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Why trust is essential between the president and intelligence community

January 4, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
President-elect Donald Trump has routinely taken a skeptical stance toward the U.S. intelligence community. As the release nears of a report on alleged Russian hacking in the U.S. election, Judy Woodruff gets views from James Woolsey, senior advisor to the Trump Transition and a former CIA director, and Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel to the CIA.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we explore the widening rift between the president-elect and the intelligence community.

After we recorded the Brennan interview yesterday, Mr. Trump tweeted: “The ‘intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday. Perhaps more time need to build a case. Very strange!”

Well, that briefing, it was widely reported, was always scheduled for Friday.

For more on this divide, or what appears to be a divide, we turn to James Woolsey. He was the CIA director during the Clinton administration. He is now at Booz Allen,* a major defense contractor, and he is a senior adviser to the Trump transition. And Jeffrey Smith, he’s a former general counsel at the CIA. He currently serves on the Department of Defense Legal Policy Advisory Board.

And we welcome both of you to the “NewsHour.”

So I’m going to start with you, James Woolsey. These tweets that we’re quoting from Donald Trump are just the latest in a series of statements he’s made dismissing either the CIA or the intelligence agency. What does he — you’re advising the transition. What does he really think of the professionals in the intelligence community?

JAMES WOOLSEY, Senior Advisor to Trump Transition: I think he’s got an open mind.

I think we need to have some things take place which haven’t taken place yet. He needs to get to know the top people in the agency. I think they need to go the extra mile in order to present things to him in a way that he wants. He doesn’t want the morning briefing, apparently. Well, neither did Bill Clinton when I was director of central intelligence. He read the briefing and asked questions sometimes.

So there’s not any one way to do that. But the point is that they need to find out what will help him get into this very important job quickly and effectively and plan their presentations that way, rather than complaining, frankly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Smith, what do you make of what we have heard, really just a stream of critical comments by Donald Trump about the intelligence community, the CIA and the rest of it?

JEFFREY SMITH, Former General Counsel, CIA: I find them deeply disturbing and potentially very dangerous.

They’re disturbing because he seems to be saying, I don’t trust the intelligence community.

And I don’t know quite why he believes that. We all understand they have made mistakes in the past, but I think they have also understand how important it is to get it right. So I think he’s prejudging them a little bit.

And I think they’re dangerous because he’s set in motion all kinds of potential conflicts down the road and some uncertainty with our allies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It may go further than criticism. We are just tonight seeing, literally just in the last few minutes, Jim Woolsey and Jeffrey Smith, a report in The Wall Street Journal that a source close to Donald Trump, the Trump transition, is saying that he’s looking at restructuring the entire intelligence community, frankly, overhauling the CIA.

Is it your understand understanding that that’s what he may be up to?

JAMES WOOLSEY: There’s been talk about this not just within the Trump transition, but around the community now for some months, verging into years.

Part of the reason is that the director of national intelligence, which does the sort of chairman of the board job that used to be done by the director of central intelligence, as well as managing the CIA, that sort of chairman of the board job was done more or less by 18, 19 people when I was director back in the ’93-’94 time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JAMES WOOLSEY: It’s now done in one way or another by 2,000 or 3,000.

And there has been a huge surge in numbers of people in the community as a whole, not just at the CIA, and I think they’re going to, understandably, take a look at that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jeffrey Smith, we don’t know — again, this report just came out by The Wall Street Journal, and the person, the source is not named. But what would an overhaul like that mean?

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, I agree with Jim.

If the size of the ODNI staff could be reduced and streamlined, I think that’s good. It has become overhead that is largely unnecessary. And the story also suggests that CIA should do more in the field. I think that’s probably right.

But I also think that it’s wise for an administration to come in and take the measure of things before they start reshuffling everything, because a huge amount of effort would be spent on reorganizing things at a time when that energy would be better spent, it seems to me, on addressing the crises that exist in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I want to come back, Jim Woolsey, to what Donald Trump has been saying. He’s siding — frankly, appears to be siding with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks over the CIA, pretty much dismissing the CIA and the entire intelligence community finding that the Russians were behind this hacking of the Democrats during the election.

Do we have any precedent for an incoming president of the United States having this much disregard for the entire intelligence community?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, I don’t know that it’s disregard. It certainly is raising issues. There’s no doubt about is that.

Donald Trump does that in his own way. He raised issues in a way that turned out to be very successful for him politically, got him elected president of the United States, when virtually everybody that he talked to said you can’t raise issues that way.

So I think we all need to take half a step back and look at the fact that he handles things like this differently than a lot of other people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me stop and ask Jeffrey Smith.

What Jim Woolsey said a few moments ago was that the intelligence community needs find another way to come to Donald Trump. If he doesn’t like the way the current briefings are structured, they need to find another way to do it. Could that be a solution here?

JEFFREY SMITH: That could help. However it’s done matters less than they need to convince the president, their new boss, that they can be trusted.

And he needs to work to develop their trust. This has to be a mutual understanding of trust between both sides, because there’s going to be some crisis very early in the administration, and the president is going to rely on what he hears from the intelligence community. And if he has been saying before he became president that they can’t be trusted, what does he say to the American people now that I’m relying on them to make recommendations to take action?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jim Woolsey, I think that’s the question, because if something comes up and Donald Trump has declared that he doesn’t trust the CIA, what does that mean?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, I think those — some things like that can be surmounted by spending some time together and so forth. I don’t think that’s the main problem.

The main problem is that I think the entire leadership, not just the president-elect himself, but the entire leadership in the national security area needs to realize that one of the most important things you’re going to do in this job is deal with crises of one sort or another.

And in crises, it has historically been the case that almost always the first reports are wrong. You cannot deal with them by making a quick judgment based on the first things that you hear, even though they sound — if they sound reasonable.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is one example of something that was taken off of a non-occurrence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That sounds like a warning to the incoming administration.

What other advice would you have, just quickly, Jeffrey Smith?

JEFFREY SMITH: Mr. Trump has had an extraordinary business career, but dealing with sovereign states with nuclear weapons is fundamentally different than building a golf course in Scotland.

He has to understand that he has huge responsibilities. He has to be extremely careful about what he says. He has to listen to those terrific professionals in the intelligence community, the diplomatic community, the military community. They have to begin to trust him, and he has to begin to trust them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Smith, Jim Woolsey, we thank you both.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Good to be with you, as always.

JEFFREY SMITH: Thank you.

*Editor’s Note: James Woolsey is no longer a partner at Booz Allen, contrary to what was stated on the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday.

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