World Leader

An Interview with John Negroponte

Octavian Report: How do you assess the current state of our intelligence capabilities?

John Negroponte: They're second-to-none. They're superb. Nobody can match our capabilities, and of course they got even better after 9/11 for a couple of reasons. Obviously in part as a response to 9/11 and the fact that we invested a lot more in these capabilities. That's one. Second, technology has been our friend. It's been much easier to integrate information with all the technological tools that are available. Third, related to that, we've been much better able to deploy intelligence on a real-time basis to field situations. I suppose the person whom I would credit with most perfecting that art is the former head of SOCOM, Stanley McChrystal.

He really perfected — he and Mr. Trump's first National Security Advisor, who was his deputy — this art of integrating all these different intelligence assets into one immediately actionable stream of information, which has resulted in the demise of quite a few terrorists. I don't see how it could be much better. Our satellite observations, our geo-intelligence capabilities, our signals intelligence capabilities: nobody can match them, nobody spends the amount of money we spend on that stuff. The rule of thumb is to take the Pentagon budget and divide it by 10. The intel community gets 10 percent of the Defense Department budget. That's a lot of money.

OR: How do you see the tension between national security and privacy rights?

Negroponte: We're past that, right? That was really an issue a decade or more ago. When those first big revelations came out about the surveillance program, having been on the inside at the time and actually being DNI when one of those big blow-ups occurred, I never felt it was that big a deal.

It was not a bunch of intel officers or law enforcement people sitting around pruriently prying into the private lives of lots of Americans. I thought Mr. Bush, in his own way, summed it up best. He said, "When al-Qaeda is talking to somebody in the United States, I want to know about it." That was the genesis of all of this: were there calls coming from Baluchistan or the Northern Territories of Afghanistan into receivers here in the United States? We had an interest in what was being said in those conversations.

It was always foreign intelligence. It was better to pick it up from the foreign caller, because you run into less of these privacy and legal issues than here in the States. Where it starts getting a little trickier is if you listen in on American conversations here in the United States without any foreign intelligence basis. Then you get crosswise with all sorts of considerations. But I honestly never thought it was particularly abused. I always thought it was a legitimate program.

I didn't think the American people were particularly buzzed up about it. You know the phenomenon. It was inside the Beltway that everybody got all buzzed up.

OR: Do you think that the U.S. is losing its way geopolitically, or do you think that concern is overblown?

Negroponte: I think the the Chinese and the Russians don't spend all their waking hours trying to find blemishes in the character or the performance of the President of the United States. Don't get me wrong. I publicly opposed Trump in the campaign, and I came out as a Republican in support of Hillary Clinton. That's the way I felt at the time. I don't regret the position that I took. But I think here in the States, we're in too hyper-critical a mode. Just about anything Mr. Trump does, for certain categories of people, is dead on arrival. I don't think that that's necessarily the way things are perceived in other countries.

I think we're still viewed as a pretty damn important country. We've certainly got a hell of a lot of power. We’re still the biggest economy. We’ve got the biggest military. At the margins, are we frittering away some of our of our leadership opportunities because of, shall we say, lack of nuance? (As a friend of mine once put it, "Mr. Trump's comments need fine-tuning.") Is there a cost for some of that maladroitness? And there's no question that he's maladroit diplomatically. I guess the answer is yes. But is it at the expense of our status as the most important country in the world? Not yet. We still are the most significant country in the world, and people still look to see what we're going to do. They still want to know what our opinion is. They still need our leaders. The only ones who really get a little bit exercised about everything are the Western Europeans.

OR: Do you think that our pullback from the world has emboldened our strategic competitors? What is your take on the debate over NATO?

Negroponte: I remember Dean Acheson's famous statement back in 1950 that the Korean Peninsula was no longer in our Asian defense perimeter. Bingo, the North Koreans invaded South Korea shortly thereafter. Obviously, a narrative about a pullback, justified or not, can cause that kind of behavior. I'd be the first to acknowledge that.

But let's go back to the campaign. Remember, Trump called alliances irrelevant. He said that China, the Japanese, and the Koreans should get nuclear weapons. That NATO was questionable. But interestingly, whenever push came to shove, he pretty much ended up reaffirming these relationships and these alliances and actually carrying out behaviors that demonstrate that. Such as deploying more U.S. troops closer to the Russian border, to the Baltic States, and reaffirming Article V of the NATO treaty (even though there was initially some doubt about that).

Of course, he's had a few hiccups, but he's had pretty good relations with both Japan and South Korea — key allies in the East Asian-Pacific region. Again, the maladroitness with which the Administration carries some of this stuff out may discourage the fainthearted. But I think the people in positions of responsibility in most of these countries now know Trump pretty well. They’ve met him numbers of times, and I think they've probably become fairly good at figuring him out. That doesn't mean we haven't paid a price.