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How the intelligence community views the dangers of domestic extremism

With President Trump's looming impeachment trial in the Senate, some are asking what kind of access he should have to intelligence briefings after leaving office. Susan Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss whether Trump should be cut off after leaving office, insider threats in the military, and political appointments at the NSA.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, Nick, you have also been talking to folks in the intelligence community about how they see this threat. Tell us what they are saying.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this is a particular problem for the intelligence community, which, of course, on normal basis, cannot actually look into or target Americans.

    But it does know that it needs to help confront this challenge.

    And to discuss that, earlier today, I had a conversation with Sue Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence from 2017 to 2019. And we talked about not only the insider threat, but also the state of the intelligence community at the end of the Trump administration.

  • Sue Gordon:

    Sue Gordon, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    From where you have sat inside the intelligence community, how big of a threat is the so-called insider threat?

  • Sue Gordon:

    Great to see you, Nick.

    The insider threat is always the most daunting and the most difficult, because you have people who are ostensibly trusted.

    They have access to information that helps them in their intention. And, in general, we don't have as many systems as we might looking at our own people. So, insider threats are particularly insidious, and when they are effected, can be incredibly damaging.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think the U.S. government has done a good job when it comes to domestic extremist extremism? And, as you just suggested, does there need to be some kind of structural reform in order to deal with this kind of threat?

  • Sue Gordon:

    I think domestic extremism is a particularly challenging issue, number one, from an intelligence perspective.

    Remember, our intelligence community doesn't typically or statutorily look at U.S. citizens, so you don't have the advantage of that craft in the way you might for other threats, to just our Constitution, the rights of citizens.

    And then, if law enforcement is the lead, law enforcement needs some sort of predicate. You have to have done something. And so if nothing is manifest, it's difficult.

    Do I think that we need a moment of considering how we're going to deal with this threat that looks like it's going to be with us for awhile? Yes, I think you almost need a 9/11 Commission kind of activity. It's got to be a combination of FBI. It has to include DHS. And you have got to find a way to bring intelligence or the craft of intelligence into it.

    And I done think that's in one organization right now. You know, as an old intelligence hand, there are elements of this that remind me of the rise of Islamic extremism and what it looks like. And there are probably a fair number of lessons that we learned in the fight against foreign terrorism that can be applied here and some lessons that we probably don't want to apply.

    So, you have to get some of the people that know about extremism. And we need to bring it to bear domestically, because this is just one of those issues that must be addressed, because it's not just a fly-by-night activity right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to expand out to the state of the intelligence community.

    In the last few days, Michael Ellis a Trump loyalist an political aide, was installed into the career and crucial role as counsel general of the National Security Agency. And a U.S. official confirms to me that President Trump came very close to installing Kash Patel, another loyalist, into CIA as deputy director.

    And that would have led to Gina Haspel's resignation, making Kash Patel the acting director of CIA. What is the impact of those moves?

  • Sue Gordon:


    So, first, think about what intelligence really is. It is a discipline that is — while it is responsible for assisting policy determination and assisting policy execution, it is independent from policy. And you get into trouble when you start trying to use intelligence either to be shaped by or to influence policy directly.

    And so, given that backdrop, when you put in people who appear to be politically motivated, the risk you run is that they will pursue an action without the foundation of understanding what the impact is.

    And, again, intelligence is a pretty arcane craft. You don't want to just declassify things because you want to tell a story. You have to understand the impact, the impact on sources and method. You have to understand what part of the story you are telling.

    And so what happens is, if you put people who appear to be political into these kind of positions, the American people, who have given a lot of authority to their intelligence apparatus, can worry about whether they can be — they can trust that those authorities will be protected.

    So, that has nothing to do with Michael or nothing to do with Kash. That is a whole different issue. But when you start mixing politics with the craft of intelligence, you run the risk of politicizing this very independent discipline.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You raise the word declassification.

    Let me ask you about a specific declassification that administration officials admit to me is still being debated even just two days before inauguration. And that is the declassification of material that could reveal sources and methods when it comes to Russia's interference in 2016, what President Trump believes would benefit him politically.

    What would be the impact if that material is declassified?

  • Sue Gordon:

    So, it depends on what the material is.

    So, you go through a pretty easy conversation to have. Number one, what I would say to the American people is, the American people do actually have access to all of the information in the intelligence community. We're a representative republic. The Oversight Committees have access to all the information we have.

    So, it is not that it is being hidden. The question is, does it need to be made unclassified? The second is, what purpose is being served? Because there is always a cost of declassification. Sometimes, it's really good. Election security. A lot was declassified to try and show that threat. But it has to be done purposefully.

    And then the last thing is, which pieces of intelligence are you going to declassify? What part of the story are you going to tell? Do they stand alone? Is it data that has credibility? And so you just can't do this casually. And it should never be done for other than the nation's purpose.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I have been told that the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, has resisted that particular attempt to declassify.

    Has she been right to resist?

  • Sue Gordon:

    I have known Gina a long time. There is no more steely-eyed professional.

    She would absolutely feel her responsibility and execute it to the best of her abilities, both working to be responsive to the president — because, remember, the CIA has a very special relationship with presidents over history. And she would want to make sure that, no matter what pressure she's under, she is using her knowledge of the cost and the benefit to be able to weigh that out.

    But the same answer I gave before is, it is not that information can't be shared with the president. He could receive any information. The question is, is there advantage in making piece parts in the raw available to the public?

    And my guess is, is that she is weighing it out, her responsibility and the interests of the president. And she has come down on this side.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When it comes to intelligence, there is also the question of a former president getting it.

    You wrote this weekend in The Washington Post that, after inauguration, President Trump should be blocked from receiving security briefings that other former presidents typically receive.

    This weekend, Biden's incoming chief of staff said that they would consider that.

    Why do you think it's necessary?

  • Sue Gordon:

    So, I wrote it from the perspective of an intelligence assessment, just looking at the security profile of this president, at this time, with his stated intentions to potentially run for office, to do business overseas.

    And this isn't a time that you necessarily have to give him more access to classified information, because there are those who would try and do him harm. And the neat part is, I think I'm seen as relatively nonpartisan even since departure. So I hope it had a weight to it.

    And the second is, all I was advocating was using the traditional standard of need to know. And my assertion is, I don't think this president needs to know at this time. If he does in the future, the administration can grant it then.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sue Gordon, thank you very much.

  • Sue Gordon:

    Thanks, Nick.

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