Seeing the World As It Is: The Presidential Transition Begins

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Almost a week after the election of Donald Trump, his transition team is at work, choosing the leaders who will head the many government agencies and departments in his administration. In the national security arena, several names have been mentioned. Whoever is appointed will face a number of challenges both at home and abroad.

The Cipher Brief’s Executive Editor Fionnuala Sweeney spoke to network member General Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and the CIA and asked him about those challenges as well as the process of the transition of power between administrations.

TCB: The transition of power is underway now after the election of Donald Trump. How does this impact the agencies connected to national security?

MH:  In all transitions, and I’ve lived through a couple, particularly the last one in 2008, the permanent government, the inter regnum, looks at this period as pure opportunity. This is their opportunity to get in front of the new President-elect and the new Vice-President-elect (and their teams) and describe the world as they see it, which is very often at variance to the world as it has been described on the campaign trail. 

When I was Director of CIA, we were very anxious to get in front of President-elect Obama and Vice-President-elect Biden in order to describe to them the world as we saw it, which of course we believed to be an accurate picture of the world.  I think there will be an awful lot of folks wanting to talk to the new team. These people have been running political campaigns. The phrase I’ve used is “national security looks different from the Oval Office than it does from a hotel room in Iowa.”

TCB: It’s been said that the transfer and assumption of power is a humbling one, and it’s designed to denote security and stability in the U.S. system. How stable is the U.S. and the world right now do you think? America is clearly going through a huge change.

MH: Well America is. But you know what? America is a very strong country. We have very powerful traditions and those fellows a couple of centuries back, Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Madison, they built our system very very well. And our country has withstood crises far more critical than the one some people think we’re going through now. So fundamentally I am optimistic because of the structure that we have in our government and frankly, the political culture that we’ve had here over the two past centuries.

TCB: Do you have any sense what the President-elect’s national security priorities will be?

MH:  I don’t and that’s one of my concerns. Because as a candidate, the President-elect seems to have been all over the map. In fact, he’s said things that were at best inconsistent and occasionally contradictory. So I don’t know where the center of gravity is. 

There are certain things I try to conclude – he will be less rather than more interventionist, he will view immigration more as a threat than an opportunity compared to his predecessors, he will be more skeptical of free trade, and his affection for American alliances may not be as strong as former Presidents.  So those are kind of broad trend lines that I see. But how that plays out, particularly how that plays out when he hits the realities that are going to be expressed by the permanent government, we’re going to have to see.

TCB: You mentioned immigration. How do you quantify it as an issue or a threat in the overall spectrum of US national security threats?

MH:  Immigration is an American strategic advantage. It keeps our population younger than it would be, more entrepreneurial than it would otherwise be, more energetic than it would otherwise be. Immigration has to be managed. We’re a country, we have borders and we have the right to control who comes in and who comes out. But on balance, throughout our history, and I think true to the present day, immigration is a plus, not a minus.

TCB: There have been reported hacks against think tanks in the U.S. since the election and also reported cyber attacks on five Russian banks since Tuesday. Do you think these are connected? And could they be the actions of nation states? If so what does that mean in a larger strategic context?

MH: The real answer is I don’t know who has done them and how they might be connected. But they do seem to be part of a broader pattern that we’ve seen. I see no reason to question the judgment of the intelligence community that this DNC hack was done on behalf of the Russian Federation and that they were trying to erode confidence in American political processes. That’s a very new development, and so when you see these new data points you look at them with perhaps even more seriousness than you would have otherwise.

TCB:  The DNC hack by Russia is something that Donald Trump, at least in his campaign and the debates, hasn’t recognized.  What signals are you looking to from his camp in relation to this specific issue in the run-up to the inauguration? What do you think about the range of candidates he has to choose from for key security posts and how much will those nominees tell us about the administration’s direction in national security?

MH: That’s the barometer that I’m staring at right now. It’s hard to divine the mind of the President-elect. He’s got strong instincts; he’s got a great deal of confidence in his instincts. But I think we’re going to learn an awful lot about the character of the administration by the people that they choose now for these key positions. So I’m watching that very very carefully.

With regard to the DNC hack, President-elect Trump saying we don’t know who did it, that is a bit off-putting for someone of my background. You’ve got 100,000 people and you spend $50 billion a year on the American intelligence community to teach you about the world as it is. And to dismiss that conclusion without contrarian evidence does not raise my comfort level.

TCB:  Speaking of comfort level, there have been protests on the streets in America amid fears that civil liberties will be encroached upon in a Trump administration. Do you regard the protests we have seen as simply a law enforcement issue or right to freedom of speech or does it have the potential to become a national security issue?

MH: It is a right to freedom of speech issue, the right of the people to assemble is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. I would caution and counsel the people who are assembling, though, that we need to respect the peaceful transfer of power, that is, the vote that transfers sovereignty in our system. We must respect the right of the people of the United States to express their will through the constitutional processes which is exactly what happened last Tuesday.

TCB: Despite what you have said just now about the President-elect’s strong instincts, you have stated previously that he doesn’t display the appropriate knowledge and acumen for the sensitivities and complexities of national security. Have you seen anything at all since the election that has changed your mind?

MH: I haven’t yet but we need to be patient. Let’s get the PDB, the President’s Daily Briefing, in front of the President-elect every day. Let’s let that dialogue work its way through. Here’s how I look at it – intelligence isn’t the only legitimate input into a President’s decision making, but when intelligence does its job really well, it creates the left and the right hand boundaries of rational policy discussion. So let’s let that play out and we’ll know soon enough how that’s working.

TCB: What have you made of the reactions of various countries to Mr Trump’s election? Japan has asked for a statement reaffirming the US commitment to its security. Israel seems little short of ecstatic and Arab leaders are watching with concern. What do you think this election means for America’s influence and for stability elsewhere in the world?

MH:  It depends on how the new President acts. He said many things during the campaign that were at best inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. I’ve already made the point that he seems to look upon our alliances as less valuable than most Americans have viewed them in the last 75 years. We need to see how the language of the candidate transfers to the actions of the President. It always happens that the language of the campaign gets affected and developed by the realities of actually being in power. Mr. Trump the candidate has said some things that were really quite dramatic, so our allies are wondering how Mr. Trump the President is going to act. I understand their concern but they’ve got to respect our constitutional processes too.

TCB:  Burden sharing was talked about a lot by the now President-elect during the campaign. In recent days  Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, has said that since the election of Donald Trump, a European army is more necessary than ever. This call has been backed in recent days by Germany. How would the  creation of a European army contribute to the stability or lack of stability vis-à-vis Russia?

MH: The language of the campaign which seemed to suggest or insert doubt into the American commitment to European defense is probably energizing these things. Frankly, the development  of a European army, were it to take place, would be in my view a negative because Europe only has so much defense energy. Any amount of energy the Europeans would put into a Euro defense identity will be at the expense of the North Atlantic defense identity, and that’s the one that I think should be most important to us.

TCB: Do you see a potentially closer alliance with Russia, perhaps in terms of fighting ISIS? Would an alliance like that be successful? What would it mean for terrorism more broadly? 

MH: As candidate, Mr Trump talked a lot about being more friendly with Russia which is an inarguable goal – that’s a good thing. But it was mentioned during the campaign without conditions. Russian objectives in Syria are not consistent with American objectives in Syria; if they were we would be doing a lot more things together and we’re not. I’m happy to seek convergence with the Russians but it should not be at the expense of America’s definition of America’s self-interest.

TCB: Might there be a very targeted relationship with Russia in strategic areas?

MH: How I have expressed it in the past is that it would be foolish to rule out places of convergence for tactical co-operation but at the strategic level I do think our goals are very much at variance right now.

TCB: Free trade is not necessarily a national security issue but it does play a lot into the stability of a country. Do you think America is about to turn inward and become more protectionist?

MH:  That was the language of the campaign and again we will see how the rhetoric of the campaign faces up to the realities of global politics. I’d just make the observation that American legislation cannot stop globalization. That is the dynamic that is taking place; economies are becoming more integrated and so I think the winning hand there is to manage that integration rather than to pretend that you can stop it.

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