News War [site home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Site Map
  • Discussion
  • Part 1
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Watch Online

john mclaughlin

McLaughlin's career at the CIA spanned three decades and culminated with stints as deputy director of central intelligence from 2000-2004 and acting director following George Tenet's resignation in 2004. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 19, 2006.

... When you hear of a leak, ... what's your reaction? What do you and your colleagues do?

Well, the director of central intelligence ... has a legal responsibility to protect intelligence sources and methods. In a sense, the head of the intelligence community has no choice when a leak occurs, if it appears to threaten sources and methods of intelligence collection, [but] to file a crimes report. These were filed quite frequently when leaks occurred, really almost automatically. ...

Did you have a meeting where you review these things?

Typically a meeting on something like that would not come up to the director or the deputy; typically we would be informed that the event had occurred, and the general counsel had filed a crimes report. On something of extraordinary importance there might be some discussion of it, but for the most part, this is just part of the business. ...

Does the CIA consider that by filing a leak investigation, it may confirm the classified information is true? …

Yeah, that's very interesting. I think that's the dilemma you face in filing a crimes report, because by implication you're saying something of a classified nature that has at least a core of truth to it has been leaked, and therefore you want it investigated. ...

“If there's another big terrorist attack, ... are the people who put these programs out going to troop up to the Hill with the leaders of the intelligence community and take some responsibility for what happened?”

I don't think that I would think of the leak investigation confirming every single detail that's in the report that has offended here. I would say to someone, "Well, there's enough there," without explaining exactly what it was to justify an investigation. But in many cases, the information that is in the paper or in some unauthorized spot is only partially correct. ...

Before we started the interview, you mentioned that there were the three big cases, the three big leaks. ...

I spent most of my time as deputy director on counterterrorism, so the leaks that got my attention were the leaks of the NSA [National Security Agency] monitoring program, called by many the terrorist surveillance program; the leak of the [terrorist financial tracking] program managed by Treasury and CIA, called SWIFT; and the program involving the handling of CIA detainees [in secret Eastern European prisons]. ...

The reporters in the NSA eavesdropping story say they didn't reveal any sources and methods; what they revealed was a program that had questionable legality. There was no warrants under the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], and that's what they reported; they didn't report how the NSA was doing it.

Well, we can't settle the legal issues here; I'd be wasting your time and tape if I went through all of that. ... I think intelligence officers, particularly those working on counterterrorism, feel this more acutely than other people because they're involved in a war that is not on television every night. It's not like the Iraq war. ... It's essentially an intelligence war, and not many people understand how it works. So when you see programs that have been instrumental in allowing you to capture terrorists and break up terrorist networks and, arguably, to keep the country safe, it offends greatly. ...

It isn't that specific sources and methods are revealed in great detail. It's that terrorists now know a great deal about what we do. People say to me, "Well, don't they know we monitor them?" Well, of course they know we monitor them, but do they know how good we are? ...

Today the secrets we want most are probably held by a few dozen people in remote areas, so getting to those secrets is extraordinarily difficult. All of these tools in the counterterrorist tool kit are essential, and that tool kit is now diminished. ...

... There were two different [NSA eavesdropping] articles. There was an article that revealed the program in general, and then there was an article that revealed that there were switches in phone companies in the United States that handled all of the traffic. What I had heard was people were very upset about the second, much more so than the first.

Of course, because the second of the two articles revealed techniques that were being used to monitor traffic. Even the first article, which talked in general about the limitations that had been removed from NSA, would tell terrorists, "Look, if you're counting on your understanding of the American system and how it operates to give you some sort of protection, as you had during the period when you had 19 hijackers in the United States, that probably isn't working anymore." ...

Is there any empirical evidence ... that the publication of the NSA eavesdropping story caused Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group to change what they were doing?

Well, I had left government by then, but I know enough about how terrorist groups operate to know this: They will tighten their security. They'll make it harder by some degrees for us to get at them. ...

Everyone's always talking about connecting the dots; these are the dots, and the number of dots we have to work with has increased exponentially since 9/11 as a result of programs like this. You might get from one of these programs nothing more than the name of an individual. ... You then go to other programs. You go to a detainee. You go to some of your human sources. You work the system. You pulse all of your sources. ... Eventually you put together a picture.

That's what you get from these programs: You get fragments, shards of things that ultimately form a picture. And to the degree that terrorists tighten up in their transactions, their communication and their security, you will get fewer of those things. ...

So are you objecting to the classified nature of the program being revealed or any program of the CIA or the intelligence community being revealed? ...

I understand what you're saying, but it's the fact that you have extensive public discussion. You have hearings, you have reporters chasing every aspect of the story trying to bring out more and more about it.

Take the SWIFT program, for example. I could see absolutely no reason for revealing any aspect of that program. There was nothing questionable legally about it. It was tightly overseen. It was independently audited. ... I don't know that it served any interest other than tipping off terrorists that you'd better be careful how you move your money. ...

And the detention system that the CIA was using to hold high-value detainees, revealing that did damage as well?

I think in the long run it will be seen to have done damage.

Because?

There are two ways that these revelations do damage: First, they give terrorists an insight into what we're doing to take them down; and second, in the case of the revelation of the detention program, it tells other countries that even though you've put yourself on the line, even though you have trusted the United States to keep secrets, those secrets can't be kept. ...

This is an ongoing problem the CIA has complained about for decades, that this kind of reporting damages its ability to get cooperation overseas.

Right. Part of the problem here is ... that I don't know that the sense of threat is as deeply and fully shared in the United States as it is within the counterterrorism community itself. And I understand that, because not everyone is sitting there every day reading all of this material. ...

Much of this work is prosaic. Much of it is not the stuff of CIA movies. You hear about the high-profile events: the capture of a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the capture of a Ramzi bin al-Shibh. But you don't hear about, and most people aren't interested in, the less dramatic things that take place: the arrests of couriers, computer people, terrorist operatives who aren't doing front-line work but who are doing some small thing that contributes to the integrity of a terrorist network. ... It's that kind of work that ultimately disrupts and keeps this movement off balance. ...

So anything that limits U.S. secrecy, agility, capacity to respond, capacity to penetrate ultimately rewards this movement. We will continue to have success, but it will be harder as a result of the leaks that we've seen. That's my personal conviction. ...

Let me read to you what Len Downie, the executive editor of The Washington Post, told us. ... These leakers, as we're told and we were told the same thing in eavesdropping case, "were concerned about what was happening to the United States."

These are large, contentious issues, and this is a war unlike any we've ever fought, not well defined and not well understood. People are entitled to have different views and to differ with the way it's been done. ...

What I would say to people who have gone to reporters ... is there are other outlets. There are two intelligence oversight committees in Congress who welcome people coming in with points of view or concerns or grievances. ... There are inspectors general independently confirmed by the Congress in most of these agencies, certainly at the CIA. There is an ombudsman at the CIA. I have seen these outlets work for people. ...

The other thing is these programs were not freelancing; these programs were tightly overseen. They were briefed to the Congress. They were run through the Department of Justice. They were inspected by inspectors general. They were not programs that were in some sense out of control.

In fact, one of the striking things in all of the press articles, particularly in the articles on the NSA program and the financial tracking program, is that there was precious little, if any, evidence presented of abuses in the program. They struck me as more articles about the programs that said, "Look what's going on here." Yes, there was an argument that was made about legality, but that's yet to be settled in the case of the NSA program. I think ultimately it will be settled in favor of those who think the program was within legal bounds, but I'm not qualified to say that. ...

But had the story not been done, we wouldn't be having this discussion today. ... We wouldn't be having the discussion about whether it's legal or not.

Yeah. To me it's reasonable at this point in what everyone says will be a long war for people to stand back and say: "If we're going to be doing this for a long period of time, are we doing it the right way? We've been doing it five years. It's been pretty much no holds barred." ...

So there has been some good from the articles?

Let's not paint this in black and white. I think there's some merit in the public discussion that the articles have stimulated, but I regret that it had to come about in the way it did; that is, that it had to be displayed in a way that allows terrorists to get inside our programs and ask exactly how we're doing these things. ...

There's merit in the United States deciding at this point: Where does it want to be on this spectrum from security to privacy? At the end of this whole debate, perhaps we will know better as a country where we want to be.

So you are saying that there is some public interest benefit that has taken place despite the fact that you would have stopped these leaks if you could have.

There's some public interest benefit that's taken place, but the counter-terrorism effort has also been set back. Life isn't simple.

Not in a democracy.

Not in a democracy. ...

But did that happen in part because, as you put it, there was this emergency after 9/11, there was no holds barred? You go to the congressional committees and you talk to many of the members; they were not briefed.

I think after 9/11, intelligence officers felt uniquely responsible for preventing anything like that happening again. When the hammer came down on Afghanistan -- a combined covert action and conventional military operation -- Al Qaeda scattered, and it went to places like the Pakistani urban areas, to Yemen, to other parts of the Gulf; some to Southeast Asia, some to Europe. ... Only intelligence officers could go after them. ...

As a result, I think because we were successful in so many cases, and because some of these techniques that we've discussed were instrumental in our success, you can understand why intelligence officers worry when they are brought out in the midst of great public controversy and extended discussion about the specifics of them, with everyone chasing all of the details.

It's like a surgeon having his instruments blunted. And imagine if there's another big terrorist attack, something on the scale of 9/11. Are the people who put these programs out going to troop up to the Hill with the leaders of the intelligence community and take some responsibility for what happened? Is anyone prepared to do that? ...

Right. We have congressmen saying this; we have senators saying it; we have writers saying it and others saying it: that here is a place where there should be a criminal prosecution, in particular of The New York Times, because of this story.

I think the way to handle this is not through criminal prosecution of newspapers. I think the way to handle this is for there to be some sort of a conclave of senior figures in journalism with senior figures in the government, to include particularly those with counterterrorism responsibilities, to have a discussion about where the boundaries ought to be and why. ...

Len Downie, again: "We [do not] want to knowingly harm human life or knowingly harm national security. ... Many times that claim is made by the government" -- that is, that we're going to damage national security -- "simply because they want to avoid embarrassment." Is it possible that you didn't want it to become public because it didn't go through the FISA court? ...

I don't think so. No, I agree with Len Downie that that's a judgment newspapers have to make. ... And I will say this: In every one of these cases, I think the newspaper editors gave the case a fair hearing, and then they have to make a judgment.

I don't think in the case of these programs the principal concern had anything to do with embarrassment. I think it was genuinely concern that we had a program here that was helping us to catch terrorists, and we didn't want to lose any of that capability. I really think that. ...

... People inside the government became leakers, it appears, because they have no place to vent their concerns internally, despite the alternatives that you say existed institutionally -- inspectors general and so forth. That seems to be the reality. You wouldn't have these leaks unless that was true.

Well, I don't know that that's the case. I guess my wish is that there had been a way for the U.S. government executive branch and congressional branch to sit down and have this discussion within channels in order to figure out whether we were doing everything as we should be doing it.

Part of the problem here is that I think congressional oversight does not work as well as it should. It's not that Congress was ignoring these programs or [was] complacent about them; it's that the oversight mechanism kicks in mainly when there's a problem.

For example, on the recent leak of a National Intelligence Estimate [NIE], I bet most people on the Hill hadn't read it until it leaked. The way it should work is that there should be more no-fault discussions between the congressional oversight committees and the intelligence community. ...

I'm not claiming that works well. I'm just saying there is a system here which, if properly managed, could stand back and take a reasonable five-year view at how we're doing this. I don't know that that worked or didn't work. I don't accept the judgment that there's no place to go. I really don't. There are places to go within the system, including, and I would start with, Congress. ...

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + parts 1 + 2 + part 3 + part 4 + join the discussion + producer chat
site map + press reaction + dvd/vhs & transcript + credits + privacy policy + journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

posted feb. 13, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo illustration copyright © entropy media
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation