously served while in uniform. However, they said, he had never expected to be made the nation’s most senior intelligence official, let alone to be thrust so quickly into the middle of a high-profile political drama.
Nonetheless, those who know Maguire from the military say they trust him to adhere to principle and the law.
“One of Joe Maguire’s greatest attributes is this determination he had to do the right thing no matter how difficult or risky it might be,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, a Special Forces officer who said he “frequently interacted” with Maguire during their time in uniform. “His reputation is one of being a very effective leader, a deeply compassionate officer and a morally courageous individual.”
Maguire is “someone on whose integrity I would stake my life,” said the former senior national security official.
Officers for whom Maguire worked early in his career said there was little doubt that he was destined for a long career and high rank. “I remember writing his fitness report,” said retired Navy Capt. Rick Woolard, who commanded Maguire twice when Maguire was a junior officer. “I said, ‘This man is destined to be a flag officer. … He’s just good at everything.’”
Describing Maguire as “tough, smart [and] hard,” Woolard said he stuck out, even among the SEALs. “I never had a better officer,” he said. “He figured out what I wanted to be done and did it better than I could have asked him to do.”
Maguire “was one of the four guys who made the toughest combat swim in training or in real life that any SEAL had ever made up to that point,” Woolard said. “He and three guys on an exercise penetrated a German base that was on full wartime alert and they got back out again.”
However, while Maguire “was very social with the guys” on his teams, he tended to leave disciplinary issues to his senior enlisted personnel, said the longtime acquaintance who recalled Maguire’s mayoral ambitions, adding that he did not approve of this approach.
But others who have known Maguire for many years expressed no doubt about his integrity. “No question about it,” said retired Navy Capt. Ron Yeaw, who commanded Naval Special Warfare Development Group — better known as SEAL Team 6 — in the early 1990s, during which Maguire served as his No. 2 for a year. “He’s just a quality, quality guy.”
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