WASHINGTON — Officials with the Trump administration abruptly replaced the acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center this week amid planned cutbacks by the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, that have prompted fears among career officials of potential political retribution and a widespread loss of expertise.
The acting head of the counterterrorism center, Russ Travers, will step down from his position in the coming weeks and retire, said Amanda Schoch, the top spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Mr. Grenell offered Mr. Travers another senior government position, but he chose instead to retire, according to people familiar with the matter. He had long been expected to retire but sped up the timing after the White House announced on Wednesday that President Trump would nominate Christopher C. Miller, a former National Security Council aide now working at the Pentagon, for the top counterterrorism job.
Mr. Grenell wanted to assemble “a new team to best support” Mr. Miller after his confirmation, Mr. Travers wrote in a letter to colleagues reviewed by The New York Times. Mr. Travers noted that while he would vacate the acting director job in a couple of weeks, he would remain at the counterterrorism center as he prepared for retirement.
Mr. Grenell was installed in recent weeks to temporarily serve as the nation’s top intelligence official and has made clear he plans to overhaul his office. The effort, coming from a leader serving in an acting capacity and as the federal government confronts the coronavirus pandemic, has sparked concern that the Trump administration is intent on purging career officials. But supporters of Mr. Grenell say that the office, which oversees the intelligence community, has grown top-heavy and that other agencies could more efficiently handle some of its functions.
The abrupt timing of the announcement about Mr. Travers combined with Mr. Grenell’s plans to remake his office prompted some former intelligence officials to accuse Mr. Grenell of forcing out, or even firing, Mr. Travers.
“Russ is one of the most highly regarded officials in the intelligence community and helped shape the government’s response post-9/11,” said Matthew G. Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “His firing reflects a reckless disdain for the indispensable role of career government professionals in responding to national crises.”
Mr. Grenell has not named a new acting director of the center while the Senate considers Mr. Miller’s nomination — which could take months — but former officials said they were worried a political appointee, not a career official, would be tapped. The Washington Post first reported Mr. Travers’ departure.
Mr. Travers, a career intelligence official, twice postponed a long-planned retirement to lead the center on an interim basis — first when Nicholas J. Rasmussen stepped down as director in December 2017, and then again when Mr. Rasmussen’s replacement, Joseph Maguire, a retired Navy vice admiral, was elevated in August to serve as acting director of national intelligence.
Mr. Travers disagreed with Mr. Grenell over cutbacks at counterterrorism center, according to former intelligence officials and other people familiar with the matter. Pete W. Hall, Mr. Travers’ deputy, will also return to his home agency, the National Security Agency.
Mr. Grenell has begun a review to pare back the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, sending officers detailed there back to their home agencies. With about 1,000 employees, the counterterrorism center is by far the largest part of the national intelligence office and is the government’s central clearinghouse for intelligence on terrorist threats.
Ms. Schoch acknowledged in her statement that Mr. Grenell and other officials have been discussing efforts to overhaul the counterterrorism center. “Our hope is that these reforms will posture N.C.T.C. to lead the counterterrorism mission into the future,” she said.
Many of the officials who work in the counterterrorism center are C.I.A. employees. While Mr. Travers wanted to keep them at the counterterrorism center, other officials at the C.I.A. and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wanted them to return to the agency, according to people familiar with the matter.
The creation of the counterterrorism center has been one of the success stories of the government’s post-9/11 reforms, collecting and fusing information from across agencies. Though terrorism remains a significant threat, it is not treated as the same urgent problem it was a decade ago, and some current officials believe the center could be trimmed back.
Because Mr. Travers worked as a career official on the National Security Council staff in the Obama administration, some Trump administration officials had viewed him as a holdover. But people who long worked with him rejected any suggested that Mr. Travers was political.
“Russ Travers is the consummate apolitical national security professional,” said Mr. Rasmussen. “He has done more than almost any individual I can think of to keep America safe in the period since 9/11.”
Mr. Rasmussen credited Mr. Travers with designing a watch list aimed at keeping terrorism suspects from entering the United States and said he helped build the information-sharing system set up after Sept. 11 between the federal government and states and localities.
“His dismissal by Acting D.N.I. Grenell from his job under these circumstances is a shameful act,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.