As America pauses for Presidents Day – or at least the federal government does – Jim and Greg take some time to evaluate a few recent presidents who deserve a closer look at their legacies. They’re presidents many of you remember well but for some reason are rarely mentioned as leaders Americans remember most fondly.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America applaud the confirmation of CIA Director Gina Haspel, discussing the six Democrats who ended up back the nomination and their likely political calculations. They also shudder at reports that efforts are underway to create a TV show featuring former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci and Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti. And they walk through the rough public relations performance of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who seems to be creating more controversies than he’s resolving.
Note: The Texas high school shooting was first being reported at the time the podcast was recorded Friday morning. Details were scarce and Jim and Greg determined it was irresponsible to comment on it until the facts are established. Certainly, our prayers are with the families of those killed and for the recovery of those injured.
The leaking of CIA methods and the ongoing debate over whether the intelligence community is trying to undermine President Trump have thrust a part of our government into the spotlight that greatly prefers to operate in the shadows.
In the first few weeks of the Trump administration, much attention has been paid to the litany of unnamed sources offering information to the media that casts the president in a negative light, possibly even in cahoots with Russia. In addition, Trump has accused President Obama of keeping him under surveillance during the campaign.
The latest headline material for the intelligence community centers on Wikileaks releasing CIA documents which reveal methods of spying on subjects, including the use of smart phones, televisions and other devices.
When it comes to the exposure of CIA secrets, there is the immediate and the long-term fallout.
“Our intelligence service may no longer be able to access information they need to prevent an attack. So that’s as serious as it gets,” said Herbert E. Meyer, who served as special assistant to then-CIA Director William Casey during the Reagan administration.
Meyer also served as vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. Most recently he’s founder of Storm King Press and the author of the updated booklet, “Why Is the World So Dangerous?”
The long-term damage of CIA secrets and methods being exposed is also sobering.
“This discredits the CIA and the intelligence service. We’re living in an age when rumors go all over the place and news is unchecked. You can never tell the difference between a fact and an allegation. So once again, the idea is out there that the CIA is spying on everybody,” said Meyer.
“That does an enormous amount of damage to our credibility as a country and to citizens. So it’s really very, very damaging, whatever the facts (in the Wikileaks case) turn out to be,” said Meyer, who says rooting out leakers at the CIA isn’t very difficult.
Meyer admits there are endless new ways to track people than when he was serving at the CIA, but he says the agency always adhered to strict privacy policies unless it had good reason for surveillance.
“There was obviously a clear line. We looked overseas. If it was something here in the United States, the FBI dealt with it, said Meyer. “So the line was a little thicker, a little brighter then. But in all fairness to everyone, it’s a different world now.”
But even worse than the leaking, according to Meyer, is the intelligence community’s obsession with simply gathering information.
“Since 9/11, our intelligence service has been making a fundamental mistake. They came to the conclusion that 9/11 happened because they didn’t have enough information. To some extent that was true, but you know, it’s never enough. It’s a trap. If you’re not careful, you try to know everything about everything and you wind up knowing nothing about nothing,” said Meyer.
Meyer likens that approach to constantly shopping for groceries to make a dinner but never actually making the dinner.
As for the intelligence community regularly leaking sensitive material to a media eager to paint the president in a bad light, Meyer says that happened all the time during the Reagan years.
“About twice a week,” said Meyer. “There’d be a conversation on the seventh floor of the CIA and the next day it would be in the Washington Post. Absolutely amazing (and) that’s nothing new,” said Meyer.
But while Meyer says there are certainly intelligence personnel who do not like the president, there is not a grand conspiracy to bring down the president.
“It’s not ‘deep state.’ That’s sort of an overdramatic version of it. The same thing is happening at the EPA. It happens at the agriculture department. The people like us don’t pay as much attention to that,” he said.
When it comes to whether the Obama administration spied on Trump or his campaign, Meyer is mystified by the drawn-out intrigue.
“This is a classic case of what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. You can never get to the bottom of anything. You can never get anything straight. It’s like trying to read a book while someone throws sand in your eyes,” said Meyer.
He says Trump could resolve this quickly.
“The president has access to every document in the executive branch. There’s nothing that you can keep from a president. So why doesn’t President Trump simply call the directors of the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA and say, ‘Get in here with everything you’ve got on this and let’s take a look,'” said Meyer.
“The president also has the absolute authority to declassify anything. If he wanted to, he could declassify the nuclear launch code. So why can’t we get our hands on this stuff? Why can’t we just see it? If there was a FISA request that was denied last spring, somebody wrote the requests, somebody signs it. The document exists. Let’s see it.
“If there was a FISA request that was approved in October, let’s see that. If anything was approved and there are tapes, recordings [or] transcripts, let’s see them,” said Meyer.
Meyer says he expected obfuscation from the Obama administration but Trump should handle this differently.
“We have a president who is, in effect, on our side as opposed to the last president. So why doesn’t he just get his hands on it and says, ‘Here’s what there was’ or ‘There was nothing.’ I don’t understand why this takes more than 10 minutes to get straight,” said Meyer.
“Remember, we never got to the bottom of Benghazi, but that’s because the people in the White House were trying to keep us from getting straight answers. Why can’t we get straight answers now? That’s what I don’t understand,” said Meyer.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey says Donald Trump is quickly getting up to speed on understanding American intelligence efforts, but he wants to see the incoming president get more aggressive on cyber security and respond to Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign in a way that will make sure the Russians never try to do it again.
Woolsey calls the report on Russian hacking efforts “quite professional” and says there are two obvious takeaways.
“One is that the Russians do this all the time, not so much against us but in a lot of other countries. It’s not in the report, but they call it disinformation, known to you and me as lying. They have thousands of people working on photoshopping pictures, rewriting prefaces to books, etc.,” said Woolsey.
He says that also have a habit of going after political parties and institutions that espouse an ideology contrary to the Kremlin’s – including the Catholic Church.
“That side of things is not new. What’s new is using cyber, which is hard often to figure out the source of as a tool in this disinformation campaign,” said Woolsey.
He says this episode has also once again exposed the flawed cyber warfare mindset of the United States.
“We are like a very good and highly talented hockey team that has decided to use all of its players as goalies. So everybody is clustered around the goal, trying to keep any shot from getting through. We’ve kind of given up on offense,” said Woolsey.
He says there needs to be a greater emphasis on offense. And he says an appropriate response to the Russians is a good place to start.
“You do have to do that in cyber. You have to keep people from scoring against you at all. But you can’t just hunker down. We need to make the sort of things that the Russians did this last time around…very, very unpleasant for them,” said Woolsey.
Woolsey’s most preferred response to the Russians is less cyber-related and more of an economic blow, urging Trump to unleash the free market against Russia and their allies in OPEC. Specifically, he wants the auto industry to embrace methanol, a fuel derived from wood waste and other sources.
“You will make our Chinese and Israeli friends, who are working hard on this technology, very happy and you will make our Russian Iranian acquaintances very sad. Russians do not like competition and they don’t produce anything except oil and gas and weapons,” said Woolsey.
As for the future of the intelligence community, Trump has hinted that he may try to restructure it. Woolsey, who was a part of Trump’s transition until stepping down in recent days, says that may be a good idea, because the current format is too bloated.
“I’m skeptical we’ve got the right solution,” said Woolsey, noting the explosion of bureaucracy since he led the CIA from 1993-1994. Woolsey says then he was not only the head of the CIA but was “chairman of the board” of all government intelligence agencies.
“I did that with an added 19 people. Today, there are about 2,000 people that are used in that oversight and coordination,” said Woolsey.
Another thing he would like to see intelligence officials do is keep their mouths shut.
“I think the agency leadership in the last few years inclined more and more to public statements and I don’t think that’s a good idea. The key thing in intelligence is preserving your sources and methods. You can’t do that if you’re talking all the time about different aspects. Even though they might not be directly disclosing a source can contribute to that,” said Woolsey.
Woolsey is very encouraged by Trump’s picks to lead the intelligence community, namely Mike Pompeo for CIA and Dan Coats to head the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
He also says Americans shouldn’t read too much into the public spat between Trump and the intelligence professionals. He’s confident it will all get ironed out soon.
“I don’t think any of this is a really serious fight between him and the intelligence community. It’s an opening round of sparring a little bit , but I think they’ll get it sorted out. The stakes are just too high,” said Woolsey.
“What the American president sees as a result of intelligence collection and what judgments he makes after consulting with his senior officials in the government are the heart of our foreign policy,” said Woolsey.
Woolsey stepped down from the Trump transition after feeling uncomfortable going on television as a member of the transition but without being included in many discussions involving the incoming administration. Nonetheless, he’s happy to help Trump whenever called upon.
“I would still respond to Donald Trump if he got in touch and wanted me to write something up or wanted me to confer on something. I’d be delighted to do so,” said Woolsey.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America applaud Donald Trump’s selection of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be secretary of energy. They wince as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell taps the brakes on the Trump tax plan and offers no ideas on how to reduce spending fight future deficits or replace Obamacare. And they discuss the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI disputing the CIA’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign explicitly to help Trump win.