HH: Joined now by our former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Ambassador Bolton, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you.
JB: Well, thanks for having me, glad to be back.
HH: You know, I flew across the country today, Ambassador Bolton, with a monkey, a very famous monkey, the monkey from Night At The Museum was in the seat next to me. I’m curious if you’ve ever done that.
JB: I can’t say that I have. That must have been an experience.
HH: It was different. It was unusual, but you’ve had some unusual experiences. Now let’s get to the serious stuff. The USA Freedom Act was passed today. I don’t like this law. Better than nothing, but I don’t like this law. What does John Bolton think about it?
JB: Well, I would have voted against it. I think that it really is being portrayed as better than I tis. I would have favored a straight reauthorization of the Patriot Act to get this debate into what I hope will be a Republican presidency so we can have an informed discussion rather than the hysteria and hype, and just outright deception that we’ve seen that has characterized the debate the past couple of years ever since the traitor, Edward Snowden, made these revelations. You know, the Freedom Act does not require the phone companies to keep these records. It imposes new burdens on the government. It leaves even when the phone companies keep the records, I worry that they’ll be subject to external manipulation and alternation. It’s a very sad day. It’s a triumph of demagoguery over good common sense.
HH: It is not only the phone company problem. Senator Hatch pointed out that there’s this amicus curiae provision which allows left wing activists into incredibly sensitive and already well-functioning process, that is the FISA court process, which I was a part years ago in the Reagan administration. And it was well-functioning then, and it’s still well-functioning now. What happened to allow this to happen? When did the breakdown occur?
JB: Well, I think the debate here has always been asymmetric. I mean, there were leaks about this program ten years ago, but it was really Snowden and the adulation that he got in some circles, and the absolute, outright falsehoods that he was able to promulgate and that others supported that gave many people the impression that NSA is listening into your phone calls without judicial warrants, it’s reading your emails without judicial warrants. All of this is flatly untrue. And the argument about the FISA court could only be made by two kind of people – 1) those who have never seen a FISA court proceeding and how it works, or 2) those who want to destroy American intelligence gathering techniques that require on electronic surveillance. You know, the reason that the FISA court approves the overwhelming number of petitions that it gets from the Justice Department is because the Justice Department office that’s been operating for some 20 years now before the court screens out anything that could be defeated. It only wants to go in when it knows it can meet the applicable legal standard. And to disregard that now and allow people who I think fundamentally have never been comfortable with intelligence gathering going back to the Church and the Pike Committees, I think, is a grave blow to our national security. It’s a victory for America’s enemies. There’s no doubt about it.
HH: You know, Mr. Ambassador, when I was first out of the court and into the Department of Justice, my first job was as the special assistant to William French Smith to review the FISA application after it had come from the FBI, after it had gone through the office of special intelligence, and then before it went to the AG when he would review it. So it had four reviews. This is the most reviewed upon court in the world by people with SEI clearances, and I cannot believe this has happened. Are we less safe today than we were a week ago?
JB: I think there’s no question about it. You know, I’ve actually signed FISA court applications back in the Reagan administration on a day when, for a lot of complicated reasons, I was the acting attorney general. So this was a good time for the office to be able to process things that had been held up for a while. And they were phenomenal documents.
JB: Feet thick…
HH: (laughing) You know them well.
JB: It took a long time. Yeah, no, look, this is, anybody who thinks that you can just walk into the FISA court and spy on your love life is delusional.
HH: No, and so how much less safe is the question. If we are less safe, as you say and I agree, how much less safe?
JB: Well, I think that’s obviously hard to quantify, and I will say this. I think there’s been so much discussion, publicly, since Snowden about how the metadata program works, that I’m afraid that not only the terrorists, but I think our foreign adversaries as well will adjust their communication security policies not to use the same cell phone or the same landline over and over again, constantly to be switching as you do with encryption, never using the same code too long, so that even if you put the program back in place, unfortunately, we’ve taught our adversaries too much of a lesson. And this, to me, shows the fundamentally asymmetric nature of this kind of debate. Those opposed to the program can say anything. They can make any accusation. And in this debate, they have. And the people who support it really are handicapped in being able to explain it, because the more you tell about it, the more you’re rewarding America’s enemies.
HH: More on this when we come back. Don’t go anywhere. My guest, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.
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HH: Eli Lake at Bloomberg View has written a column this afternoon the four Americans who are held hostage by Iran, including Amir Hekmati, a Washington Post reporter and a pastor and one other individual whose name I can’t remember. They’re four very, very American hostages. They aren’t Iranians who came here and then went back. They are Americans. And so Ambassador Bolton, the story by Eli Lake tells us that the Obama administration has urged silence on all of the families of the hostages, and now we learn that these hostages have in fact been tortured by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
JB: Well, unfortunately, it’s not surprising. I think the Obama administration will do almost anything to avoid in any way jeopardizing the nuclear talks with Iran. These Americans, and perhaps others we don’t know about, perhaps some Europeans I think are clearly being held by the ayatollahs as bargaining chips. They haven’t had to use them, yet, because the Obama administration is stumbling over itself to offer more and more concessions. But these are assets that the Iranians will deploy when they feel the need to do it, and I think our silence with respect to this mistreatment of Americans is just inexcusable. If the government exists to protect its citizens and to protect the nation in a sometimes hostile world, that’s what providing for the common defense means. And the administration has utterly failed in its responsibilities with respect to these, and I might say others around the world, too.
HH: Now there have been reports today that the French Prime Minister has announced more than 100 French jihadis have been killed in the Iraq-Syria-ISIS operations. Do we know how many have not been killed but have gone back to France, and perhaps to the United States as well?
JB: Well, we don’t, but we do have law enforcement and intelligence estimates going back months now that upwards of two to three thousand are believed to have come from Western Europe and the United States largely through Turkey into Syria to receive training in terrorism and ideology from ISIS, and then have gone back and reentered their countries. And it’s fairly easy for them to do it. They have legitimate passports. They’re carrying their own passports. Their visas simply show them going to Turkey and don’t show anything else. These people can get off a plane anywhere in Western Europe. They can probably get on a plane to the United States very easily. So I’m worried that ISIS at the same time it’s expanding and consolidating its control in what used to be Iraq and Syria, and more broadly through the entire region, is also exporting terrorists to Western Europe and the United States.
HH: Yeah, that’s, when I read his, Prime Minster, Manuel Valls, says 110 jihadis who left France to fight for ISIS died in Iraq and Syria. Then you have to ask yourself how many didn’t, because you know, they’re not going to kill every Frenchman who shows up there. It’s probably a factor of one in ten or one in twenty. What happens to those others who have been in combat training, in essence, for the last few years? And what happens as well to the 2,300 Humvees that they have come into possession in Ramadi now? John Bolton, this is a metastasizing problem that I don’t think anyone is actually paying attention to.
JB: Well, it’s getting worse both in the region and in Western Europe and the United States. I mean, they are clearly intending to get a fifth column into the West, and I’m just afraid that because of the way they’re doing it, our law enforcement and intelligence estimates may be far too low. But in the region itself, the administration is not, does not have a strategy, it’s not pursuing the objectives the President himself has said was his goal, which is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. The longer this goes on, the better able ISIS is to expand and consolidate its control. The harder it’s going to be, and sadly, the costlier it’s going to be to destroy them. I mean, ultimately, destroy is a long time away, and in the meantime, if they create a new state that continues to serve as the magnet for would-be terrorists and radical Islamists, it will be worse than the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
HH: Well, that is what, I’ve spent a couple of times in conversation with Mike Morell in the last two weeks, the former deputy director of the CIA, and he does believe that this is ultimately a question of anti-radicalization that’s got to be carried on by the Islamic countries. But we have got to have a role in stopping the spread of territory, because territory gives them a place to go to.
JB: Yeah, look, they are a direct threat to the United States. They are a direct threat in their region. and it’s not sufficient for the United States to say oh, let those countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt deal with it. They should have a major role. There’s no question about it. But are we really prepared to let American security and well-being depend on the performance of the Arab forces opposed to ISIS? I don’t think so. If you analyze it, they need our leadership. They’re not competent to do it without it. They need our resources. Ultimately, they’re going to need American boots on the ground. I think the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we craft the strategy, the better, because as I say, as ISIS grows in power and strengthens its hold over a territory that now exceeds the size of Great Britain, the human cost of destroying ISIS from our perspective is only going to rise. And this is entirely avoidable if the President would wake up. He could avoid it.
HH: Well, that goes back to the last point I want to make about what Morell said. As long as they have territory from around the world, whatever marginal percentage of Islamists are radicalized, know where to go. This is, they couldn’t get to Afghanistan very easily, post-9/11, and they’ve had nowhere to go that was over, right? Now they can just show up in Mosul or Ramadi, and they were welcomed.
JB: Yeah, the Turks opened the door to this because of their opposition to Assad. It’s now backfired against them, but let’s be clear. It’s not just what used to be Iraq or what used to be Syria. In the places where government has disappeared in Libya, now in Yemen, possibly in Somalia, all over North Africa and the Middle East as state structures collapse, terrorists, warlords and more organized groups like ISIS can take hold. So I just see this process continuing to worsen, particularly for the next 19 months when we have a president who simply doesn’t pay attention to it.
HH: And 30 seconds, Mr. Ambassador, are the Republican candidates, in your view, speaking about it often enough and with enough clarity and urgency?
JB: Not, yet. No, they’re moving in the right direction. That’s one of the things I’m going to do now that I’m not running. I know that shocked the political world, but I intend to spend as much time as is necessary to move all of them to a more complete description of their foreign policy views. They need to be ready on day one when they take office. They certainly need to be ready to debate Hillary Clinton, and I don’t think they’re there, yet.
HH: John Bolton, it’s always a great pleasure. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
End of interview.