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Intelligence Officer: Trump’s Conflict With Spy Agencies Creates ‘Dangerous Moment’

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

The conflict between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. intelligence community could have profound repercussions.

We spoke recently about the issue to Matthew Olsen, who spent two decades working in senior posts in intelligence and national security for Democrat and Republican administrations. Olsen, 54, served most recently (from 2011 to 2014) as director of the intelligence community’s National Counterterrorism Center. Before that, he was the general counsel of the National Security Agency. In 2009, he was executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force for the Justice Department.

A longtime federal prosecutor, Olsen has been an associate deputy attorney general overseeing national security and criminal cases; acting assistant attorney general for national security; chief of the national security division at the U.S. Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia; and a special counsel to the director of the FBI. Last year, Olsen was a part-time volunteer adviser on national security issues to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Today, he’s an executive at IronNet Cybersecurity, a firm he co-founded, and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

ProPublica: You’ve told me the worst thing someone can say about intelligence professionals is that they are partisan. So what is your impression of the mood in the intelligence community as a result of the criticism by the President-elect?

Olsen: I think it’s a dangerous moment. Because of how important it is for the political leadership of the country, up to and including the president, to have confidence in the information and analysis that we are getting from the intelligence community. And right now the intelligence community is being told that what they say doesn’t matter, or that it’s biased, or that it’s partisan, and those criticisms cut to the core of the whole reason for the existence of the intelligence community. That is, to be outside of the political process, to be expert, so your opinions do matter, and then to be able to inform political leaders in a way that gives leadership a decision advantage. That’s the mission of the intelligence community. And if the President-elect is saying that those things aren’t true, then there’s no reason for the intelligence community to exist. That’s why the most significant criticism that can be levelled at an intelligence professional is this idea that they’re biased.

In the short term, if the president just ignores the intelligence community that’s obviously extremely dangerous, because the decisions won’t be made based on the facts. But in the long run, you can actually have an impact on the intelligence community itself. So that a young person coming out of a graduate program decides instead of going to the CIA, I’m going to instead go to Goldman Sachs, and make a lot more money anyway.

For now, what I experienced at the National Counterterrorism Center, out of the thousand or so people there, across the board there were just incredibly talented, mostly young people, who could’ve gone to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, but wanted to go fight al-Qaida. And it was enormously gratifying to walk into a briefing room and have these people who were just incredibly talented and dedicated. And I’m concerned that one of the impacts of the latest controversy over the Russian hacking starts to undermine the fact that the intelligence community can continue to recruit and retain the most talented thinkers in the country.

In the past couple of weeks have you heard anything specific about the way people in the agencies are reacting?

I’ve talked to a few people who are in leadership positions in the intelligence community. And they have confirmed what seems obvious from my position on the outside: that these are difficult times. And people are wondering: What’s it going to be like in six months or a year? Is my job going to matter? Is the work I do going to matter? And I think the leadership is trying to encourage people that this is just campaign talk, and not how the government will operate in six months.

Yet in my own view, I am looking for some sign that’s true. … One could just chalk up some of these disparaging statements about the intelligence community to campaign rhetoric. But the problem is that that rhetoric and that discourse haven’t changed much since the election. And I think if you search you won’t find hard evidence on which to base a view that it’s going to change in the next six months or a year. … I think President-elect Trump had an opportunity after he received the briefing [January 6] from the leadership of the intelligence community to make an unequivocal endorsement of the views they expressed, which reflected the clear consensus of the community about Russia’s role in hacking during the election. And he did not take that opportunity. And now only belatedly has he seemed to accept this analysis. That sends a negative message to the professionals in the intelligence community.

What about the annex with unsubstantiated allegations about President-elect Trump that was given to him with that report about Russian operations? He has criticized the intelligence community, and even accused them of leaking the dossier. Is it unusual for the agencies to provide that kind of dossier along with a far more documented and measured intelligence assessment?

It would appear to me that the intelligence community leaders had little option here but to advise the President-elect about the existence of this information. It’s necessary for leaders to have an awareness of information like this, even if it’s unconfirmed.  And it is the responsibility of the IC to inform policy makers of any information that may be relevant to national security. The context is obviously important, and the reports are that the briefing for the President-elect placed this in the proper context.

What do you make of the reports that the Trump administration is considering overhauling the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)?

I think that would be a mistake. The DNI, after ten years, is serving an invaluable role overseeing the intelligence community. Particularly under Director [James] Clapper’s leadership, it has come into its own as a leader of the disparate elements of the intelligence community. That said, it’s perfectly appropriate for the administration to take a hard look at the DNI to ensure that it is fulfilling the role that Congress envisioned when the DNI was established over 10 years ago. … What happens in the context today during the Trump transition, it’s seen through the lens of: What is Trump trying to do to gut the intel community? … So I think it took on a more significant dimension because of [Trump’s] disparaging of the intel community. The fact that Trump nominated [former] Senator [Daniel] Coats is a good sign. He’s a serious guy and has been a significantly constructive voice on the Senate intelligence committee. … I don’t think you would put Coats in to carry out the dismantling of the DNI.

What’s your view of the national security team the President-elect has put together?

I think the national security team that Trump has put together has some very strong elements. Particularly General [James] Mattis, [for secretary of defense], and General [John] Kelly, [for secretary of homeland security]. And then in terms of experience, Senator Coats at DNI and Representative [Mike] Pompeo, [R-Kan., for director of the CIA] they both have strong intelligence experience and national security experience.

What’s your impression of the reaction at the CIA to the naming of Rep. Pompeo?

I think there’s optimism within the agencies both at DNI and CIA that two former members of [congressional] intelligence committees, who have an appreciation for the importance of the work they do, will have strong and deep respect for the workforce. From my perspective, having members of oversight committees is good for understanding that there are limits on intelligence agencies from a privacy and civil liberties and human-rights perspective. I would expect that given their background they would bring an important appreciation of those limits and even of the role of the rule of law in constraining those agencies when they have got enormous powers.

How do you square what seem to be reasonably well-chosen, respected, talented individuals the President-elect has nominated with his critics’ view that he has a rather cavalier, careless attitude towards the intelligence agencies and things like facts and accuracy? You have to judge him by his choices at this stage, and you and others see these nominees as good choices.

The reality is, as much as we elect new political leaders to occupy the White House, at the level of national security there is a high degree of consistency from one administration to another. I was in the Justice department in the Bush administration and then the Obama administration. And sure, there were changes that President Obama put in place in our counter-terrorism policy, but there was also a fair amount of consistency.  I think we should expect and welcome consistency now. Because so much of what we do in our security doesn’t have a partisan dimension. It’s not political … how we view our enemies. What the threats are. The tools we use to go after those threats. Those are largely non-partisan questions.

So when you look at the people that President-elect Trump has surrounded himself with, I think they reflect — in Mattis and Kelly and Coats and Pompeo — the fact these issues are not fundamentally partisan questions. I think that’s how I would explain how I see a relatively talented and experienced set of leaders in this area. There are a lot of good experienced people who are out there who are Republicans.

What are you concerned about in terms of the main challenges the intelligence agencies face, and how the tone President-elect Trump has set could affect those challenges?

The challenges for the intelligence community, at least in the terrorism context, are ensuring that the White House and policymakers have a very fine-grained, sophisticated understanding of the nature of the threat. Where does it come from? What groups are involved? How does it affect American interests overseas? What’s the nature of the threat here in the United States? Because a lot of decisions will be made about how we are going to counter that threat based on our understanding of the severity and nature of threat.  To have that appreciation requires that the intelligence community have a voice at the table, first of all …

Then it requires policymakers, including the president, to be engaged on a sustained basis. It’s not really a tenable approach for the president to fail to have consistent engagement with the intelligence analysis that’s being provided. The statements that the President-elect made about only needing to know when something important has happened reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about how to gain a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of world events. They don’t happen just out of the blue. They happen over time. You need to be getting that consistent infusion of intelligence, if not daily, multiple times a week, to understand when something has changed. Or when something important is happening.

At the end of the day, the president is accountable for protecting American security and making decisions that put American lives at risk. … And the only way to make those decisions is to truly understand at a very deep level and on a consistent basis the nature of the intelligence that is being provided. You need to have a foundation of understanding that’s based on what’s happening day-in and day-out, not when the threat has gone to the highest level. Or, worst-case scenario, the day after there’s an attack.

So that leads to my second-biggest concern, which is broader than just the intelligence community: how does the government react if there’s an attack in the United States? Particularly one on the scale of the ones we’ve seen over the last years in Paris and Brussels. And what sort of policies will flow from the Administration in the aftermath of a serious attack? So I’m concerned about the possibility, given the rhetoric from the campaign, that we will make significant mistakes in overreaching both in how we look at Muslim Americans in this country, and steps to add detainees to Guantanamo, and law enforcement action that reflects the campaign rhetoric of the idea of rounding up people or conducting unwarranted surveillance in the Muslim American community.

I was in Europe recently talking to counter-terror officials. Some of them predicted that the campaign rhetoric about Muslims could worsen radicalization in the United States. Is that something you are worried about?

Definitely. One of the things we’ve been very successful at in this country over the past 15 years, since 9/11, is making it clear that our counterterrorism efforts did not reflect a war on Islam or [the idea] that Muslims don’t belong here in this country. That’s been a fundamental tenet of our counterterrorism policy. One, because it’s just the right thing to do as Americans.  That’s who we are as Americans. But two, strategically we need the help and assistance of Muslim Americans as well as majority-Muslim nations around the world to take on this fight. And I am concerned that the rhetoric that has come out of the incoming members of the Administration, including the President-elect, feeds into a view that we are at war with Islam. And that is exactly the position that ISIS and other jihadist groups would like us to take. Because it’s consistent with their propaganda. It helps with recruiting and it alienates the people we rely on the most in some ways.

When you compare radicalization in Europe to here in this country, what do you see in the U.S. Muslim community?

We don’t have anything on the scale of radicalization in this country like what the European countries are facing. And that’s largely because Muslim-Americans are better integrated here, and it’s also because of what we stand for as a country in terms of diversity and pluralism. These are fundamental American values. And if we undercut those values by saying, for example, that “Fear of Muslims is rational” [a statement tweeted by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s appointee for national security adviser] we take a self-defeating position and one that is truly at odds with what we stand for as a country.

How does the rhetoric that our borders are weak and vulnerable to terrorists compare to your experience in government?

It’s a false impression that our borders are open to terrorists or that terrorists are using the refugee process to infiltrate the United States to carry out attacks here. It’s important that we be vigilant that people who come here do not pose a threat. And of course no system is going to be 100 percent effective, but the reality is that the vetting that takes place for people that are either visiting the United States, or certainly those seeking to come here as refugees, is extremely rigorous and careful. And it actually is in our interests to have a system where we allow those that are fleeing ISIS to come here and be welcomed by the United States because they really present the counter-argument to ISIS. They are leaving the so-called caliphate because of the violence. So there’s a message that we send not just to our allies but to our enemies that we are in fact not at war with Islam, and I think it serves our interests from a national security perspective.

This Administration has said they are going to get tougher on terrorism. What do you see them doing and what are the potential repercussions?

It remains to be seen what the new Administration does in terms of increasing the aggressiveness of our counter-terrorism policy. As the next Administration learns about the activities the government has been undertaking during the last eight years, they may decide that not much more can be done within the bounds of what’s legally appropriate, but also what’s strategically wise. Some of the areas I am concerned about include the potential to begin to add detainees at Guantanamo after all the progress that’s been made toward shutting it down. I am worried about that because it will rekindle Guantanamo as a source of propaganda by jihadists against the United States. And more importantly, perhaps, alienate our allies both in the Middle East and in Europe … and beyond Guantanamo, an area that I am concerned about is the treatment of Muslim Americans. And the rhetoric around barring Muslims from entering the country or creating some kind of registry. I think these are terrible ideas.

The idea of reopening Guantanamo to new detainees, which the President-elect has talked about, is an example of where the new administration has not seemed to learn the lessons of the past 15 years. … The fundamental lesson of detention after 9/11 has been that our American judicial system, federal courts and prosecutors are perfectly capable of bringing those individuals to justice. … To disregard that lesson is a grave mistake.

IMAGE: U.S. President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar

Obama Signs Defense Spending Bill, Criticizes Guantanamo Policy

HONOLULU (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law an annual defense policy bill, but in a lengthy statement he raised objections to parts of it, including policies blocking him from closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama pledged in his 2008 presidential campaign to close the military prison, but his efforts have been blocked by mostly Republican opposition in Congress. The Democratic president has instead reduced the population there by transferring prisoners to other countries.

The administration recently told Congress it would move up to 18 more prisoners of the 59 remaining at Guantanamo before Obama leaves office next month.

“During my administration, we have responsibly transferred over 175 detainees from Guantanamo,” Obama said in the statement on Friday. “Our efforts to transfer additional detainees will continue until the last day I am in office.”

President-elect Donald Trump, who will be sworn in on Jan. 20, said during the campaign that he would keep the Guantanamo Bay facility open and vowed to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

The $618.7 billion defense spending bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress this month was a compromise version that dropped controversial language requiring women to register for the draft.

But it kept some Republican-backed initiatives Obama had opposed. The legislation boosts military spending when there has been no similar increase in non-defense funding, and it bars closures of military bases even though top Pentagon officials say they have too much capacity.

House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said on Friday the legislation would give U.S. troops a pay raise and praised the Guantanamo language.

“This ensures that, right up until his last hour in office, President Obama will not be able to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States,” Ryan said in a statement.

Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush opened the facility to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas following the Sept. 11 attacks. Under Bush, the prison came to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to accusations of torture.

Obama has maintained for years that he considers “onerous restrictions” on his ability to transfer prisoners a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers between Congress and the executive branch. But he gave no indication he would try to override those restrictions.

Reflecting the growing migration of espionage and warfare into cyberspace, Obama also said on Friday that he favors splitting the U.S. Cyber Command, which conducts offensive operations, from the National Security Agency and making it independent, similar to the military’s European and Pacific Commands.

(Reporting by Emily Stephenson, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Mary Milliken)

IMAGE: U.S. Marines exit an amphibious assault vehicle during a simulated beach assault at Marine Corps Base Hawaii with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit during the multi-national military exercise RIMPAC in Kaneohe, Hawaii, July 30, 2016.  REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

Trump Seeks Another Retired General For Top Administration Job

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate a third retired general for a top job in his new administration with the choice of a battle-hardened Marine commander to lead the agency set up after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to protect the U.S. homeland.

Trump is expected to name former Marine General John Kelly, 66, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters on Wednesday.

In confirmed by the Senate, Kelly will be in charge of the agency tasked with securing borders against illegal immigration, protecting the president, responding to natural disasters, coordinating intelligence and countering terror threats.

Like Trump, Kelly is believed to hold strong views on stopping illegal immigration. The four-star general told a congressional committee last year that the lack of security on the U.S.-Mexican border represents a national security threat.

The former head of the military’s Southern Command, Kelly was responsible for U.S. military activities and relationships in Latin America and the Caribbean. He was a proponent of keeping open the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Kelly, whose son was killed fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, retired in January after a 45-year military career. CBS first reported that Trump would nominate Kelly to the position, which would put him in charge of more than 240,000 employees. Those include Secret Service and Border Patrol agents as well as the agency that clears refugees for resettlement in the United States.

Trump energized voters in the election campaign by promising to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in order to keep out Mexican immigrants he described as rapists and murderers.

In 2015 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kelly said people-smuggling activities on the southern border were a dire threat.

“Terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States,” Kelly said.

Such sentiments may have endeared him to Trump, who warned repeatedly during his presidential campaign of dangers from illegal immigration, and pledged to build a wall along the border and make Mexico pay for it.

The Republican president-elect, who has no military experience, also plans to nominate retired General James Mattis to lead the Pentagon and picked retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser.

MILITARY EXPERIENCE

Kelly served in Iraq several times, and in 2003 was the first Marine in more than 50 years to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general while in a combat zone.

In November 2010, his son, Marine 1st Lieutenant Robert M. Kelly, was killed in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, at the younger Kelly’s burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, his father said he preferred not eulogize his son.

Rather, Kelly said, he wanted to honor all those who enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks, ready to fight “an enemy that is as savage as any that ever walked the earth.”

Although Kelly’s military experience may give him insight into overseas threats like drug trafficking or Islamist militancy, he would face new challenges at an agency that oversees everything from airport security to protecting against cyber threats and responding to domestic security crises.

Kelly also questioned the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to serve in combat, and differed publicly with President Barack Obama over the Democrat’s attempt to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.

“There are no innocent men down there,” Kelly said of Guantanamo in a January interview with the Military Times newspaper.

The Republican-controlled Senate must confirm Kelly for the Homeland Security post. He would be the fifth secretary of the United States’ newest cabinet-level agency and the first to serve without a background in law.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Warren Strobel; Writing by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell)

IMAGE: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump appears with retired Marine Corps General John Kelly outside the main clubhouse after their meeting at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Exclusive: Obama Administration Not Pursuing Executive Order To Shut Guantanamo – Sources

The Obama administration is not pursuing the use of an executive order to shutter the Guantanamo Bay military prison after officials concluded that it would not be a viable strategy, sources familiar with the deliberations said.

The conclusion, reached by administration officials, narrows the already slim chances that President Barack Obama can fulfill his pledge to close the notorious offshore prison before leaving office in January.

The White House has said repeatedly that Obama has not ruled out any options on the Guantanamo center, which has been used to house terrorism suspects since it was set up in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Obama is eager to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close the prison and could still choose to use his commander-in-chief powers, but the option is not being actively pursued, the sources said.

Without executive action, the chances of closing the prison would hinge on convincing a resistant Congress to overturn a long-standing ban on bringing possibly dozens of remaining prisoners to maximum-security prisons in the United States.

White House lawyers and other officials studied the option of overriding the ban but did not develop a strong legal position or an effective political sales pitch in an election year, a source familiar with the discussions said.

“It was just deemed too difficult to get through all of the hurdles that they would need to get through, and the level of support they were likely to receive on it was thought to be too low to generate such controversy, particularly at a sensitive (time) in an election cycle,” the source said.

Republicans in Congress are opposed to bringing Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons and have expressed opposition to transfers to other countries over concern that released prisoners will return to militant activities. They have vowed to challenge any potential Obama executive action in court.

At its peak, the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba housed nearly 800 prisoners, becoming a symbol of the excesses of the “war on terror” and synonymous with criticism of detention without trial and accusations of torture. Obama has called it a recruitment tool for terrorists.

 

OPTIONS NARROW

The number of Guantanamo detainees has fallen to 80 now, the lowest since it was opened.

The administration is focusing on getting the number of detainees at the prison down to such a low number, perhaps 20, that the cost of keeping it open could prove unpalatable to Congress. Republican lawmakers remain unswayed.

The Guantanamo prison and associated military commissions cost $445 million in fiscal year 2015. That works out to more than $5.5 million a year for each of the 80 remaining prisoners.

Thirty of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo have been approved for transfer to foreign countries and the State Department says it will move all of them out this summer. Those who would be left include 10 being prosecuted in military commissions, and other detainees deemed too dangerous to release or transfer.

“The administration’s goal is to work with Congress to find a solution to close Guantanamo,” said Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

He said the government had made “substantial progress” moving prisoners to foreign countries and was working to identify more countries for additional transfers. Reviews to determine whether certain prisoners need to remain detained to prevent a threat to U.S. security had been accelerated and would be completed in the coming months, he said.

Obama, who issued an order to shut the prison within a year on his first day in office, released his latest plan to close it to Congress in February, but it has not gained traction.

The White House has not publicly ruled out the executive order option in part to keep pressure on the Pentagon to move prisoners who have been cleared for release to other countries, one of the sources said.

“If Congress … would finally say no to the president’s plan and the executive order option wasn’t on the table, there was a concern that the wheels could grind to a halt,” said the source familiar with discussions at the White House.

Gregory Craig, who served as Obama’s first White House counsel, said that without an executive order, Obama would likely need the cooperation of Congress to shut down the prison.

“I think the odds are probably challenging,” Craig said.

 

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Stuart Grudgings)

The United States flag decorates the side of a guard tower inside of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Camp VI at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba March 22, 2016.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo