House Intel Chair Nunes says U.S. spy agencies have been blindsided by Putin and the next president will need to be wary of Moscow.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
A senior Republican lawmaker has some advice for President-elect Donald Trump on dealing with his Russian counterpart: “proceed with caution.”
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump has been unfairly criticized for his stance on Russia and predicted the next U.S. president would show resolve with Moscow.
As a candidate, Trump had only friendly words for Russian President Vladimir Putin and steered clear of criticizing the Russian leader over Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in Ukraine or its air war in support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Trump refused to pin the blame on Russia over the hacking of the U.S. election and the Democratic party, even after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Moscow was behind the digital operation.
But Nunes, who backed the New York real estate magnate’s candidacy, said there was nothing out of the ordinary for Trump to be saying he hoped to find common ground with Moscow.
“Name a secretary of state or a president in the last 15 years who hasn’t said we are going to work with the Russians,” he said.
But Nunes said that forging a cooperative relationship with Russia required a clear-eyed approach, bearing in mind Moscow’s track record.
“My advice to Trump and his team is proceed with caution,” he said.
Trump’s upset electoral victory was greeted with applause in the Russian parliament and a senior Russian diplomat said that Moscow had maintained contacts with Trump’s team during the campaign. Supporters of defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton accused Russia of trying to undermine her candidacy by allegedly orchestrating the release of hacked emails of her aides and Democratic party officials.
Nunes, who was named Friday to Trump’s transition team, said he was angered by suggestions by some intelligence officials that Russia’s cyber hacking was aimed at skewing the election in favor of Trump, as it reflected a misunderstanding of how Moscow spy services operate.
“They’re trying to sow doubt in the world and with allies that the U.S. system is truly democratic and on the up to up,” Nunes said.
He added: “The truth is Trump’s going to be a lot tougher on Putin than Clinton ever would have been.”
The California congressman also accused U.S. intelligence agencies and successive administrations of consistently misreading Russian President Vladimir Putin and being blind-sided by Moscow’s actions.
“Our biggest intel failure since 9/11 is our inability to understand Putin’s plans and intentions,” Nunes told FP. “It’s been a huge intelligence failure. But it’s also been a civilian side of government failure too.”
Trump’s election coincides with rising tensions between Washington and Moscow not seen since the Cold War, as Putin has broken with convention and linked nuclear weapons issues to other unrelated disputes.
Nunes said the Trump White House will be inheriting “a very dangerous world” including the spreading threat of Islamist extremism, a fragile global economy and China’s bid to assert control over the South China Sea. But he said the president-elect has already surrounded himself with two capable minds on national security in Mike Flynn, the retired Army general who worked in military intelligence, and Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and federal prosecutor. “Those are two guys that are really solid.”
Both Flynn and Giuliani have accused the Obama administration of failing to recognize the scale of the danger posed by Islamic State and of downplaying the strength of al Qaeda’s terror network.
“I’m totally convinced that, without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated, and very likely destroyed” by Islamist militants, Flynn and co-author Michael Ladeen, an outspoken neoconservative, wrote in their book released this year, The Field of Fight.
Flynn was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014 after a clash with Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and other officials over budgets and his attempt to reorganize the DIA. Flynn had wanted to push more of the agency’s analysts and operators into the field and his plans rankled some inside the service.
Trump’s election has caused consternation among officials working in the country’s spy agencies, because of his casual dismissal of their findings on Russia and other countries and his vow to bring back waterboarding and other interrogation methods outlawed by Obama and widely condemned as torture.
Nunes, however, played down the possibility that a Trump administration would revive waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were introduced after the 9/11 attacks under the Bush administration.
“I think first off, you got to be real careful reading too much in what a first time candidate for office says,” Nunes said.
“As president-elect Trump begins to get classified briefings, and builds a good team, he’ll be able to address a lot of those topics better.”
The new administration is expected to name a new director at the Central Intelligence Agency as part of its new team but it’s unclear if the next White House will keep in place a sweeping reorganization launched last year by the current director, John Brennan.
Brennan’s “Blueprint for the Future,” unveiled in March 2015, is meant to tear down bureaucratic walls between operations officers who handle spies in the field and covert activities, and analysts who evaluate information for policymakers in Washington. The reform effort also created a new Directorate of Digital Innovation, which is designed to take into account the impact of new technology on intelligence gathering. But Brennan’s changes have gotten a mixed reception inside the agency, and some lawmakers have been skeptical.
Nunes said “there’s been some really good things that have been done” with the reorganization, particularly the digital directorate. “But any new CIA director will have to go in and evaluate what’s working and what’s not.”
Over the past year, Nunes and other Republican lawmakers clashed with the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command over allegations that intelligence assessments on the fight against Islamic State were being watered down to convey a more positive picture of the situation in Iraq. Nunes in February accused the Pentagon of obstructing and slow-rolling a congressional inquiry into the allegations. The Defense Department’s Inspector General office is conducting an investigation into the case and has yet to release the results.
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