What Michael Flynn’s communication with Russia means for national security

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's been less than a month since Donald Trump took office, but already there are numerous reports that the National Security Council, which advises the president on key foreign, military and intelligence issues, is in disarray.

The leader of the NSC, retired Army General Michael Flynn, has come under increasing criticism for his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the U.S.

We turn now to Leon Panetta. He served as the director of the CIA and secretary of defense during the Obama administration. He also served as White House chief of staff for President Clinton. And David Sanger, he covers national security for The New York Times.

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

David Sanger, I'm going to start with you.

You and your colleagues at The New York Times wrote a pretty remarkable story yesterday about — well, you can't use any words other than disarray, chaos, inside the National Security Council. Given that, and the events of today, where do things stand?

DAVID SANGER, The New York Times: Well, I think that everybody in the National Security Council is wondering when they're going to begin to get to what the council is supposed to be doing, which is coordinate among the different agencies of government, bring in intelligence, debate policy.

And several things have gotten in the way of doing that, Judy. The first is that, as you reported before, General Flynn has been under this cloud and investigation. And now we hear just a little while ago that President Trump and Vice President Pence are considering his fate, that just an hour after we were told that he's got the president's full confidence.

The second thing that is going on is that the staff itself is a little bit paranoid right now. They know that Mr. Flynn has talked about starting an insider threat program. That seems to them to be an invitation for their e-mails to be monitored, their cell phones to be watched. We don't know that any of that is going to happen, but it gives you a sense of the mood.

And the third thing is that many of the people on the NSC, this body that is supposed to coordinate all this different policy, come from the agencies, and they feel as if they have been frozen out. And yet there is no one above them who has got a clear job responsibility.

So I would say that, for an operation that is supposed to run like a business, it's not running much like a business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there's a lot to tackle there.

But, Secretary Panetta, I want to go first to the fate of Michael Flynn, the general who is the president's national security adviser. As we have been reporting and as David just said, the president himself issued a statement through his press secretary tonight saying that he's talking to the vice president about what to do.

Is what General Flynn reportedly did, talking to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before President Trump takes office about what to do about Russian sanctions, is that something that is just off — should be, frankly, off-limits for someone in his position, advising the president-to-be?

LEON PANETTA, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: Well, there's a lot for the president and the vice president to consider here.

I think first and foremost is, one of the principal qualities that you need as national security adviser is trust, the trust of the president. And that depends on truth and it depends on honesty. And if, indeed, the national security adviser didn't tell the truth to the vice president, and the vice president in turn went out to the American people and said that he had had no such conversations with the Russian ambassador, I think that's a serious matter, and one for them to think seriously about.

With regards to the substance of what was discussed, you know, it's hard to tell exactly what these conversations were about. I think it is of concern in terms of judgment for somebody who is not in a position of power to raise the sanctions issue. I think the sanctions issue in general is a terrible mistake to even imply that we would withdraw from those sanctions.

But I guess more seriously here is the issue of just exactly what was discussed. And those issues are under investigation, both by the FBI, as well as the Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Secretary Panetta, let me stay with you, because while we wait to learn the fate of General Flynn, what David Sanger and his colleagues are reporting on is the situation inside the National Security Council, the staff. Is that typical for the early days of a new administration?

LEON PANETTA: No. No, it certainly isn't.

I think the other quality that a national security adviser must have is the ability to set up procedures. Look, he's an adviser. He's staff. He's not the president of the United States. His primary responsibility is to set up the procedures that would allow the deputies to meet, the principals to meet and the National Security Council in order for them to move forward recommendations to the president of the United States, who makes the final decision.

As far as I know, none of those processes have been put in place. We're almost a month into this administration. We're dealing with a number of crises around the world. I think this is a very dangerous moment not to have those procedures in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Sanger, what more have you learned about why these procedures aren't in place, why there is still so much uncertainty on the part of people working for the National Security Council?

DAVID SANGER: Well, I think part of it, Judy, is that what we're seeing happen here is an administration that came in saying that it would destroy the status quo, that it got elected to do something different. And it has brought in people who it deliberately chose for the fact that they were outside Washington.

But that meant that they didn't have around them the people who understood how the system worked. And so you saw General Flynn come in, I think, without much of an understanding, though he had run the Defense Intelligence Agency, of how this coordinating role came together.

And, you know, people who know the NSC well talk about the days when General Brent Scowcroft ran it for George H.W. Bush, when others familiar with how these organizations are supposed to come together, how you build a staff, as Secretary Panetta did at the CIA and as chief of staff.

And I think most of these folks have come in without that experience, and then they brought in Cabinet members who largely came from the business world, bring a refreshing, different view to this, but also have no sense of how the system is supposed to run.

So, the basics, running deputies committees to make decisions and run those up to the principals, aren't happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

Secretary Panetta, what are the risks in a situation like this?

LEON PANETTA: Well, you're running terrible risks.

We saw a little bit of that over the weekend with the North Korean missile launch and what seemed to be the inability of the White House to respond definitively to what had happened.

Those kinds of crises are going to happen. We're dealing with a number of crises, whether it's ISIS, whether it's Iran, whether it's North Korea, whether it's Russia or China, cyber-attacks. There is a whole array of crises out there. If you don't have a mechanism in the White House that is able to deal with those crises in a thoughtful and careful way, in order to move options to the president, then you're going to have a very hit-and-miss operation, the kind that we're seeing now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Sanger, I know this is speculation, but if there were someone to come in to replace Michael Flynn if he is removed, how much difference would that make, based on your reporting?

DAVID SANGER: Well, it depends on who it is, whether you bring in somebody else who might have the confidence of the president, but not understand the NSC procedures, or whether you bring in somebody who has done this before, but might not fit in well with that inner team around the president.

And, of course, the most important thing for an NSC adviser is to have the trust of the president. So people have named, for example, Steve Hadley, who was the national security adviser under George W. Bush in his second term and had been experienced in things like this. There are a few other Republicans around who have also had that experience.

But none of them have connections to Mr. Trump. And Mr. Trump seems to be mostly impressed these days with people who have had either military experience — most of the senior directors he has appointed on the NSC come from the military — or have been very successful in business.

And neither of those two backgrounds, necessarily, help you with what the NSC does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly to Secretary Panetta, new person comes in, can that turn things around quickly?

LEON PANETTA: If that person has experience in terms of how the NSC is supposed to operate, then I think you can put in place the procedures that are required to do.

But that person is going to have to have the trust of the president first and foremost. And, if he has that, or she has that, it can work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Leon Panetta, David Sanger, we thank you both.

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