Counterterrorism Expert Richard Clarke On Trump's Relations With Intelligence Agencies

19 hours ago
Originally published on February 17, 2017 7:15 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been four days since national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign. That is four days when the president has been without the person on his staff who oversees the U.S. response to national security threats.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, granted, there's a fill-in. But if you consider the White House's own account here, the president lost trust in Michael Flynn as national security adviser on January 26, which is when he found out that Flynn had misled the vice president, which means the president has effectively been without a trusted national security adviser for almost a month.

MARTIN: President Trump blames Flynn's departure on intelligence leaks, which is deepening the divide between the White House and the intelligence agencies that he's supposed to rely on.

Here's the president in his press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves, really ashamed.

MARTIN: To talk more about this, we're joined by Richard Clarke. He led counterterrorism efforts for presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Mr. Clarke, thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD CLARKE: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: President Trump is again attacking the intelligence community, this time for leaking the information that forced him to fire Mike Flynn. What's your sense as to how this is playing inside the CIA and other agencies? Are they dismissing the president's ire, or is it doing real damage?

CLARKE: Well, I think the national security agencies across the board - State Department, CIA, Defense Department - the career staff there are appalled. They've never seen this level of disorganization. They're not sure who to trust in the White House or whether they can trust anyone there at all.

MARTIN: Does the White House's account of Mike Flynn's dismissal make sense to you?

CLARKE: The whole thing doesn't make a great deal of sense. I mean, here we have Mike Flynn, the former director of Defense Intelligence, who should have known that every conversation the Russian Embassy makes on public telephones gets tape-recorded, and yet he has many conversations with the Russian ambassador and then lies to the press and to the vice president about what was said on those conversations - thinking perhaps that they weren't recorded, thinking perhaps that someone wouldn't see the difference between what he said in public and what he said in private. It's very hard to believe.

MARTIN: The president insists that Flynn wasn't dismissed because of the content of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. It was that he breached this trust with the vice president. But if he was just doing his job, why did he have to mislead the vice president in the first place?

CLARKE: Well, there's a prior question, which is - was he acting on instructions when he talked to the Russian ambassador? Or did he just do it on his own? He's not the kind of guy, from what I know, that would do something like that on his own. He's usually used to operating in the bureaucracy where he takes orders. So I think the real question here that has to be asked to Flynn at some point is - did the president order you to do this?

MARTIN: Although, we should say, the president in his press conference insisted that Mike Flynn was acting on his own. I want to ask you - the president acknowledged also that there is a Russian spy ship sitting off the coast of Connecticut right now. A Russian aircraft recently buzzed a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea. Russia has also deployed a new cruise missile that could be in violation of an international treaty. How do you interpret those actions by Russia right now in this moment?

CLARKE: I see Russia being very aggressive overall. They're even interfering now in the French election and the German election. I think they're being aggressive because they think the United States won't do anything about it. They think the president of the United States is a friend who wants good relations with them and won't call them when they get more aggressive in Ukraine, which they've done since the president came into office. And I think they're quite confident that the United States won't complain about their interference in the German and French elections.

MARTIN: What are you basing that on?

CLARKE: So European officials across the board are saying that they're seeing Russian intelligence agencies hacking into political parties; that they're using bots, fake identities on social media, to spread and propagate disinformation to affect their election outcomes. This is happening in France every day. It's happening in Germany. And we're seeing reports from other countries of Russian hacking, including Norway and Poland and of course Ukraine.

MARTIN: There are congressional investigations happening right now out of Capitol Hill about Russia's interference in our political system and potential connections between the Trump campaign and then the administration and Russia. Do you think there needs to be an independent panel called to look into all this?

CLARKE: I think either a special prosecutor or an independent commission - a nonpartisan commission - including experts in Russia, experts in cyber - should participate together and give the American people an answer that they can trust. I'm not sure the American people will trust the answer of a bunch of elected politicians. And frankly, that's what the Senate and House intelligence committees are.

MARTIN: When you were at the White House, your job was to communicate clearly to the president the threats of terrorism. You did this for three different presidents. Are you concerned that the dysfunction at the NSC, the National Security Council inside the White House, is making it difficult for the professionals there to do their jobs?

CLARKE: Well, I think it is. I think it definitely is. The professionals there feel that they're on thin ice. They don't know how long they're going to be there. So the system actually isn't working. And I hope we get somebody in there who is a professional and we get somebody in there fast because there could be a crisis at any time. And it is the National Security Council's system - its principles committee and its deputies committee - that are the command and control coordination function for all of our national security agencies.

MARTIN: Former White House counterterrorism adviser and cybersecurity expert Richard Clarke, thanks so much for your time.

CLARKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.