• Show Notes
  • Transcript

Guest: David Cohen is the former Deputy Director of the CIA and former Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He’s currently a partner at WilmerHale.

*Interview taped on 1/14/19.

On this episode of Stay Tuned, Preet and David discuss:

–        The latest reporting from the New York Times and the Washington Post on Trump and Russia

–        The key components of a successful sanctions program and the Trump administration’s approach to Russia and North Korea

–        The persisting threat of jihadist ideology

–        America’s influence in the world

References made in the episode:

–        David Frum’s article about issuing a subpoena to the president’s interpreter

–        Vanita Gupta’s article, “Bill Barr Must Not Be Sessions 2.0 on Civil Rights”

–        The Washington Post report on Trump’s private conversations with Putin

–        The New York Times reporting the FBI started a counterintelligence inquiry into Trump

–        Preet’s tweet on Trump and NATO

–        Report that the Trump Administration decided to lift sanctions imposed on the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s companies

–        The SDNY’s Reza Zarrab case

–        The 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs report, “America Engaged”

–        The joint statement issued by President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un after June’s 2018 Summit in Singapore

–        Trump’s declaration of love to Kim Jong Un

–        John Brennan’s twitter feed

–        The Wall Street Journal story on Turkey seeking the extradition of basketball player Enes Kanter

Do you have a question for Preet? Tweet them to @PreetBharara with the hashtage #askpreet, email [email protected], or call 699-247-7338 and leave a voicemail.

Sanctions, Secrets and Security (with David Cohen)

Air date: 1/17/19

Preet Bharara:

David Cohen, thanks so much for joining us.

David Cohen:

Thank you for having me.

Preet Bharara:

I’m going to start with, we have just a million things to talk about, but I’m going to start with an easy softball question, which is this, is Donald Trump a Russian asset?

David Cohen:

I don’t know.

Preet Bharara:

First of all, the fact that you don’t know, you used to be at the CIA.

David Cohen:

Yeah, as I was going to say, the fact that I don’t know, and this isn’t have anything to do with my time when I was at the agency, has to do with everything we’ve seen in the two years since, I think is really disconcerting that you can’t say with great certainty that the President isn’t either an unwitting agent, or someone who has over many, many years been co-opted and brought into the Russian orbit.

Preet Bharara:

Does it pain you to say that?

David Cohen:

Terribly. It’s a horrible thing. It’s a terrible thing that we can’t with great confidence say there is no chance that the President is not, in some respect, working for the Russian Government.

Preet Bharara:

What is it about Donald Trump’s interactions over many, many years with Russians that make you worry about that?

David Cohen:

Look, he has, for a decade, two decades, been traveling to Russia, on occasion, not consistently, but on occasion traveling to Russia. He has been involved in business relationships with the Russians, whether it’s the Miss Universe pageant or Russians purchasing units in his buildings. It worries me that he has, in some respect, been brought into the Russian orbit, that they have invested in him. This is the standard, initially Soviet, now Russian tradecraft. They see an influential American, and Donald Trump, 20 years ago, was an influential American, they’re going to look for a way to try to use that person as an agent of influence in the United States. As someone who will help to promote their narrative, their align, their view of the world.

Preet Bharara:

But do you think, this is hypothetical, if you’re to poll various experts within the agency that you helped to run, and said, “Do you think that Donald Trump is an asset of Russia?” Are there people there who would say definitively based on information that they have, the answer is no?

David Cohen:

I can’t say that. I can’t say one way or the other, frankly. Because, I imagine there has been a fair amount of information and intelligence that the agency has collected in the last several years, that would help inform that answer. But, what we see openly, transparently every day, has got to make you question. And I think it’s important to draw a distinction here, between policy approaches that you think, “Gee, that’s ill-advised. That’s not how I would do it. That seems to support the Russian viewpoint on this more than a traditional American viewpoint.” I mean, that’s the President’s prerogative. I think we need to give him the benefit of the doubt, in some respects, that he came to those views.

Preet Bharara:

For example, his view on sanctions, you would say is a policy difference?

David Cohen:

Sure. I think it could be, his view on the withdrawal from Syria. He ran, and was quite clear during the campaign that he thought we were overextended in the Middle East, whether it was Syria or Afghanistan. And I think the way that he has gone about announcing and beginning the withdrawal from Syria is completely screwed up. But, the fact that he took that perspective and others in the foreign policy, national security establishment take a different perspective, I don’t think that’s evidence that he is working for the Russians. But, you can look at things like his refusal to accept the high confidence judgment of the intelligence community that the Russians attacked us, attacked American democracy in the course of 2016 election.

David Cohen:

And you’ve got to scratch your head and think, “Why would an American president not embrace the intelligence community and not take the opportunity to defend one of the fundamental aspects of our country, our democracy?” You can look at things like his unrelenting attacks on the EU and NATO. Which, again, you can look at as a policy issue, or you can look at as a head scratcher about why is it that he came into office and essentially tried to blow up the two institutions that the Russians and Putin in particular are especially focused on trying to undermine? I do think the sanctions question is an important one. There was a whole host of sanctions that were put in place after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that had broad bipartisan support.

David Cohen:

In fact, there were many who thought that the sanctions didn’t go far enough. We have, in the course of the campaign, apparently, conversations between his incoming national security adviser and the Russian ambassador about relaxing those sanctions. And you’ve got to wonder, what it is that leads him to adopt these positions?

Preet Bharara:

But if he’s an asset, he’s a very peculiar one, not only because he sits atop the entire government, but I’m guessing, in your experience… Well, let me ask you the question, in your experience working on intel matters at the Treasury Department and just living life, how many assets are you aware of, who did things publicly, that caused people to wonder if they were, in fact, an asset? Usually, they like to hide that stuff.

David Cohen:

Absolutely. I mean, I think the traditional technique of an asset is to not draw attention to the fact that they might be working for a foreign power. For Donald Trump, I think the question has to be, not whether he is currently on the take from the Russians and having some secret conversation going on on signal with Vladimir Putin where he’s getting direction, I think the question that people are asking and I think it’s a good question is, over many, many years, going back more than a decade, you see Donald Trump, The Trump Organization having interactions with the Russians. There’s plenty of open-source information about financial relationships between The Trump Organization and certainly Russians, and perhaps the Russian Government.

David Cohen:

There are multiple trips to Russia. You see Donald Trump saying things like, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was done in order to combat terrorism. Which is 100% initially the Soviet, and now the Russian line on the reason that the Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979.

Preet Bharara:

Have you ever heard an American official take that line?

David Cohen:

No. God, no. It was the Soviet line, and it’s now the Russian line, but it’s not what the U.S. Government viewed as the reason that the Soviets went to Afghanistan. They went into Afghanistan because they were worried that they were going to lose a client state.

Preet Bharara:

There was another article over the weekend, that goes to some of the points that you’re making, about conduct that Donald Trump is engaged in. Separate and apart from policy differences, for which you say he can be given the benefit of the doubt, and one of those has to do with how secret he’s trying to keep the conversations he’s had with Vladimir Putin. And one of those conversations occurred at the Helsinki summit last summer, to which I think there was maybe only one witness, the interpreter. If you were still at the agency, what would you make of a sitting president being that annoyed and upset about the possibility of other people even within his own administration, who were there to give him advice and counsel and expertise, that he’s so dead against anyone finding out what was said?

David Cohen:

I think it would be a very concerning situation, I think, on two scores. One is, I think everybody would have the question of why is it that he wants this to be so secretive? Why does he want no one else to be in that room as he has this conversation? And the second is, there’s a real intelligence loss, if it’s just the President who’s in the room, having a conversation with Putin. Even if he were going to try to read out that, whatever it was, a two-hour conversation with Putin as best he could, it’s impossible to do that sort of readout effectively. You want to have someone else in that room taking contemporaneous notes that can then be shared through the intelligence community, because that is a very valuable source of information.

Preet Bharara:

What is the likelihood that the Russians have an audio of that two-hour meeting?

David Cohen:

I don’t know. I don’t know.

Preet Bharara:

Was that a zero?

David Cohen:

It’s not zero.

Preet Bharara:

And it’s not 100.

David Cohen:

Right.

Preet Bharara:

So, give me a number.

David Cohen:

Look, I mean, it was in Helsinki. The Russians, I think we can assume have intelligence assets there, and at least some capacity to try and bug that room where it happens, but I don’t know.

Preet Bharara:

What is the likelihood that the Americans, the intelligence community or some component of it has a recording of that meeting?

David Cohen:

I would say, close to zero.

Preet Bharara:

Why is that?

David Cohen:

Well, because we would not record the President surreptitiously. That’s not what we would do. And if the President said-

Preet Bharara:

Unless he was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation.

David Cohen:

I think even in that circumstance, it seems to me bordering on the impossible, to think that we would surreptitiously record.

Preet Bharara:

Michael Cohen did it, his lawyer taped him, that’s a different situation. It’s a phone call.

David Cohen:

It is different. That’s different. The U.S. intelligence community is not going to secretly record the president’s meetings.

Preet Bharara:

And I totally get that, and I would agree with that, although I’m not as expert as you. But, I guess I’ve got to ask you, in a time where, and this is a serious question, at a time where you have a president who’s acting in a completely nontraditional way, in a way that’s making some people’s head spin, and other people’s heads explode, should other institutions, like the intelligence community, play by the same old rules? Or should they think about doing the extraordinary thing that you’re describing? And I see you shaking your head when I asked the question about whether the intelligence community would tape their own president. But does there come a time when you have to take extraordinary measures?

David Cohen:

Look, I think one of the tragedies of the Trump administration is the destruction of norms, the breaking down of barriers that are critically important to our democracy. I think one of those barriers is how the intelligence community operates and the care with which it goes about collecting intelligence. I would say, it is not a zero chance that in some circumstance, you could have the attorney general, the director of the FBI, the director of the CIA, working with the National Security Adviser in a circumstance where you think we really have a horrible problem here with the president, we think he is actually on the payroll of the Russians where you could, I think, hypothetically conceive of such a thing where you would surreptitiously tape the president. But I think as a practical matter, that’s not how the intelligence community operates, and it shouldn’t be.

Preet Bharara:

Well, there’s a related phenomenon that’s been discussed in the last weekend as well, the New York Times had this revelation, they say that in the days after Jim Comey was suddenly fired by the President, that the FBI opened up specifically a counterintelligence investigation of the President. Isn’t that even more remarkable and unusual than we’ve been talking about, the CIA recording the President? What was your reaction as a former intelligence official to that news?

David Cohen:

I thought that we actually knew that already. From the spring of 2017, from when Jim Comey was testifying about the scope of what he was doing, and I think also the rules that were put in place for the Mueller investigation, it was clear that there was a counterintelligence investigation that was part of the broader criminal investigation that Bob Mueller was taking over. The fact that apparently, according to the Times, that the President was one of the individuals who was being, he was the focus of that investigation, doesn’t strike me as all that remarkable, it was a counterintelligence investigation looking at whether the Russians had co-opted Americans in the course of the Trump campaign, and you would think that the guy at the head of that campaign would be part of the investigation.

Preet Bharara:

So, the New York Times article is overhyped. Is that what you’re saying, David Cohen?

David Cohen:

I’m saying that I think we knew some of this already. And I do find it striking, actually, that it took a year and a half for this story to seep out, if-

Preet Bharara:

It’s an odd leak that comes so long after there were so many people who had incentives to be explaining what was going on.

David Cohen:

I have a theory on that, which is, I think that White House is anticipating the Mueller report coming out in the next month or two, and they know that Bob Mueller was conducting as part of his overall investigation, a counterintelligence investigation, and they want this out.

Preet Bharara:

It’s a brilliant Rudy Giuliani strategy.

David Cohen:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Of get ahead of it.

David Cohen:

Yeah. And there’s a long list of those.

Preet Bharara:

Let me move on from these questions about Trump and the FBI, do you know you have a nickname, I believe? You were known as the sanctions guru.

David Cohen:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Do you accept that title?

David Cohen:

I accept it on behalf of a large number of people who supported me.

Preet Bharara:

You’re very diplomatic. You’re the guru, you’re the guy. How long did you do work involving American sanctions on other countries?

David Cohen:

For about six years, when I was at the Treasury Department.

Preet Bharara:

Can we take a step back? And sometimes, there are all these news reports about sanctions and whether it’s related to Iran, or Russia, or South Africa years ago. For the United States Government to impose sanctions on another country, another sovereign nation, what has to happen? In other words, can a president wake up one morning, and say, “You know what? I’m pissed off with Bolivia, and we should do something about that.” The president does not have the unilateral ability to do that, or does he?

David Cohen:

Well, he does, actually. Congress passed a law in the mid-70s, called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, known as IEEPA, in the business, that gives the authority to the president to impose sanctions upon a finding that there is an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy, national security, or economy of the United States. And if the president declares a national emergency with respect to that threat.

Preet Bharara:

We’ve never had that before.

David Cohen:

Exactly.

Preet Bharara:

But who has to make the finding?

David Cohen:

The finding is made by the president in an executive order. That is the foundation for a sanctions program.

Preet Bharara:

But separate and apart from the president doing that, Congress also has the ability to pass a law imposing sanctions on any particular country.

David Cohen:

Right. And Congress has done more of that in the last five, 10 years or so, a specific legislation calling for specific sanctions to be applied against countries, by the way, we’ve seen Iran, Russia, and North Korea.

Preet Bharara:

But there’s a back and forth, and there can be a check or a balance.

David Cohen:

Sure.

Preet Bharara:

Congress can pass a law, then president can veto it, and then you have to work out with the super majority.

David Cohen:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Is there a philosophy of sanctions? In other words, what is the makeup of a country that makes it more susceptible to influence by sanctions than another country?

David Cohen:

It’s not just a country, it’s also a target. Because we have sanctions programs against poor countries, as well as sanctions programs against illicit conduct, terrorist activity, weapons proliferation. There are basically five key elements, I think, to a good sanctions program, I’ll take you through them quickly. The first is that you have a clearly articulated policy of what you’re trying to change. The second thing you need is that sanctions can’t be the only tool that you’re using. We’ve got a vast array of power in the United States, from economic power to messaging power, to covert and overt influence campaigns, to military signaling. A good sanctions program is embedded in a broader policy. The third thing you need is good intelligence, so you know who you should be targeting with sanctions, whether they’re being effective, how they’re being evaded so you can then attack it.

David Cohen:

The fourth thing for good a sanctions program is international agreement around the program. Sanctions are enormously more effective if you have others around the world working with you, not against you. And the last thing you need is a target that is susceptible to sanctions, meaning that they’re exposed to the U.S. financial system, the U.S. economy, or make use of the U.S. dollar. If you got those five things, you can have an effective sanctions program.

Preet Bharara:

In design to impose sanctions, is there somewhere in the process, a discussion of how it might affect individual citizens of the country? Or, does that not come into it?

David Cohen:

I think the Iran sanctions is a good example of that. I mean, we, in the Obama administration, spent a number of years building up the sanctions against the Country of Iran, against the Government of Iran, by driving down their oil sales, cutting off their banks’ access to financial sector, what have you, that was clearly having an impact on the economy broadly in Iran. Their GDP was going down, unemployment was going up. There is a provision in law that forbids sanctions from targeting food, medicine, or medical devices. So, if you’re selling food to Iran, if you were selling medicine or medical devices to Iran, you could engage in that conduct, even if you were a U.S. company, and you can get paid. It’s not against the law to sell food, medicine, and medical devices. And that’s designed to try to relieve some of the impact on the population.

David Cohen:

But, we paid attention to that issue. Ultimately, the question that’s asked in these policy discussions is whether the objective of the sanctions that we’re pursuing is significant enough, that this sort of collateral impact was something that as a policy matter, we were willing to tolerate.

Preet Bharara:

Do financial sanctions work better than trade sanctions? And what’s the difference?

David Cohen:

I think, by and large, they do. The difference is financial sanctions go after the ability to pay for goods or move money, trade sanctions try to prevent the movement of goods. Financial sanctions, I think, tend to be more powerful because it is actually easier to restrict the movement of money than the movement of goods. And so, you can have a greater grasp on what you’re trying to achieve that way.

Preet Bharara:

What do you make of the state of play of sanctions against Russia? And where do you see that going, first, against the backdrop of what we’ve been talking about? The president having a different view, maybe is you’re not comfortable saying one way or another, whether or not he’s an asset, even though we might give them the benefit of the doubt on policy issues, it seems almost difficult to do that, if the other thing is true.

David Cohen:

I think on Russia sanctions, where we are right now is in a little bit of another world. We have applied sanctions, focused on the Russian activity in Ukraine. They have run their course in a sense. Sanctions on Russian oligarchs, which are, I think, designed mostly to put pressure on Putin himself, have had, I think, a mixed effect. I think, just recently, the sanctions on Deripaska have been in the news because his companies, which were also sanctioned when he was sanctioned, the Treasury Department has proposed to relieve those sanctions on his companies. I don’t think we have a good reason to think that that has had much of an impact on the thinking of President Putin and people around him.

David Cohen:

On the other hand, we did see that the Russians were quite interested in having the sanctions relieved, which I think is a good indication that the sanctions were having some effect. And if they didn’t care about them, they wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to persuade the incoming Trump administration to remove these sanctions.

Preet Bharara:

Right. Sanctions are not punishment, though.

David Cohen:

Sanctions, in the classic conception, are designed to change behavior. They’re not designed to punish. So, the target of your sanctions should have the opportunity to demonstrate a changed behavior, a changed approach, whatever it is that got them sanctioned in the first place, they should be able to demonstrate that they’re no longer engaged in that behavior, and so, the sanctions can be relieved. That it’s designed to be coercive, not punitive.

Preet Bharara:

Do you think we should have more criminal cases based on sanctions violations? You’re smiling. My office brought a bunch of criminal cases, based on violations of IEEPA and some of these other laws that you’ve described. Do we need more of that, or not?

David Cohen:

Well, I got to testify in one of those cases.

Preet Bharara:

I know.

David Cohen:

In the Zarrab case, or the spin-off, the Atilla case.

Preet Bharara:

People may have heard me mention this, Reza Zarrab was an Iranian gold trader from Turkey, who my office charged when I was in office, he ended up flipping and cooperating with the government, and his co-defendant went to trial, after I left office. And you testified at that trial.

David Cohen:

I testified in that trial because this isn’t exactly the legal charge, but the basic charge was that this guy, Mehmet Atilla, had lied to U.S. officials about what he was doing with Reza Zarrab, and I was one of those U.S. officials who he allegedly lied to. So, I got to go in and testify about my interactions with Mr. Atilla, which I think has led to both you and me being…

Preet Bharara:

We can’t really go to Turkey.

David Cohen:

We can’t go to Turkey.

Preet Bharara:

I mean, I officially can’t go to Russia, but I think, as a de facto matter, I can’t go to Turkey. Was your trial experience fun? Did my folks treat you well?

David Cohen:

They did treat me well. It was an interesting perspective to be in the witness box, having been a lawyer for many years-

Preet Bharara:

Yes, how did you handle cross examination? Did you melt?

David Cohen:

I think I was able to sustain myself.

Preet Bharara:

You think you were able to sustain yourself?

David Cohen:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

That’s very modest.

David Cohen:

Yeah, it was good.

Preet Bharara:

That’s a way of putting it. Any other countries you think we should be thinking about sanctioning? How many programs of sanctions do we have at the moment?

David Cohen:

We now have 30 active sanctions programs, and I think we have too many, candidly. I think one of the problems that we’ve run into in the last several years is, as sanctions have been used effectively, in some circumstances, there’s a view that they can be used effectively in all circumstances. So, we have, just in the last year, a new sanctions program on Nicaragua. We’ve ramped up our sanctions in Venezuela. I think there’s a fair question as to whether those sanctions programs can be effective. Whether they are trying to achieve some policy objective that has been clearly identified, and meet all of the requirements. I think that good sanctions program needs to meet in order to be effective.

Preet Bharara:

We can go back to the national security threat matrix a little bit.

David Cohen:

Sure.

Preet Bharara:

Where are we with ISIS?

David Cohen:

We are very close to eliminating the territory that ISIS controls. We are not quite there yet, I’ve always thought of it like an infection, that’s, you need to apply the antibiotics and you’ve got to stay the course until you really get the infection out. I think that’s where we are with ISIS, I think there’s still work to be done to get them entirely out of land that they hold, but that does not solve the problem. ISIS, as your listeners may remember, is just the version 2.0 of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist organization that we spent a long time attacking and moving out of territory, taking their members off the battlefield, but we never completely did the job, either in terms of eradicating the land that they held. But I think, more importantly, going after the ideology that led to AQI first emerging, and certainly into ISIS emerging. That’s the hard work. That’s the longterm work that needs to be done.

Preet Bharara:

But I guess my reaction is, it’s pretty much correct, in your view, then, what the President said, that ISIS is largely defeated. Fair?

David Cohen:

No, not fair. It’s not fair, if by defeat, we mean, we no longer need to worry about ISIS.

Preet Bharara:

Well, I guess, the way in which he would claim that ISIS has been largely defeated, versus the way you claim, there still remains work to be done, which I agree with. Is that work that needs to be done by military forces remaining in various parts of the world? Do you get the ideology to troops or something else?

David Cohen:

I think you don’t necessarily need U.S. troops to do the work on the ideology, you need some ability to watch what’s going on, whether that’s with the military, with the intelligence community, to see whether this problem, to mix my metaphors, is metastasizing. You don’t necessarily need troops on the ground. And to go back to something we were talking about earlier, the decision to withdraw troops from Syria, or for that matter, what seems to have been a decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, is not one that I think broadly, people in the national security community think is completely illegitimate. It’s, we’ve been in Afghanistan for a decade and a half now, or longer, we’ve been in Syria for a number of years now-

Preet Bharara:

There’s no one that I know, support, if you use this phrase, and it’s a controversial phrase, no one supports endless war.

David Cohen:

Right.

Preet Bharara:

So, I’m assuming that your concern is with the manner in which the withdrawal was announced.

David Cohen:

And that means not just the, doing it by tweet, which itself is crazy, but not having any planning in place for how withdrawal of troops will not create more problems than we currently have. How we’re going to work with the Kurds, so that they don’t become the target of eradication by the Turks. How we’re going to address the fact that Iran is in place in Syria and using Syria as a conduit to resupply Hezbollah. I mean, there’s a whole host of things that we should have done, so that when we remove troops from Syria, we leave a situation that is better than the situation that we have today.

Preet Bharara:

I want to go back to what you said about ideology, that’s the hard thing. Some of the work that you and I have been engaged with, and in, in our careers, there are real concrete tools. You impose sanctions, you decide what kind of sanctions, that’s a real thing. Charging someone with a crime, that’s a real thing. To get at the underlying root of those things, whether it’s the roots of crime, associated economic status and opportunity and all those other things, or, eradicating an ideology on the part of people who feel they have grievances against the West, legitimate or not, that’s really hard. And a little bit out of the wheelhouse of how you and I engaged as professionals in government. Do you have any advice to folks as to how you deal with that ultimate issue?

David Cohen:

Yeah, I do think that, one thing that we need to focus on as a country is how we engage with the world. And I think the terrorism question puts this quite precisely. The United States out in the world does a whole host of really good things, we educate, we build, we develop infrastructure, we combat corruption. And I think there is an expectation that the United States is on the side of progress, on the side of economic growth. We need to ensure, I think, two things. One is that, as we engage with the world, we do those things, we don’t pull back, we make it clear that the United States is there to help support our allies and countries where they are not already deeply embedded in the alliance structure.

David Cohen:

The other side of this coin is we need to also make that argument at home. One of the things that I think is critically important is that we not allow there to be an artificial distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy. One of the concerns that I have is you see people in United States questioning why we are engaged with the world, why we take a leadership position in the world. The reason I think is, at least, from my perspective, twofold. One is because it is an investment in our own security, if we’re out there helping to address conditions in the world that if left unattended, could be the breeding ground for threats against United States. That’s one hand. The other hand is there are real threats out in the world, and it’s better that we address them there, before they come here.

David Cohen:

We’ve got to make that argument in a way that is more compelling to folks here in the United States. We’ve got to tell stories, we have to explain why it is what we’re doing. And I also think we need to be thoughtful about how we engage in the world. And it’s a fair question, whether we should be doing everything we’re doing, or doing everything in the same way that we’re doing it.

Preet Bharara:

Well, I mean, you use the phrase, “Leadership in the world,” and that sounds very nice. On the other side, people will say, “Well, if that means that the United States has to be the world’s policeman, we don’t get paid enough for doing that, we get taken to borrow phraseology from Donald Trump, “We don’t get paid enough for doing that, we have enough of our own problems, we have an immigration problem,” they say. How do you get past that divide?

David Cohen:

What’s interesting is there, I think there’s a perception that divide is greater than it is. And there was a recent survey done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, they do this every year, and they asked people all across United States, “Should the United States be engaged in the world? Should the United States have a leadership position in the world?” And somewhere in there, like 70% to 80% of the respondents said, “Yes, the U.S. should be engaged in the world. It should have a leadership position in the world.” And those numbers are going up. Interestingly, in the Trump era, those numbers are going up, not down. So, I do think that Americans do understand that an investment in the world, in trying to address problems that exists out in the world, redounds to our benefit. It’s an investment in our own security, as much as it’s an investment in the conditions of others around the world.

Preet Bharara:

Right. The problem is, with all things like that, it’s an amorphous investment. If you put a certain amount of money into a country, to help them build up a certain business, and then they can trade with us, you can see that, over time, on a graph, but this idea of American influence throughout the world, over time, you don’t see the loss immediately, because it’s not on a balance sheet anywhere. Do you think the issue of whether or not we should be involved in the world is beyond debate? Or is that a legitimate thing that people should talk about?

David Cohen:

It’s 100% legitimate. It’s legitimate to question what we’re doing, where we’re doing it, how we’re doing it. I think that is the essence of democracy. The only reason that the United States is involved in various countries and various places around the world is because we are trying to essentially fulfill one of the requirements in our constitution, to provide for our common defense. That’s why we’re out there, that people ought to have a say in this. My view is that it is hugely in our interest to spend the time, spend the money, have the people overseas, but to do so in a way that we rethink on a constant basis.

David Cohen:

And I also think it is critically important that we explain what we’re doing not in abstract notions of the American exceptionalism or whatever it is, but why it is that if we invest in the education of some girl in a refugee camp in Syria, or we invest in anti-corruption efforts in Central America, that that helps the United States both be more secure, it helps our prosperity, and frankly, it helps the image of America in the world, which in, as you say, amorphous ways, but in ways that ultimately are very real, helps to protect the United States.

Preet Bharara:

I mean, another easy question, in 60 seconds, explain how we solve all of our issues with North Korea through sanctions.

David Cohen:

I think that Trump-

Preet Bharara:

You can take 90, you can 90 seconds.

David Cohen:

I think that Trump administration has screwed this up to a fair they will. And by that, I mean-

Preet Bharara:

He says it’s all fixed.

David Cohen:

Yeah, that’s why it’s screwed up. I will give credit to the Trump administration, to some extent, for a limited time, in what they were doing at the beginning of this administration, in ramping up sanctions on North Korea. They built on a foundation that had been laid, but did some significant steps to enhance the pressure on North Korea and to bring in the Chinese to the effort. Those sanctions, that isolation of North Korea was starting to work. You could see it starting to work. Then you have Donald Trump just jump into the breach here in a way to claim glory in this Singapore summit, and it destroyed everything that had been being built.

David Cohen:

He comes out of that summit, first of all, with a declaration with Kim Jong-un, that is fool’s gold. It’s this disarmament declaration where there is no substance to it. He then tweets that, “We have solved the problem of a nuclear North Korea,” on his way back home. He’s recently told us that he fell in love with Kim Jong-un at the summit.

Preet Bharara:

I remember that, it was very touching.

David Cohen:

And the effect of that was to completely undermine the sanctions pressure that was being built. The Chinese in particular, but also the Russians are now essentially not working with us, or not working with us to the degree that they were previously, to put pressure on North Korea. And Kim Jong-un has, since that summit, taken a couple of steps that are completely reversible and ultimately meaningless in terms of restricting his program. He’s insisted that he only will negotiate with Donald Trump. So, you’ve got Pompeo, you’ve got Steve Biegun, you have others at the working level trying to work with North Korea, they don’t really care.

Preet Bharara:

And Dennis Rodman, too, probably.

David Cohen:

Yeah. I don’t know if they’ve Robin yet, but I don’t think it’s going to work.

Preet Bharara:

Really?

David Cohen:

Yeah. And so, look, ultimately, where we are now with North Korea is that the Trump administration is walking us into a position where North Korea is going to be a de facto member of the nuclear club.

Preet Bharara:

How soon?

David Cohen:

Well, they have nuclear weapons.

Preet Bharara:

Any way that they can deploy it against us?

David Cohen:

We don’t know with any precision whether their ICBMs can strike the United States. I don’t think we can exclude the possibility that as we sit here today, that North Korea can stick a nuclear weapon on top of an ICBM, and it can strike to U.S. So, that’s obviously a problem. That problem is compounded by the fact that the way this North Korea issue has been handled, we don’t have the rest of the world now working with us, to try to restrict and ultimately eliminate the North Korean nuclear program.

Preet Bharara:

Can I ask a personal question?

David Cohen:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Personal professional, don’t worry. Look of alarm on your face. Up to the last day that you were the Deputy Director of the CIA, you had presumably everyday access to and got briefed on the state of play of a lot of threats in the world, including, even though maybe we didn’t know with precision, but you knew that day, January 19, 2017, the best thinking of how soon North Korea would be able to deploy weapons against us, that they’ve developed already.

David Cohen:

Yes.

Preet Bharara:

Without being specific, you still have that data. You knew a lot of stuff. Do you miss knowing that stuff? Or, does it give you some relief, that it’s not on your plate anymore?

David Cohen:

No, I mean, let’s be honest, of course, I miss knowing that stuff.

Preet Bharara:

Did it bug you out every day? Like, “Oh, my gosh, look at all these threats.”

David Cohen:

It didn’t. And it didn’t, I think, in large measure because I also had visibility into what we were doing about it, and the people who were working on it, and the range of things that we were doing to try to provide for American security. Yeah, there were lots of really gnarly problems and some really frightening threats out there, but we were getting after it.

Preet Bharara:

To the extent you can be specific, without violating any duty, if you’d had another year, at the top there at the CIA, was there a particular area that you thought, “Wow, I would really like to see this through and spend another year trying to protect America from any particular threat”? If there’s one you could pick, what would it be? Or you can pick three.

David Cohen:

Well, look, the situation in Syria when we were there, and to some extent, even as we sit here today, was, I think, by far the most complex, difficult, and seemingly insoluble problem. And although I don’t pretend to believe that, had we had another year, we could have landed that aircraft in a way that peace and happiness broke out all over the Levant, that’s an issue where I think I would have liked to have been able to continue to work on it. Look, and the North Korea, Iran issues, those nuclear issues, I think are ones we wanted to continue to work on. The list is long, cyber, China, there’s a whole post.

Preet Bharara:

We’ve got to get you back in there.

David Cohen:

Yeah?

Preet Bharara:

Why do we have so many intelligence agencies? What is it? Like 300?

David Cohen:

Yeah, something like that. Because they grew up over time in a fashion that was not the, I think, the original design. I think if we were designing an intelligence community from scratch, it would look differently.

Preet Bharara:

You think we would have just one? Or do you think various agencies need to have some intelligence capability?

David Cohen:

It’s a really interesting and hard question. I think expertise that you can develop in a specific agency, like the NSA with its SIGINT capability and its encryptological capability.

Preet Bharara:

SIGINT, you mean signals intelligence.

David Cohen:

Signals intelligence, yeah. Could that develop within a broader intelligence agency? Yes, it could, it’s part of the broader intelligence community. But there’s also something about having a dedicated focus that helps to concentrate the activity and improve the performance.

Preet Bharara:

What do you think the morale of people is at the CIA right now?

David Cohen:

People ask me that a lot.

Preet Bharara:

They do?

David Cohen:

They do.

Preet Bharara:

I thought that was a very good question for you.

David Cohen:

It is a good question. And I think the right answer to that is to say, I think the morale in the agency is the same as the morale in the United States.

Preet Bharara:

That sucks.

David Cohen:

Yeah. Well, in some respects, it does. Because, there are a lot of people in United States who are quite unhappy with the way things are. The agency is a big place-

Preet Bharara:

Not everybody, but it’s a majority.

David Cohen:

Yeah. The agency is a big place, and it’s got people from all walks of life, from all around the country, who all have different perspective. That sort of on the political dimension, I do think one important aspect of morale at the agency is that there is a enormously powerful mission orientation to what people do there. So, what they think about Donald Trump, what they think about Hillary Clinton or whoever the Democratic candidates may be in 2020, or the other Republican candidates for that matter in 2020, is not that important. Their morale doesn’t depend on that, their morale depends on whether they’re able to pursue their mission.

David Cohen:

I do think that the way that this administration uses or does not use intelligence has some impact on how people in the agency feel about their day-to-day work, but it isn’t political, it’s that they’re busting their ass, they’re taking risk, they’re living in austere and difficult places overseas, away from family, away from friends, whatever it may be, and the product that they’re generating is not being used in the way it is supposed to be used, I think that has an impact.

Preet Bharara:

It’s very similar to the way I would answer if I was asked about the Justice Department. I think overall morale is high, because the work that people do is based on the mission that they have, and whether they’re pursuing gang violence, or homicide cases, republic corruption or anything else, they don’t love it, I’m sure, when the President of the United States cast aspersions on their attorney general and seems to think that there’s no such thing as truth, and his lawyer saying truth isn’t truth, and there’s such a thing as alternative facts, and all of that is not great. But probably, the morale they feel as citizens is in worse shape than the morale they feel in those jobs, unless you’re in a certain line of work.

Preet Bharara:

So, I imagine there’re some people who are working on particular issues, maybe the folks who were focusing on North Korea, may have their morale impacted more seriously than your average rank and file agent or analyst or an employee.

David Cohen:

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think the closer you are to the crazy, the more your morale is going to suffer.

Preet Bharara:

What do you make of John Brennan’s Twitter feed?

David Cohen:

Not crazy, first of all. Look, I think John, having spent a lifetime in the intelligence community, a lifetime looking at threats to the United States, looking at how autocrats operate and the damage that they can do to their country, and a lifetime understanding that his responsibility is to warn about threats, is acting in the way that a lifelong intelligence officer, who has a platform now as a private citizen should act. I don’t have a problem with John saying publicly whether by Twitter or otherwise, that he sees what this administration is doing and what Donald Trump in particular is doing as a threat to the United States.

David Cohen:

I think we’re all the beneficiaries of people like John, of people like Mike Hayden, John McLaughlin and others, people who have spent their life defending this country, Stan McChrystal, Bill McRaven, real true American heroes.

Preet Bharara:

So called generals.

David Cohen:

Right. People who have done extraordinary things and have spent their life thinking about these issues, saying, “There’s something seriously different and worrying going on.” I think they’re doing us a service.

Preet Bharara:

Say something hopeful about the future.

David Cohen:

I think that this country and the people who work for our government are fundamentally good. They will ensure, as we go forward, that what this country stands for, prevails, and that the harm done in these four years gets repaired.

Preet Bharara:

David Cohen, thanks again for joining us.

David Cohen:

Thank you.