As the United States and the international community absorbed the news that the CIA believed Russia had interfered in the recent Presidential election to help Donald Trump’s candidacy, President-elect Trump dismissed the assessment out of hand, describing it as a result of partisan politics. As part of The Cipher Brief’s special coverage of these developments, Executive Editor Fionnuala Sweeney spoke to former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden about the implications for the agency, the White House and the country.
The Cipher Brief: First of all, what’s your overall reaction to these developments?
General Michael Hayden: About a month ago, I wrote that building a relationship between the intelligence community and the President-elect was going to be both very important and very difficult. The events of the last couple of days has made a tough situation even worse. And I think it’s very unfortunate that the campaign, the leadership of the Republican National Committee, and even the President-elect himself has said the kinds of things that have been said.
TCB: What does it mean specifically for the CIA in terms of morale and how it’s run? We have a President-elect who doesn’t seem to want to take daily intelligence briefings and has deputized Mike Pence, the Vice President-elect, to do so. What do you make of that for the relationship between the CIA and the White House going forward?
MH: It’s made an important relationship even more difficult to establish. Look, they’ve been called politicized, they’ve been called incompetent, and that’s just in the last 48 hours. All they’ve done is their job, and those who are condemning them are not condemning them on their work — they’re not condemning them on faulty analysis or because they have additional facts that the Agency hasn’t considered. This is the organizational equivalent of the ad hominem attacks we saw during the campaign, where they didn’t argue policy, it was just “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco.”
Now, [they are] simply saying “the corrupt and politicized and incompetent intelligence community” without beginning to address the data on which they seem to be making these conclusions.
TCB: If you were leading the CIA, what kind of debate do you think would be ongoing right now within the Agency?
MH: The Agency is looking for its current leadership – and frankly, it’s future leadership – to step up and defend the Agency against these kinds of accusations.
[Former Director] Leon Panetta got wonderful marks from the CIA workforce because he defended CIA against others in the current administration, who wanted to condemn the Agency, criticize it, say that it wasn’t effective, and, in fact, put some of its officers in jail. Leon – quite heroically – pushed back against his own administration.
That’s what the people in the CIA now are expecting, particularly from the incoming leadership. That’s what they will be looking for as Congressman (Mike) Pompeo testifies as part of his confirmation process.
TCB: It’s reported that the FBI and the CIA had different views on the intelligence gathered about Russian interference or involvement in the election. Is it often the case that the FBI and the CIA disagree in their assessment?
MH: Let’s review the ground truth here. Reading what is available in the public domain, I don’t think there’s any dispute that the Russians conducted espionage against the Democratic National Committee and used that information, washing it through WikiLeaks, to corrode confidence in the American political process.
The dispute is over Russian intentionality — if they are trying to mess with our heads, or as was suggested last Friday in the press accounts, it’s more than that, and they wanted to actually affect the outcome of the election and were trying to pick a winner. Now, there could be differences between the Agency and the Bureau on that, but you don’t have to chalk it up to bureaucratic turf or some kind of dishonest competition.
Keep in mind that the Bureau works to prove things beyond all reasonable doubt. That’s not the job of the CIA. CIA is an intelligence organization. CIA’s job is to enable action – decisive, important action – even in the face of lingering doubt. You’ve got tensions that exist simply because of the nature of these organizations; it’s not a good default position to simply say this is the forces of good versus evil. It may simply be a difference in the character of the organization. The level of proof that the Bureau requires before they say anything might be much higher than what the Agency requires before it starts to say something.
TCB: The issue is also direct attribution – the last mile in intelligence gathering. It might be possible to say the Russians did this, but to link it directly to the Kremlin or President Putin himself is difficult. Is that what Donald Trump is saying? That it’s not so much the Kremlin or President Putin, it’s just generally the Russians?
MH: He hasn’t really formed the argument that way, has he? He says they don’t know; nobody knows. It could be this “400-pound guy on the bed in his basement.” He’s got a right to be skeptical — in fact, maybe he even has a duty to be skeptical, but skeptical based on the facts. He’s rejecting the argument, not on factual data, but on a priori assumptions that he had before he got introduced to the data.
TCB: What signal does this send to the world that there appears to be a division between the CIA and a President-elect who doesn’t seem to rate the work that this Agency does?
MH: The rest of the world judges that the Russian covert influence campaign against the United States has exceeded all expectations, because we now have, a month away from the inauguration, a President-elect of the United States condemning the intelligence services on which he will undoubtedly have to rely.
TCB: Do you believe that Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for Director of the CIA, will be more sympathetic to the intelligence community?
MH: Congressman Pompeo gets great marks from the Agency for his work when he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He had a political role to play – and he played it with enthusiasm – but beneath that, I am told he was always serious, he studied, he asked good questions, he came to the briefings, and he was a real student of American intelligence.
I think the broad view in the intelligence community was that they were happy with this choice. Now the question is, will he stand up and defend them against the kind of accusations that have been made?
These guys can be wrong. Lord knows I was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. But it wasn’t dishonesty – we had a view. It turned out to be incorrect. Intelligence is hard. But to have an assessment dismissed, frankly, because it was unpleasant? That’s just not acceptable. If that is the standing attitude toward the Agency, then I fear not just for the Agency but for the welfare of the country.
TCB: What impact might this have on operatives who are doing dangerous work overseas for the Agency and dealing with contacts? How do you see this trickling down to field operations?
MH: This work is hard enough without being abused. There may be a lot of people who just say – you know, I’ve got other options, I don’t need this. I particularly don’t need this if I don’t have a realistic expectation that my views, as a result of our election, will be given a fair hearing.
All administrations have trouble with what I call “the unpleasant facts.” When you’re going in there with something that cuts across the leadership’s policy or politics, that’s a hard sell. I don’t want to pretend that this hasn’t ever existed before, but if you expect that if you go in there with something that they don’t want to hear, to have not just pushback, but rejection, then natural human reaction will be not to do it. The Agency will overcome that, but in that dynamic, they won’t go in there to warn the leadership until they have mountains of evidence, because they know what kind of reception they’re going to get. And what that does is deny the leadership early warning, time to make decisions, time to shape the situation, and so this is bad from all points of view.
TCB: Donald Trump has said he doesn’t want to hear the same briefing for the next eight years and to literally “call him” if something changes. What does that say about the nature of the daily Presidential briefings that the President – or in this case the Vice President – will get?
MH: Everything changes all the time. If it doesn’t change in reality, our understanding of it changes; we learn more, develop more, and compare and contrast things. The world is very dynamic – not a static place. And frankly, changes from what? What’s the incoming administration’s baseline understanding of the planet? I’m convinced the intelligence community doesn’t understand that yet or hasn’t been told that yet.
TCB: What role do you expect General Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Adviser, to play in all this?
MH: The role he needs to play is that of the honest broker – the process guy – making sure that the President and the Vice President see issues early enough that it matters, see them in the right sequence so they can approach them logically, and have the benefit of seeing the broad range of views that the others in the government might tee up, all so that the President and the Vice President can make the best decisions possible. He’s the process guy.
This is a position that requires a great deal of knowing – that requires that you subsume your thoughts on an issue and allow the government to present theirs. That doesn’t mean he can’t have a view – it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to talk to the President last – all national security advisors do that. But, if you’re General Flynn, you’re able to be that process guy, as opposed to the idea guy, and frankly, I’m concerned about some of the politically intemperate language on the part of the President-elect during the campaign. I’d like the National Security Advisor to be able to calm him down, but if anything, General Flynn was more intemperate than him during the campaign. These are questions that I hope are happily resolved.
TCB: There’s a lot riding, then, on the Vice President-elect, who is receiving the daily intelligence briefings?
MH: He is. But one, things change, and two, he has to build up his own personal database. Imagine, if you will, the difference in the PDB (Presidential Daily Brief) that they would offer the President-elect today and what they offer President Barack Obama today. President Obama has been seeing this stuff for seven and a half years and the President-elect has not been privy to this information. There has to be more background in what they give the President-elect and if he doesn’t want to take it, he doesn’t get that baseline.
TCB: Does it make you want to be back in the intelligence community?
MH: [Laughter]. You know, I would love to be an observer when some of these meetings take place, but I’ve certainly put in my best effort for a good 40 years, and I’m wishing these good folks all the best when they go on this mission.