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A new CIA director, hired to boost morale at an agency reeling from leaks, is immediately confronted with a problem that could not only bring down his career—it could also threaten the country’s national security. The agency has been hacked; its secrets exposed. To solve the crisis, the new director puts his trust in a young, tech savvy agent to help him understand the underground world of internet anarchists. If this new novel sounds like it comes straight from the headlines, that’s not surprising. The author of the book “The Director” is Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who has been covering the CIA for more than 25 years. David Ignatius joins Diane to talk leaks and cyber espionage—both real and imagined.
- David Ignatius Columnist, The Washington Post, and contributor, "Post Partisan" blog on washingtonpost.com. His new novel is "The Director."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from The Director: A Novel by David Ignatius. Copyright © 2014 by David Ignatius. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This week marks the one-year anniversary Edward Snowden revealed to the world the NSA's surveillance program. In the latest novel by The Washington Post David Ignatius, he draws on his reporting on the CIA to imagine an intelligence community reeling from those very leaks and trying to understand the new world of cyber espionage.
MS. DIANE REHMDavid Ignatius joins me in the studio to talk about his new novel. It's called "The Director." David Ignatius is a columnist at The Washington Post. He's covered the Middle East and the CIA for over 25 years. And he's a regular guest on this program. You can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome back, David.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSGreat to be here. Thank you, Diane.
REHMWell, and, you know, I've been waiting for this book for quite a while. And I'm very excited to have it here in front of me. Before we begin talking about it, however, I'd like to ask you about this prisoner exchange. Five members of the Taliban were traded for a young man, Bowe Bergdahl of Utah, who has been held for five years. Tell me a little about this story. Do we actually know whether this young man walked away from his military base without permission, walked into Afghanistan, and was captured? It's a very murky story.
IGNATIUSIt is. And we'll really only know the full details after the excessive debriefing that Bergdahl is having now. What we know from his military colleagues who served with him in Paktika Province in Eastern Afghanistan is that one day -- I believe it was in June 2009 -- he did walk off base. It's not clear why he did that. It's not clear where he thought he was going. But he was off base.
IGNATIUSAnd then an extensive hunt to try to find him -- because people assumed in that Taliban-infested area of Afghanistan he would quickly be captured -- began. And his colleagues fanned out to form checkpoints, tried everything they could to keep him from being taken into Pakistan. He's now been -- you know, it's five years since he walked away. Again, we don't know why. Did he get lost? Was he confused? We just we don't know.
REHMAnd there's been a great deal of criticism of President Obama for having carried out or approve this exchange, feeling as though, number one, it should have been done with congressional approval, number two, it opens the door for the Taliban to simply take more hostages.
IGNATIUSWell, the first thing I would say is that this should not have surprised anyone. The proposal to exchange these five very dangerous, very serious Taliban captives of Guantanamo for Bergdahl has been in discussion, has been in the newspapers, has been widely known. The first discussions about it go back to November 2010 when the Taliban opened up a contact secretly with the United States.
IGNATIUSBut then there were a series of three or four meetings that Mark Grossman, who was the special representative for Afghanistan, had in which, in every case, the release of these Taliban detainees and the simultaneous release of Bergdahl was discussed. It -- this was viewed, I have to say, not as a prisoner swap in and of itself, but as a confidence-building measure on the way to what the Obama Administration hoped would be broad discussions with the Taliban about some sort of peace settlement.
IGNATIUSThat settlement hasn't happened. We're left with the confidence-building measures only. What makes this controversial now, I think, are two factors. First, the five people who were being released, in terms of their records, are very serious and dangerous people. Sen. McCain said something yesterday to the effect that these are the toughest of the tough or the baddest of the bad. Whatever you -- how -- want to put it, these were Taliban military commanders.
IGNATIUSThey were the deputy chief of intelligence for the Taliban. There were two people who specifically were involved in facilitating Taliban activities with al-Qaida, from what I know. So -- but, again, the names have been well known. There was written into law by Congress a requirement that the secretary of defense sign off on release of prisoners from Guantanamo. And that was in part an effort to keep the White House from doing something that, under Secretary Panetta, was judged unwise.
IGNATIUSSecretary Panetta and Adm. Mullen, then the chairman of the joint chiefs, it's my understanding, thought that these people were just too dangerous to release, that the risk to our soldiers in Afghanistan was too great. There's a new secretary of defense. Secretary of Defense Hagel did sign off on the release.
IGNATIUSThe Obama Administration decided to override the requirement in the law for 30-day notification of Congress, believing that it had to act urgently, or the opportunity to bring this young man home would be lost. And I think we have to take that seriously. We'll know a lot more in coming days. I think the honest reason that they overrode the 30-day requirement is they knew that Congress probably would have said no.
REHMAnd the leader of the Taliban -- or one of them today is saying, it's a great victory for the Taliban.
IGNATIUSWell, that's inevitable, you know, that people always characterize things like this, prisoner swaps, in the terms most favorable to them. I don't think that should concern Americans. We do have a tradition of trying to get our wounded warriors, our captives, home. And Bowe Bergdahl, whatever the circumstances of his initial departure, was somebody listed as a -- but now is a staff sergeant for the United States Army. And I know that the chairman of joint chiefs, Martin Dempsey, felt strongly. We -- I have an obligation as chairman to bring our soldier back.
IGNATIUSSo military takes that seriously as you'd want them to. The -- I think the issue finally is what safety precautions will be taken in gutter where these five people are now arriving to ensure that, as promised, for the next year, they can't travel. And then I think, in addition, to satisfy people's concerns, there are going to have to be additional assurances that these people, you know, on the 12th month and first day aren't going to be back out killing Americans again. That would really upset people. So those are issues that I have no doubt we will have an extensive congressional debate about.
REHMAnd one further question, were you somewhat confused by the father statement about his son's helping the Afghan people?
IGNATIUSI was, Diane. But this is one of those situations where I just feel that I need to know more to make a comment. I just I didn't know what to make of that. And there's so many pieces of this that I don't understand. There's a lot of speculation going on. And unless -- and the things I know something about, I'll always want to talk about with you. In this case, I would just be speculating. I don't want...
REHMAnd, of course, then Susan Rice said on television that one of the reasons to move or override this 30-day requirement of congressional approval was that Bowe Bergdahl was sick.
IGNATIUSYes. They've seen videos that made them worry that malnutrition, perhaps other diseases that you would likely get at being held captive in these remote, difficult areas, had afflicted him. Again, I think until they do a real medical exam, they won't know. But looking at the videos -- and you can see pictures of him, and your heart goes out. This is obviously a person who's in extremis. You know, I think the final thing that we learn that is probably important going forward is that the Taliban is more coherent as an organization than we might have thought.
IGNATIUSThe faction of the Taliban that's been holding Bergdahl is thought to be the county network, which is extreme and sometimes is thought to be separate from the so-called Quetta Shura, which is headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar. And that's who we've been negotiating with. And we have had a direct channel to Mullah Omar now for several years in secret. And there was always a question, did Mullah Omar have the clout to deliver Bergdahl being held by another group. Turns out the answer is emphatically, yes, he did.
REHMAnd what about these trust-improving measures? What are we looking for there?
IGNATIUSThe Obama Administration, I think, sensibly has always has said emphatically since February 2011 under Secretary of State Clinton, this war can only be ended satisfactorily with a political settlement. It will not be ended on the battlefield. There is no battlefield victory where we hoist a flag, the Taliban lowers a flag, and it's over. It's not going to be like that. My last novel before this, called "Blood Money," was really about how wars end in this part of the world.
IGNATIUSAnd they're -- you know, they have a lot of wars, but they also were pretty good at ending them through very ritualized formal processes that allow each side to hold its head up. So you could say this is a confidence-building measure that maybe has built some confidence. Maybe it's no accident that President Obama said last week at West Point -- I think unwisely, but he said it -- all U.S. troops will be gone by the end of 2016.
IGNATIUSMaybe the Taliban feels that that satisfies what's been one of their negotiating demands. Maybe that opens the way for further discussions as a new government comes in. The U.S. has always said, this has to be Afghan to Afghan. Well, we have a new president, probably Abdullah Abdullah, who's, you know, clearly ready to sit down with the Taliban, if we could facilitate that conversation.
REHMDavid Ignatius of The Washington Post. And when we come back, we're going to talk about his new novel. It's titled "The Director." Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, David Ignatius of the Washington Post is with me. He is a columnist there. He's been covering the CIA and the Middle East for more than 25 years. His new novel is titled, "The Director." And, David Ignatius, this is about American intelligence in the digital age. And here we have the anniversary of Edward Snowden and his huge revelations about the NSA. How did you get started on this topic? Was Edward Snowden one of the tipping points for you?
IGNATIUSThe strange fact is that I got started on this book in early 2012. I don't know what Edward Snowden was doing back then, but he certainly hadn't gone public. He may have still been a hardworking NSA contractor.
IGNATIUSBut the reason that I got to work on this subject was it seemed obvious to me, as somebody's who's written about intelligence over many years -- this is my ninth spy novel -- that the traditional themes of spy novels, and indeed of intelligence -- deception, penetration of the enemy, manipulation, surveillance -- were all going digital, that in the typical spy novel these are people in trench coats walking around.
IGNATIUSToday, they're people who are systems engineers. They're, you know, they're people who come up on the technical side. And that, as I say in the book, that this whole realm is going into zeroes and ones, it's becoming digital. And in the digital world, every image that you have, that intelligence service collects is subject to manipulation. You have pictures of places that can be altered. You have voices that you capture that can be changed. You have, you know, every kind of surveillance data that could be manipulated.
IGNATIUSOne real challenge for intelligence agencies is they think about sending their deep-cover agents across borders, in a world where you have biometric scans, where your fingerprints are taken, where your iris is photographed. Can you get into the database of country X, and for long enough that your agent can get through the country under a different alias, manipulate that database so that the anomalies, the discrepancies are not obvious?
IGNATIUSAnd that's the kind of challenge that intelligence services face today. So I got really interested in it, began working on it. In the middle of this along came Edward Snowden with a fantastic…
REHMEdward Snowden, wow.
IGNATIUS…fantastic story that we're still trying to understand, still front-page news. You know, for a while I worried that real life was so much more interesting than my novel, but, you know, I hope that I've captured a couple of things in this book. First, the collision between our traditional intelligence culture and these new technologies and people. You know, it really is -- it's like a maelstrom, these two coming together.
IGNATIUSThey're a lot of creative possibilities, but as we see in part of the NSA scandal, I think, is mixing the kind of traditional bureaucratic secrecy of these large intelligence organizations with the hacker culture. Which says, you know, if you can take it down, do it. And…
REHMWell, and that's the part of "The Director" that fascinates me. It's wickedly convoluted, both in human terms and in terms of who is spying on whom and how the intelligence is used. One never knows whom to trust in this book.
IGNATIUSWell, that's -- I'm glad you said it. That's what I wanted as a novelist, is for the reader to be uncertain as to the bona fides, the intentions of most of the characters until the very end of the book when it's resolved. And, you know, I think -- I like to read books like this. And I've always found that what gets me to turn the pages if I really don't know for sure how it's going to turn out. And I'd be surprised if people know for sure or think they know for sure how this story will turn out.
REHMWell, and that brings us back to real life, because Brian Williams recently interviewed Edward Snowden. And I would like to have your impressions of that interview, how Edward Snowden came across. You had Secretary of State John Kerry sort of trashing the interview and belittling Edward Snowden. You had other people in high places not giving him very much credit.
IGNATIUSJust -- I want to answer that, but first say, to state the obvious, this is -- the book I've written, "The Director," is a novel. And people should understand that it's about the themes that arise in the Snowden case, but there's no Edward Snowden in it specifically. It's a post-Snowden novel. Snowden events have happened -- they're referred to -- the characters are separate.
IGNATIUSWatching the Brian Williams interview, I was struck by several things. First, public relations, his image is really important to Edward Snowden. You know, he wants to be seen as a patriot. He wants to be seen as somebody who's done good, who's served the Constitution. He wants to be seen as a serious intelligence officer. He was offended at the idea that he was seen as low-level technocrat. "No, no, no. I was -- I had this identity. I did this for the CIA. I did that for the United States."
IGNATIUSSo that was interesting. It was interesting to me that, in a way, I thought he was opening what his lawyers must hope will be some kind of plea negotiation with the federal government that would allow him, perhaps, to come back to the United States from Russia. And either plead to a reduced charge or be promised a sentencing report by the prosecutors that would argue for some leniency or an agreement, as he suggested -- if I understood this right in the interview -- a short prison term.
IGNATIUSThat has very quickly been denounced by Secretary of State Kerry most specifically. And I think the government is still reeling so much from these revelations that the idea of making it a deal that makes it easy on Snowden just really is upsetting to officials. Why are they so upset? We can see some benefits in terms of our privacy as American citizens from the reforms that look like they're going to be enacted into law fairly soon.
IGNATIUSYou know, in the year after Snowden's disclosures. And those changes will mean that instead of the NSA holding our metadata for five years, phone companies will hold it for one to two years. They won't give it up unless there's some kind of court order. And it's not exactly clear how that'll work. There'll be limits on how many jumps they can make to other suspects.
IGNATIUSBut they say, and I think most people would think this is a good thing, that they'll still have the ability if some terrorist overseas, somebody they have identified as a dangerous person, is making phone calls to contacts in the U.S. they think they'll still have the ability to figure out what the heck is going on. And most people, including me, would want them to have that capability. I want my privacy, but I don't want the country to be vulnerable.
IGNATIUSThe damage that was caused by Snowden is much harder for people like us to assess. We hear General Mike Hayden, who used to be head of the CIA and the NSA, yesterday on the "Face the Nation," was emphatic he has caused, you know, irredeemable, irreparable damage. "I can't tell you how bad it is." So if people won't make that clear, it's tough for people like, you know, not in the intelligence community to evaluate it.
IGNATIUSBut I, you know, it does makes sense. These are -- this looks like the equivalent of a code break, where these very precious secrets about how you read the other guy's mail, you know, what your most valuable is, we've seen in periods of conflict the Enigma code break during World War II, the famous Venona code break during the Cold War. Two of the most important events really in those conflicts. And there are elements of what Snowden seems to have leaked that would show our ability to read other people's encrypted messages.
REHMTwo questions for you. First off, did you find Edward Snowden believable? Did he truly have the jobs he claimed to have had or should he be discounted, as Secretary of State Kerry said?
IGNATIUSI honestly don't know enough to say. What's clear is that he had extraordinary access. Now, I'd say, further, people should understand that the CIA and the NSA send overseas people under deep cover, who are significant intelligence officers, who were not out recruiting spies. They don't put on the tuxedo and go to the cocktail party and say, you know, "Hey, Joe. Good to meet you. What are you doing at the Russian embassy exactly?" They are people who do the technical side. And it seems, from what Snowden said, that he's saying he was one of them. And that strikes me as very possible.
IGNATIUSIt doesn't, I mean, he's still a techie, but I'm not sure he's really denying that. As to the larger credibility or lack of it, of his claims, you know, unfortunately there's a he said/she said side of it.
IGNATIUSAnd the truth is, that until we have some legal process that works this through in a way that Americans are going to trust, we're not going to have resolution to those questions. So, you know, the reason they should most want Snowden to come back home is so that we'll know all the facts about what happened.
REHMAnd that's my second question. Do you expect that he will come back home and be given a fair trial? Or could he come back and be hidden completely under espionage laws and the general public not be informed of anything else?
IGNATIUSThis case is so visible that it would surprise me if his lawyers, who I'm sure will be very good and very aggressive, don't find ways to give him a fair trial.
REHMDo you think he will come back?
IGNATIUSFrom what he said in the interview with Brian Williams, he won't come back unless he gets a promise that he'll get some kind of deal. And it just doesn't look like our government is in the mood to offer those deals right now. For -- some months ago, I picked up from my contacts, there was so much uncertainty about what he had taken with him, how many secrets were blown. I mean, they really just -- believe it or not -- didn't know how much stuff he had taken from the system.
IGNATIUSAnd you heard the most extreme descriptions of the potential vulnerability of the United States, that our fundamental command and control system, the way we send messages, that, you know, if something ever -- terrible ever happened we'd need to know we're secure -- had been compromised. I don't know what the answer is to that.
IGNATIUSThat would be a real big secret. But I do know that the anxiety about getting him home urgently to figure out what he's taken is less. It may be because people have just decided we have to make the worst case estimate. We just have to assume it's the worst possible and get on with it.
REHMDavid Ignatius. His new novel is titled, "The Director." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk about the young man, James Morris, in your novel, "The Director." He is called upon by the new director who has been brought in after a scandal at the CIA. The new director, whose last name is Weber.
REHMHow interesting. And he's -- James Morris is brought in to see Weber because Weber thinks Morris can really help him because he is smart, he is one of the brightest techies there is. What does Weber need help with?
IGNATIUSWeber becomes CIA director, as you say, after a scandal, an absolute corruption of the agency. Weber has been the head of a communications company out West. And he's become known to the White House and the president because he refused the National Security letter that was trying to compel him to disclose information under one of these NSA surveillance programs. And he got away with it. And the president like the arguments he made and he decided, "I want somebody who'll come in shake up the CIA."
REHMHe's already made like $500 hundred gazillion.
IGNATIUSYeah, he's already -- he's got money to burn.
IGNATIUSAnd so he arrives at the CIA. The first thing he does, the first day, is remove the statue of Wild Bill Donovan, the CIA's famous founder. If anybody's ever gone out on a journalistic or other, you know, tourist trip to the CIA headquarters, that's what you see. The first thing you see at the headquarters is this big stone statue of a guy, he's got his hands stuck in his belt, and he looks, you know, like the guy who created our Secret Service.
IGNATIUSSo that's the first thing we know about Graham Weber, is that he wants to shake up the place. At the end of his first week as director, into the American consulate in Hamburg, walks a disheveled, Swiss hacker kid, in a dirty t-shirt of a tattoo around his neck that says, in Russian, cut here. He's a creepy-looking guy. And he says, "You've been hacked." The agency's communications have been compromised. And to prove it, he hands the base chief in Hamburg a list of the names of the undercover CIA officers in Germany and Switzerland.
IGNATIUSOkay. That's like the worst thing that a secret agency can contemplate. Graham Weber, the new guy, doesn't know where to turn, but he doesn't want to turn to the old boys, the old crowd. So he turns to this…
REHMHe wants to shake up the place.
IGNATIUSHe does. He wants to turn it upside down.
IGNATIUSAnd so he turns to this very bright, iconoclastic young man he's met at a hacker convention a year before the main action opens. It's the sort of precede of the book -- named James Morris. James Morris is a hacker. He comes from that world. He has a hacker nickname, Pownzor, which in hackerese means I own you. I own you. And, you know, he has major hacker cred because he's really good at these things.
IGNATIUSAnd the director likes that and thinks that's what we need, that's what we need to get inside the skin of these people who are coming at us using some of the tools that the NSA itself has created. They're using the, you know, it's this -- part of what I'm trying to say is that the tools we created to go after other people are being, in this novel, turned back against us by people overseas.
IGNATIUSAnd then it turns out by people at home, too. So that's how things get started. If I told you more about how James Weber does, then, you know, you wouldn't go -- want to go read the book.
REHMIt becomes very, very confusing and fascinating because James Morris is involved with a lot of different people. When we come back we'll open the phones, take your calls. We'll also talk more about this new novel, "The Director," and the note the director finds in his own desk drawer. Stay with us.
REHMAnd David Ignatius is with me. We're talking about his new novel "The Director." And as I understand it, David, it's already been optioned for a film?
IGNATIUSIt has. That's the nicest thing that can happen to an author. A great director Paul Greengrass who directed Captain Phillips and the last two Bourne movies decided he wanted to make this into a film in January. And Scott Rudin, who's again, one of the producers who's made great films year after year has decided he wants to produce it.
IGNATIUSAnd the final thing I have to say is, there are so many more books that are bought by great producers and directors that are made into movies so you never want to get your hopes up on giving you the -- you and your listeners the speech I gave my children -- assuming -- don't buy the popcorn yet.
REHMIs anybody being talked about as Graham Weber or James Morris?
IGNATIUSOutside my family, what they want to do is write a screenplay first. And that's pretty typical in Hollywood. They want to get the screenplay then put that in the hands of different actors, actresses who might play these roles. You know, I have my own...
REHMTell me, tell me.
IGNATIUSOh gosh, you know, the -- James Morris the hacker, Jesse Eisenberg is somebody who could play him. He was so interesting playing Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network." The young man who played Jesse Pinkman in "Breaking Bad, if you or your listeners have seen that, could play that character. The director...
REHMHow about the CIA director?
IGNATIUS...the director, I think could be someone like Brad Pitt, you know, if he's convincingly corporate...
IGNATIUS...George Clooney. Tom Hanks I think is a little bit old. George Clooney seems to play, you know, a variable age range.
REHMHe sure does.
IGNATIUSYeah but, you know, it's got to be somebody who makes you think, I'm going to shake this place up.
IGNATIUSAnd then is believable as he gets lose in this forest of deception and tries to find his way out.
REHMAll right. Here is an email from Dan who says, "As a journalist how do you respond to Americans who demand total transparency regardless of national security? What is your ethical responsibility as a journalist?"
IGNATIUSWell, I'm somebody who thinks, as thought for many decades, that the goal of good policy is to achieve a satisfactory balance between our freedoms, our personal liberties and protecting the country. If we had all of one to the exclusion of the other, it would be terrible.
IGNATIUSI think I probably believe that in cases where the two are in conflict usually our constitutional rights have to trump other things, you know. I mean, there are bargains made for national security that you should lock up Japanese people during World War II, Japanese Americans. Well, that was wrong and the national security argument there was wrong. It may be clearly the case was made that harsh interrogation was necessary for national security purposes after 9/11.
IGNATIUSWe now know that that was wrong and we shouldn't have -- so I think as a journalist I have an ethical responsibility to make public information that citizens need to make good decision about their government, or to put it a different way, to hold the government accountable. I've been writing with the CIA, you know, for many decades. Some articles where they're under attack I think unfairly, I try to point that out. Other times I've written things that are scathing, the number of CIA directors who have been infuriated by what I've written is pretty long.
IGNATIUSMy late boss Katharine Graham who was the chairman publisher of the Washington Post for many years, had a rule that she laid down in the late 1980s that said -- and remember, this is a person who had the guts to publish the Pentagon papers -- and she said, we have as journalists, as a great newspaper, a right and sometimes an obligation to make public things that the government doesn't want us to print.
IGNATIUSBut we also have an obligation as citizens -- we don't -- there's a special category of citizenship called journalists -- when we come in receipt of sensitive information to give the government a chance to tell us what the consequences would be, would somebody get killed? Is there something we don't see? Is there -- and let them make those arguments and in all my time as a journalist at the Washington Post and before that at the Wall Street Journal, people have followed that rule.
IGNATIUSUsually we end up publishing most of what we've learned. But sometimes the government makes a case that if you write this that, you know, these deaths are likely, you know, this disaster for our national security or for some other country or whatever. And I think the -- I still think that's the right -- in answer to the good question, that's part of the ethical responsibility. It's the responsibility to disclose information that readers need to know. It's also the responsibility on the way that -- to listen to arguments about the consequences.
REHMAnd here's another email from Michael who says, "Edward Snowden, by personal example, demonstrated a huge flaw in the system. He, as a low-level independent contractor was able to access information that should not have been available to him. This means the system could be abused for all kinds of personal reasons, voyeurism, blackmail, etcetera."
IGNATIUSI think that's one of the most shocking aspects of the Snowden affair is that the government can't protect its own information, or certainly couldn't in this period. The fact that even today I don't think the U.S. government is entirely sure how much he took, shows that information controls were amazingly weak. There are fixes that people have been rushing to implement since Snowden. You know, every keystroke that somebody who's joined the national security bureaucracy makes is subject to review and analysis. And anomalous searches, anomalous downloads, downloads that suggest a pattern of behavior that raises questions, are identified by these systems.
IGNATIUSAnd I suspect today every morning, a security officer in every classified facility around the country gets a list of, you know, people who've done anomalous things in the previous 24 hours. You know, that's -- they have really signed away their privacy, but that's, they say, the only way that they can have a better sense of control of information.
IGNATIUSThe scary thing is the government has had all this information that's collected. The ability of somebody inside the government who wanted to settle a score, who wanted to make money on Wall Street by using -- trading on data that he or she saw, I have much less confidence now after these revelations that the government is able to police that. Let alone, I mean, I've got to say, I have the same worry about Google or any of these other companies that are gathering big data and have employees that they think they trust to keep it private. But how do they know? How do we know?
REHMLet's go to the phones now. First to Marcy in St. Louis, Mo. Hi there, you're on the air.
MARCYThank you. I'm a regular listener and very interested in this program. And what I want to know about from your guest is the emphasis -- I hear lots of emphasis on how -- what Snowden did that was wrong. But I'd like to hear more analysis of what was revealed that was wrong.
IGNATIUSI think the thing that is most disturbing to Americans is the so-called metadata collection program that all of the information about the times, dates of our phone calls and other communications, messages had been stored and could be accessed by the NSA if it wanted to. The notion that our government's been reading our mail all these years is false but it's had the ability to do so if it wanted and had the proper court orders. And I think that that went well beyond what people realized.
IGNATIUSYou know, on this question of privacy, I always have to remind myself that our founders were not clear in many of the things they wrote in the Constitution. The Constitution is -- try to figure out the balance between presidential and congressional war making powers or other technical issues constitutional scholars argue over. But on the question of freedom of speech and privacy, and more generally on the question of whether we should trust big government, the founders couldn't have been clearer.
IGNATIUSThey really mistrusted government. They were so distressful they weren't sure they wanted to create this United States of America. But they finally did with the Bill of Rights that protected our freedoms. So if -- I mean, one way to answer this question is to say, if you go back to the beginnings, the framework of what we are as a country, you had people who leaned pretty hard in the direction of mistrust government and maintain individual rights. And so I think got to hang onto that basic idea.
REHMI want to go back to your novel because Director Graham Weber finds in the desk drawer of this enormous desk at the CIA, an envelope in the back of the drawer with his name on it. Tell us about that note.
IGNATIUSHe opens the drawer. It's his first week on the job. He's come in early because he wants to see the sun rise over that big pretty ugly concrete building which is the CIA's quarters, and pulls out this envelope. And he opens it up and it’s a quote from Cicero the Roman philosopher warning against traders in your midst. You know, the people who are visible at the gates are dangerous but far less dangerous than the ones who are inside who are working their will invisibly.
IGNATIUSAnd the director -- you know, he started on the job. He has no idea what -- is this a warning? Is somebody pulling his leg? Is -- you know, what is going on in this place? And over the course of the novel, you find out the answer to that and many, many other things.
IGNATIUSWhat I wanted to do in that scene, and many of the scenes early in the book, is to convey a picture of an institution that I think, as a journalist who's covered it, is haunted by the ghosts of its past. Again and again in the novel the question of how the CIA came to be, what its origins are, how they were misshapen. Ways in which the agency's course may have been determined in ways people don't understand from the very beginning, from the days of Donovan in the '40s when he was working with the British.
IGNATIUSBut those ghosts that inhabit American intelligence, I've watched as a journalist since I started covering the place. And one thing that Graham Weber passionately wants to do as the director in this book is find a way that clear out the ghosts.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." As someone who has covered the CIA for 25 years, do you think that the agency is broken?
IGNATIUSI think that the agency is too big, first of all. I think the clandestine service side of it would be better if it was smaller, if it had fewer people, more elite, better hidden, fewer of them hidden in embassies and more under deep cover. And if that clandestine service was focused on stealing the secrets that really matter to keep us alive and to understand our adversaries' intentions.
IGNATIUSRight now the CIA tries to be the expert on everything. You name the problem and they want to be able to generate a piece of analysis, you know, for some policymaker downtown that says, you know, we're on top of that boss. Like, you know, copper mining in Chili and the effect of the fiber optic growth on, you know, copper. We've got it. It's right here. We don't need a secret intelligence agency to do that. So I'd like to see it smaller.
IGNATIUSI think that it's broken part in the sense that the public has stopped trusting its intelligence service. And that's difficult. This is hard work. The people who do it I think are often very admirable but they don't feel they have public support. You know, we support our military. Soldiers walk through airports and people start clapping. CIA officers never feel that way.
REHMIndeed. And here is a final email from David in Dallas. He says, "Thank you for your reportage, especially gutsy on the ground in the Middle East." He says, "My issue is kinda snarky. How can anything central be intelligent? Central is by definition of bureaucracy with only its own survival at heart and a spin machine to paper over lapses."
IGNATIUSThat's well said. The person who sent this message should think about writing his own novel. At one point I have one of my characters refer to the initials CIA as standing for clowns in action. That's not fair but the central part is -- ought to be less of a worry going forward in that we created a bureaucratic oversight mechanism called the Director of National Intelligence to look at all 17 agencies in coordinated intelligence.
IGNATIUSThat's gotten much too big too but I'd like to see that the CIA part be a spy service that collects and that analyze information and has a more limited covert action role. Part of what's eating the CIA is its counterterrorism mission. We asked the agency -- we meaning presidents and congress speaking on behalf of the American people, after 9/11 to take on this mission. And I think it's time now for that mission -- I think as one of the key things President Obama was saying in West Point last week, let's see if we can move more of that to the military so the CIA can go back to its more limited role of collecting intelligence, analyzing it and making sense of it.
REHMAnd one thing you may have to do before you get there is find the director, maybe Graham Weber. Thank you so much, David Ignatius.
IGNATIUSThank you, Diane. Thanks so much.
REHMAnd congratulations. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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