Some 500 audience members filled the ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Wednesday night, despite chilly rain and a Game 7 of the baseball World Series featuring the city’s own team. But the conversation they came for was well worth it as four former members of the federal intelligence community weighed in on current and past foreign interference in U.S. elections.
The program was the first of a series presented by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at the Schar School of Policy and Government called “2020 Vision: Intelligence and the U.S. Presidential Election.” The 90-minute panel discussion featured former CIA director John O. Brennan, former CIA acting director and deputy director John McLaughlin, former acting director and deputy director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, and Michael Morell, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA and now a distinguished visiting professor at the Schar School.
Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” moderated the discussion and began with Brennan who admitted, “I’ve learned a lot since leaving government.” Among other things he’s learned, he said, the Russians are using “subversive efforts to destroy democracy.” Later he added, “If [the Russians] can shape the outcome of elections in Western countries, they have the toolkit.”
He also suggested that Hillary Clinton’s suspicion that third-party presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is being “groomed” as a Russian asset to complicate the 2020 election might not be entirely incorrect.
Each panelist said they had not yet been invited to testify in U.S. Attorney John Durham’s criminal inquiry of the handling of the Russia interference probe. The Trump administration has threatened to level criminal charges on former high-level officials, including intelligence analysts, who participated in the investigation.
“I have deep concerns about the justice department looking at analysis,” said Morell. “To have the Justice Department look at CIA analysis and come to the conclusion on whether or not the analysts did the right thing is inappropriate. The Justice Department does not understand how we do analysis. I’m concerned about this because analysts at the CIA who have been or will be talked to will have to hire lawyers. Analysts will have to fear hiring a lawyer because of a political issue.”
To that, McCabe quickly addressed the audience, requesting any future analysts in the audience to not be dissuaded from pursuing a career in intelligence.
“There is no better life than one in the service to others,” McCabe said. “If you are one who is compelled to serve the community and the country, you should do that. You will find a community of people who are diverse. Despite what I have been through, I would do it all over again.”
The Durham probe, McLaughlin said, “discourages analysis and risk-taking.” He described intelligence analysis as “taking ambiguous information in incremental amounts and making daily judgements.” The threat of having to explain the process for making judgements is a dangerous practice, he said.
As for the Trump administration’s apparent distrust of the intelligence community, Morell said the recent death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “negates any argument.” The al-Baghdadi case “was a beautiful intelligence success,” he said. “Why would the intelligence community give [Trump] the gift of al-Baghdadi if intelligence is the ‘Deep State’?”
If there was a conclusion to be had it was that the Russians are having impacts not just in U.S. elections, but elections around the world, and they’re getting better at it.
“We need to ensure that the digital playground is not an environment that undermines this country’s democratic foundations,” Brennan said.
One solution, said McLaughlin, “paper ballot backups. It’s the only safeguard against tampering with votes.”
As compelling as the conversation was, a highlight was the first public speaking appearance of former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, the center’s namesake and a distinguished visiting professor at the Schar School who is recovering from a stroke he suffered nearly a year ago, who thanked the audience for coming.
The complete discussion is available on C-SPAN 2.
Additional reporting by Dixie Downing.