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Trump Chides Intelligence Officials In A Bid To Play To His Base

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Donald Trump says the senior-most intelligence officials in the country are, quote, "naive." That's his word. In fact, he said on Twitter, they are wrong, and suggested that they should, quote, "go back to school." The president made those remarks about his own intelligence officials the morning after they testified about global threats on Capitol Hill. The group included Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who said North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN COATS: Its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival. Our assessment is bolstered by our observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.

MARTIN: That is contrary to what President Trump has said about North Korea and the threat it poses in the past. Trump posted to Twitter that the North Korea relationship is, quote, "the best it has ever been." John Sipher spent 28 years in the CIA's National Clandestine Service and joins us in our studios this morning. Thanks for being here, John.

JOHN SIPHER: Thanks - my pleasure.

MARTIN: We have gotten somewhat accustomed to the president lambasting members of his own team. But from your vantage point, what are the consequences when he so directly and publicly contradicts and insults his top intelligence officers?

SIPHER: (Laughter) Well, there's certainly a problem if you insult your own leaders because they are responsible to their workforce. And they have to - I mean, and the intelligence community's a bright line. You can't skew intelligence. You have to provide truth to power. And therefore, they're doing their jobs. And the people that work for them expect them to do that. So that if - if the president challenges on that - them on that over and over, it makes it harder for them to do their jobs.

MARTIN: It also, I imagine, doesn't send a great message to our friends - allies or otherwise - globally when you see the president so publicly diverging from the facts on the ground.

SIPHER: Well, the president seems to be diverging also from, you know, the Republican congressmen and many of the policies put out by his own administration. And the intelligence that our leaders provide is often informed by our allies providing their intelligence to us, too. So they're doing their best job to lay it out clearly for people. And if the president disagrees, that's certainly fine. There is a bright line between policy and intelligence. And intelligence professionals understand that.

MARTIN: The intel officials directly contradicted the president on North Korea, as we noted - also about the threat from ISIS. President Trump has said that threat has been contained, which is not the consensus of the intelligence community. Does that affect practically how the United States deals with the terrorism threat? Or will the intel chiefs just work around him?

SIPHER: Well, the intel community will continue to do their job. They'll continue to provide intelligence. That's what they do. For many years - you know, if policymakers choose to do things different, that's fine. Intelligence is just but one input into the policy-making process. However, when you attack the intelligence process, it really puts pressure on those chiefs with their workforce.

MARTIN: Do you get the sense that these leaders are feeling freer to counter the president's false claims about national security issues and threats? I seem to remember Dan Coats, in a previous hearing, walking a line more carefully than he did just the other day.

SIPHER: I don't know if they're freer. I think they're doing their jobs. They really don't have much of a choice. The culture in the intelligence community is professional. It's to provide intelligence to policymakers even if it's inconvenient. And so they don't have much of a choice. If they don't do that, they really are hurting themselves with their workforces, with their legacy, you know, inside. So I think they're just doing what they have to do.

MARTIN: How are the rank and file in these agencies dealing with this? Do they just block out the noise? Or does it start to chip away at morale?

SIPHER: Well, over time, it's got to chip away. And it makes you worry about your bosses if the bosses are being attacked. But, you know, frankly, these institutions are pretty resilient. The people - they like their jobs. They take it seriously. They will continue to provide intelligence - unvarnished intelligence. But nonetheless, you know, the president is sending a signal around the world that he has his own views of things and that he doesn't really - is not comfortable taking advice.

MARTIN: Is America less safe because the commander in chief disagrees with the director of the CIA?

SIPHER: (Laughter) No - well, not necessarily. I mean, the issue here is the president can think what he wants. But the adversaries get a say, right? The biggest problem, really, is not the disagreement here. But it's the president's unwillingness to explain his policy. He's attacking people, but he's not dealing with the substance here. If he truly believes differently, he should make it really clear why he believes the things he believes. But he just - chooses not to do that for some reason.

MARTIN: John Sipher, former member of the CIA's National Clandestine Service. Thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

SIPHER: Appreciate it - thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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