Matthew Olsen, a senior national security official in both Democratic and Republican administrations, says the ongoing conflict between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community poses grave risks.
By Sebastian Rotella
Donald Trump’s nominee for the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12th, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The conflict between Donald Trump and the United States intelligence community could have profound repercussions.
We spoke recently about the issue to Matthew Olsen, who spent two decades working in senior posts in intelligence and national security for Democrat and Republican administrations. Olsen, 54, served most recently (from 2011 to 2014) as director of the intelligence community’s National Counterterrorism Center. Before that, he was the general counsel of the National Security Agency. In 2009, he was executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force for the Department of Justice.
A longtime federal prosecutor, Olsen has been an associate deputy attorney general overseeing national security and criminal cases; acting assistant attorney general for national security; chief of the national security division at the U.S. Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia; and a special counsel to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Last year, Olsen was a part-time volunteer adviser on national security issues to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Today, he’s an executive at IronNet Cybersecurity, a firm he co-founded, and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.
You’ve told me the worst thing someone can say about intelligence professionals is that they are partisan. So what is your impression of the mood in the intelligence community as a result of the criticism by the president?
I think it’s a dangerous moment. Because of how important it is for the political leadership of the country, up to and including the president, to have confidence in the information and analysis that we are getting from the intelligence community. And right now the intelligence community is being told that what they say doesn’t matter, or that it’s biased, or that it’s partisan, and those criticisms cut to the core of the whole reason for the existence of the intelligence community. That is, to be outside of the political process, to be expert, so your opinions do matter, and then to be able to inform political leaders in a way that gives leadership a decision advantage. That’s the mission of the intelligence community. And if the president is saying that those things aren’t true, then there’s no reason for the intelligence community to exist. That’s why the most significant criticism that can be leveled at an intelligence professional is this idea that they’re biased.
In the short term, if the president just ignores the intelligence community that’s obviously extremely dangerous, because the decisions won’t be made based on the facts. But in the long run, you can actually have an impact on the intelligence community itself. So that a young person coming out of a graduate program decides instead of going to the Central Intelligence Agency, I’m going to instead go to Goldman Sachs, and make a lot more money anyway.
For now, what I experienced at the National Counterterrorism Center, out of the thousand or so people there, across the board there were just incredibly talented, mostly young people, who could’ve gone to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, but wanted to go fight al-Qaeda. And it was enormously gratifying to walk into a briefing room and have these people who were just incredibly talented and dedicated. And I’m concerned that one of the impacts of the latest controversy over the Russian hacking starts to undermine the fact that the intelligence community can continue to recruit and retain the most talented thinkers in the country.
In the past couple of weeks have you heard anything specific about the way people in the agencies are reacting?
I’ve talked to a few people who are in leadership positions in the intelligence community. And they have confirmed what seems obvious from my position on the outside: that these are difficult times. And people are wondering: What’s it going to be like in six months or a year? Is my job going to matter? Is the work I do going to matter? And I think the leadership is trying to encourage people that this is just campaign talk, and not how the government will operate in six months.
Yet in my own view, I am looking for some sign that’s true. … One could just chalk up some of these disparaging statements about the intelligence community to campaign rhetoric. But the problem is that that rhetoric and that discourse haven’t changed much since the election. And I think if you search you won’t find hard evidence on which to base a view that it’s going to change in the next six months or a year. … I think Trump had an opportunity after he received the briefing [January 6th] from the leadership of the intelligence community to make an unequivocal endorsement of the views they expressed, which reflected the clear consensus of the community about Russia’s role in hacking during the election. And he did not take that opportunity. And now only belatedly has he seemed to accept this analysis. That sends a negative message to the professionals in the intelligence community.
What about the annex with unsubstantiated allegations about Trump that was given to him with that report about Russian operations? He has criticized the intelligence community, and even accused them of leaking the dossier. Is it unusual for the agencies to provide that kind of dossier along with a far more documented and measured intelligence assessment?
It would appear to me that the intelligence community leaders had little option here but to advise the president about the existence of this information. It’s necessary for leaders to have an awareness of information like this, even if it’s unconfirmed. And it is the responsibility of the intelligence community to inform policymakers of any information that may be relevant to national security. The context is obviously important, and the reports are that the briefing for the president placed this in the proper context.
What do you make of the reports that the Trump administration is considering overhauling the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)?
I think that would be a mistake. The DNI, after 10 years, is serving an invaluable role overseeing the intelligence community. Particularly under Director [James] Clapper’s leadership, it has come into its own as a leader of the disparate elements of the intelligence community. That said, it’s perfectly appropriate for the administration to take a hard look at the DNI to ensure that it is fulfilling the role that Congress envisioned when the DNI was established over 10 years ago. … What happens in the context today during the Trump transition, it’s seen through the lens of: What is Trump trying to do to gut the intel community? … So I think it took on a more significant dimension because of [Trump’s] disparaging of the intel community. The fact that Trump nominated [former] Senator [Daniel] Coats is a good sign. He’s a serious guy and has been a significantly constructive voice on the Senate intelligence committee. … I don’t think you would put Coats in to carry out the dismantling of the DNI.
What’s your view of the national security team the president has put together?
I think the national security team that Trump has put together has some very strong elements. Particularly General [James] Mattis, [for secretary of defense], and General [John] Kelly, [for secretary of homeland security]. And then, in terms of experience, Senator Coats at DNI and Representative [Mike] Pompeo, [R-Kansas, for director of the CIA] they both have strong intelligence experience and national security experience.
What’s your impression of the reaction at the CIA to the naming of Pompeo?
I think there’s optimism within the agencies both at DNI and CIA that two former members of [congressional] intelligence committees, who have an appreciation for the importance of the work they do, will have strong and deep respect for the workforce. From my perspective, having members of oversight committees is good for understanding that there are limits on intelligence agencies from a privacy and civil liberties and human-rights perspective. I would expect that, given their background, they would bring an important appreciation of those limits and even of the role of the rule of law in constraining those agencies when they have got enormous powers.
How do you square what seem to be reasonably well-chosen, respected, talented individuals the president has nominated with his critics’ view that he has a rather cavalier, careless attitude toward the intelligence agencies and things like facts and accuracy? You have to judge him by his choices at this stage, and you and others see these nominees as good choices.
The reality is, as much as we elect new political leaders to occupy the White House, at the level of national security there is a high degree of consistency from one administration to another. I was in the Department of Justice in the Bush administration and then the Obama administration. And sure, there were changes that President Barack Obama put in place in our counter-terrorism policy, but there was also a fair amount of consistency. I think we should expect and welcome consistency now. Because so much of what we do in our security doesn’t have a partisan dimension. It’s not political … how we view our enemies. What the threats are. The tools we use to go after those threats. Those are largely non-partisan questions.
So when you look at the people that Trump has surrounded himself with, I think they reflect — in Mattis and Kelly and Coats and Pompeo — the fact these issues are not fundamentally partisan questions. I think that’s how I would explain how I see a relatively talented and experienced set of leaders in this area. There are a lot of good experienced people who are out there who are Republicans.
What are you concerned about in terms of the main challenges the intelligence agencies face, and how the tone Trump has set could affect those challenges?
The challenges for the intelligence community, at least in the terrorism context, are ensuring that the White House and policymakers have a very fine-grained, sophisticated understanding of the nature of the threat. Where does it come from? What groups are involved? How does it affect American interests overseas? What’s the nature of the threat here in the U.S.? Because a lot of decisions will be made about how we are going to counter that threat based on our understanding of the severity and nature of threat. To have that appreciation requires that the intelligence community have a voice at the table, first of all….
Then it requires policymakers, including the president, to be engaged on a sustained basis. It’s not really a tenable approach for the president to fail to have consistent engagement with the intelligence analysis that’s being provided. The statements that the president made about only needing to know when something important has happened reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about how to gain a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of world events. They don’t happen just out of the blue. They happen over time. You need to be getting that consistent infusion of intelligence, if not daily, multiple times a week, to understand when something has changed. Or when something important is happening.
At the end of the day, the president is accountable for protecting American security and making decisions that put American lives at risk. … And the only way to make those decisions is to truly understand at a very deep level and on a consistent basis the nature of the intelligence that is being provided. You need to have a foundation of understanding that’s based on what’s happening day-in and day-out, not when the threat has gone to the highest level. Or, worst-case scenario, the day after there’s an attack.
So that leads to my second-biggest concern, which is broader than just the intelligence community: How does the government react if there’s an attack in the U.S.? Particularly one on the scale of the ones we’ve seen over the last years in Paris and Brussels. And what sort of policies will flow from the administration in the aftermath of a serious attack? So I’m concerned about the possibility, given the rhetoric from the campaign, that we will make significant mistakes in overreaching both in how we look at Muslim Americans in this country, and steps to add detainees to Guantanamo, and law enforcement action that reflects the campaign rhetoric of the idea of rounding up people or conducting unwarranted surveillance in the Muslim American community.
I was in Europe recently talking to counter-terror officials. Some of them predicted that the campaign rhetoric about Muslims could worsen radicalization in the U.S. Is that something you are worried about?
Definitely. One of the things we’ve been very successful at in this country over the past 15 years, since 9/11, is making it clear that our counterterrorism efforts did not reflect a war on Islam or [the idea] that Muslims don’t belong here in this country. That’s been a fundamental tenet of our counterterrorism policy. One, because it’s just the right thing to do as Americans. That’s who we are as Americans. But two, strategically we need the help and assistance of Muslim Americans as well as majority-Muslim nations around the world to take on this fight. And I am concerned that the rhetoric that has come out of the incoming members of the administration, including the president, feeds into a view that we are at war with Islam. And that is exactly the position that ISIS and other jihadist groups would like us to take. Because it’s consistent with their propaganda. It helps with recruiting and it alienates the people we rely on the most in some ways.
When you compare radicalization in Europe to here in this country, what do you see in the U.S. Muslim community?
We don’t have anything on the scale of radicalization in this country like what the European countries are facing. And that’s largely because Muslim-Americans are better integrated here, and it’s also because of what we stand for as a country in terms of diversity and pluralism. These are fundamental American values. And if we undercut those values by saying, for example, that “Fear of Muslims is rational” [a statement tweeted by Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump’s appointee for national security adviser] we take a self-defeating position and one that is truly at odds with what we stand for as a country.
How does the rhetoric that our borders are weak and vulnerable to terrorists compare to your experience in government?
It’s a false impression that our borders are open to terrorists or that terrorists are using the refugee process to infiltrate the U.S. to carry out attacks here. It’s important that we be vigilant that people who come here do not pose a threat. And of course no system is going to be 100 percent effective, but the reality is that the vetting that takes place for people that are either visiting the U.S., or certainly those seeking to come here as refugees, is extremely rigorous and careful. And it actually is in our interests to have a system where we allow those that are fleeing ISIS to come here and be welcomed by the U.S. because they really present the counter-argument to ISIS. They are leaving the so-called caliphate because of the violence. So there’s a message that we send not just to our allies but to our enemies that we are, in fact, not at war with Islam, and I think it serves our interests from a national security perspective.
This administration has said they are going to get tougher on terrorism. What do you see them doing and what are the potential repercussions?
It remains to be seen what the new administration does in terms of increasing the aggressiveness of our counter-terrorism policy. As the next administration learns about the activities the government has been undertaking during the last eight years, they may decide that not much more can be done within the bounds of what’s legally appropriate, but also what’s strategically wise. Some of the areas I am concerned about include the potential to begin to add detainees at Guantanamo after all the progress that’s been made toward shutting it down. I am worried about that because it will rekindle Guantanamo as a source of propaganda by jihadists against the U.S. And, more importantly, perhaps, alienate our allies both in the Middle East and in Europe … and beyond Guantanamo, an area that I am concerned about is the treatment of Muslim Americans. And the rhetoric around barring Muslims from entering the country or creating some kind of registry. I think these are terrible ideas.
The idea of reopening Guantanamo to new detainees, which the president has talked about, is an example of where the new administration has not seemed to learn the lessons of the past 15 years. … The fundamental lesson of detention after 9/11 has been that our American judicial system, federal courts, and prosecutors are perfectly capable of bringing those individuals to justice. … To disregard that lesson is a grave mistake.