Former NSC spokesman Ned Price joined me this morning for an across-the-aisle look-back at President Obama’s national security legacy as well as commentary on Donald Trump Jr.’s meetings and new CIA Director Pompeo’s prospects:
HH: Joined now by Ned Price. Ned was a special assistant to President Obama, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, and senior director of the NSC. Before that, he was with the CIA. He and I both work for NBC now, and so he’s a colleague. And I hope this is the first of many conversations, because I like having smart people from the other side of the aisle join me. Ned, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you on.
NP: Great to be here, Hugh. Thanks so much for having me.
HH: And I believe we share in common a friend in Dan Poneman, and probably a few other people around Washington, D.C. So, but there are two obligatory questions I ask every first time guest on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
NP: I’m ready.
HH: Have you read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright?
NP: I absolutely have. I, you know, Hugh, I started my career in government as a CIA analyst. I worked in the Counterterrorism Center, and I focused for a number of years on al Qaeda. And so that book was really one I looked forward to reading, and really one that was quite illuminating.
HH: Plus one for you. Now second one, was Alger Hiss a Soviet spy?
NP: I believe he was.
HH: Oh, plus two.
NP: I believe he was.
HH: Gosh, you’re already…
NP: I believe he was.
HH: You’re already off to a great start. All right…
NP: The Pumpkin Papers don’t lie.
HH: They don’t lie.
HH: Now let’s talk about, first, Donald Trump, Jr. I have a rule. It’s sort of like Avi in Snatch. This is Avi, Dennis Farina, in Snatch, on his advice.
Customs agent: Anything to declare?
Avi: Yeah, don’t go to England.
HH: And so my advice is don’t take meetings with Russians. What’s your reaction to my general rule?
NP: Well, I think that’s generally a good rule of thumb, and an especially good rule of thumb if you’re involved in a national political campaign, and a Russian, not only a Russian, a Russian government lawyer comes to you and offers information that is part of a Russian government operation. There should be a separate rule of thumb that covers that as well.
HH: Do you think that she was a FSB operative?
NP: Well, you know, I don’t know. I’ve read certainly that she is well-connected within, to the Kremlin, that she was, that she handled some prominent cases on behalf of Kremlin-linked officials, that when the Kremlin had a problem, they would turn to her. I think one of the key points, Hugh, we have to remember is that you know, in this country, we think of the private sector, and we think of the public sector. In Russia, there is the public sector, and there are some ancillary capitalistic elements that sort of resemble a private sector. But it’s by and large a, it’s by and large a status government. It’s run by the Kremlin. And it’s hard to differentiate, as it is with Ambassador Kislyak being a diplomat versus a spy. This Russian government lawyer being a private lawyer versus some sort of Russian government operative, I just don’t think that distinction holds.
HH: Now this, of course, you were in the government, so you were not in the campaign of 2012. But I go back to when Mitt Romney made Russia an issue with President Obama, and President Obama said the 80s called and they want their foreign policy back. Was that wise of the President at that time to dismiss the sinister nature of the Putin regime about which I have been consistent since he took office, and about Russia since 1978 when I went to work for Richard Nixon in exile?
NP: Well, look, I think 2011-2012 was in some ways an inflection point for our policy with Russia. Of course, the Obama administration, which I joined on the NSC staff in 2014, tried in its early days in 2009 to manufacture this reset. And frankly, there were some successes, the new START treaty being among them. But by 2011-2012, the relationship had taken a very different turn, and that really started with the protests in Moscow against President Putin. That, President Putin blamed, chiefly on Hillary Clinton, but also more broadly on the United States government, and with those protests, President Putin reoriented his policy. There was no more hope for a reset. There was no more hope for especially warm relations. And I think in 2012, we were still grappling with that transition. We didn’t quite realize, yet, just how much Moscow had reoriented itself. So look, I think clearly now, then-Presidential candidate Romney’s admonition is sound. I think he was on to something. Perhaps he was on to something before others were. But I think you talk to anyone now, and they will say that over especially in the second term of the Obama administration, we learned that Moscow had clearly reoriented itself, that any hopes for a reset were over, and this state, this country, indeed is and was, if not the, one of our greatest strategic adversaries.
HH: Now I have often said that I agree with Vice President Cheney who said when he looked in Putin’s eyes, he saw a KGB colonel…
HH: …and not with George W. Bush and not with President Obama. I have never had an opinion other than this. But I wonder if you believe, as I do, that Team Obama was imbued with an unrealistic view of the world – when the President called ISIS jayvees, when he talked about leading from behind, the Libya operation, all of it was more a hope than realism, Ned Price, and that we’re paying the bill now.
NP: Well, look, I think I would dispute some elements of the premise of that question. Leading from behind was never a mantra of the administration, for example. The jayvee quote, we can re-litigate that, but it was referring to not specifically to the force of the group we now know as ISIL. But look, the President had a, and still has, a worldview predicated on the power of collective action, of diplomacy, and of American leadership. He believed, and the administration believed, and you see this across all the initiatives that we accomplished, and all that we tried over the course of eight years, that American leadership has a unique and singular ability to galvanize the world when it comes to the greatest challenges we face, from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to the rise of nuclear weapons, to yes, the rise of ISIL. Look, you know, you talk of jayvee and leading from behind, but look what we did. We established a coalition of 68 member countries that took back most of ISIL’s once-held territory in Iraq and Syria. We did that not through by using tens or hundreds of thousands of American ground troops, but we did that through coalition air power. We did that through empowering partners on the ground. And we did that with great success. So look, you know, the President is often derided, President Obama is often derided by his critics for being weak, but look, he had a vision that was enacted and that led to concrete results, concrete results that often didn’t lead to as many Americans being in harm’s way, that spread the burden across those, across our partners in the world, including Arab partners when it comes to the war on ISIL, and achieved fantastic results across any number of fields.
HH: Talking with Ned Price, former NSC spokesperson, senior director at the NSC, a senior assistant to President Obama, NBC contributor. We are colleagues. Let me talk to you bluntly about the two strategic disasters of the Obama years, in my view – the red line pronouncement, and the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011. I have all the air time I need to explain why those are disasters, but Ned Price, I want to give you an opportunity to counter what is my daily narrative, that those two decisions – not to enforce the red line, and to abruptly withdraw troops, were strategic setbacks for the United States.
NP: Well, let’s first start with the red line. Look, there is this myth out there that Bashar al-Assad paid no price for the chemical attack outside Damascus in 2013. That’s absolutely not the case. You look at what happened in the aftermath of that, yes, the red line was set the year or so before. And after that chemical attack, you know what happened? Bashar al-Assad lost 1,300 tons of chemical weapons. Working with the Russians, we removed 1,300 tons of chemical weapons. This Syria regime was forced to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, a signing on, by the way, that was key to this administration, the Trump administration’s decision to authorize the use of military force against that airfield in April. But had we not enforced that red line by removing 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, you can bet that Bashar al-Assad, a brutal, murderous dictator, would have used those tons of chemical weapons on his people just as he did in August of 2013. He did not have that option, because the Obama administration, working with our international partners, to include Russia, made clear that we would not accept that use of chemical weapons, and that Damascus would pay a price. And that price came in the form of the removal and destruction of all those chemical weapons.
HH: Now Ned, let me interject for a second, though. Of course, we know from events, that not all chemical weapons were removed, and that he did, in fact, use them again, and he felt that he could do so with impunity based upon past American action.
NP: Well, let’s also be clear that it was four years in between 2013 and 2017, where we did not see large-scale use of chemical weapons. Let’s also be clear that we were always…
HH: But they were not all removed, correct?
HH: They, we were not successful in getting rid of the WMD that Bashar al-Assad had.
NP: So the Obama administration consistently spoke of declared chemical weapons. Of course, we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, so it was impossible for the United States to go to every suspected or declared chemical weapons compound and to determine, you know, what exactly was stored there and to ensure that it was removed. We relied on the UN, the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons working in tandem with other international partners, and our own, to be clear, intelligence assets, to determine where this was stored and where it needed to be removed from. Now when it comes to the April attack, it’s not clear to me, perhaps the U.S. government knows, but it’s not clear to me whether these were stockpiles that were in existence in 2013 that were never declared, and that were then used in that attack, or whether this was a stockpile that was newly-produced after the agreement.
HH: I don’t know, either, but it’s clear that the agreement that we entered into failed to deter Assad. Is that not true?
NP: Well, no diplomatic agreement is perfect, but I think what is, what is not arguable is the fact that that diplomatic agreement saved countless Syrian lives. It removed 1,300 tons of chemical weapons. Hugh, you know as well as I do that Bashar al-Assad is a dictator who would not hesitate to use tons of chemical weapons on his own people. And we actually made the Trump administration’s job much easier. What the Trump administration did was send 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against one airfield. Had we not enacted that diplomatic agreement with Russia, they would be faced with a much, much more dire problem in trying to attempt…
HH: Well, I will admit that.
HH: I will admit that. Getting rid of some is good, but declaring that they’re all gone is not.
NP: Well, well…
HH: Let me close by asking you, because I don’t want to run out of time, Ned, Mike Pompeo sat down with me last month, and we had a great conversation out at Langley. I know you worked at Langley. What do you make of the new director?
NP: Well, I think the jury is still out. You know, I think the CIA is an organization that needs strong, principled leadership, and critically, leadership that is non-partisan, leadership that is focused on one mission, and that’s the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency – to collect, analyze, disseminate intelligence to key U.S. policy makers on the most pressing challenges we face. Look, I mean, I’ll be clear. The CIA does not have a good track record when it comes to directors who come from partisan worlds. So the last director we had who came from Congress was Porter Goss. Porter Goss was the director when I enlisted with the CIA in 2006, and his tenure was disastrous, chiefly because he was a Republican congressman who never shed his partisan coat. I certainly hope that Director Pompeo is able to take a different path, that he is able to focus squarely and chiefly on the business of the Central Intelligence Agency. I’ve heard, you know, mixed things. He’s very clearly an ally of President Trump, and I think we need to be very careful and cognizant to ensure that what the CIA produces, especially when it comes to some of these more politically-charged and controversial areas like the Russian investigation, is not diluted, is not at all affected by partisan political winds. And I think we need to watch closely for that.
HH: Come back again, Ned, or stick around for the next segment. I know you’re on a schedule. I’m not sure if you can, but if you can, we’ll talk about 2011. But if you can’t, we’ll get you back another time. Thank you, my friend.
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HH: I continue my conversation with Ned Price, former President Obama aide and spokesman for the National Security Council, former CIA veteran as well. It’s a grown up conversation about important matters, the kind I like to have, and I appreciate Ned sticking around for this. Ned, before we go to the 2011 agreement, which I really want to get to, I’ve got to ask you. After the election, were you still at the White House after the election?
NP: I was. I was. I was there until, I was at the White House until the end of the administration in January.
HH: In your position on the NSC, after the election, did you receive any intelligence summaries that unmasked the identities of Americans involved in conversations with foreign nationals?
NP: No, I didn’t, Hugh, and the way the system works, and the way the system of checks and balances is set up, is the recipient of an intelligence report would on a case by case basis, when necessary, request that the identity of a U.S. person be unmasked when it is necessary to understand the significance of a report. The request would then go back to the appropriate agency. If, for example, it was an NSA report, the powers that be at NSA would determine is this request valid, should this person be unmasked, and if the answer was yes, then the identity of that individual would go back to the recipient who ultimately requested it. So it’s a system of checks and balances. It’s a system that is very limited in scope, and that is narrowly distributed to the petitioner. So no, I did not see that, and that’s for a very good reason, because of the very rigorous checks and balances that are in place.
HH: And that’s a controversy. I just want to know if you were involved in it. Have you been asked to testify on the unmasking issue, yet?
NP: I have not, no.
HH: Okay. Let’s move on to 2011, because again, I want to give you the opportunity to fully state. I have been adamant that this was the great strategic failure of the Obama administration, was to withdraw troops and not to extend the status of forces agreement, and the fact that we reintroduced thousands of American special forces prove my point. But I want you to have the floor to respond to that to my audience which has heard that, you know, a hundred times.
NP: Well, Hugh, I think first, we have to go back to 2008 if we’re going to talk about the withdrawal in 2011. It was in 2008 that George W. Bush signed the status of forces agreement with then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And it was that status of forces agreement in 2008, again signed by the Bush administration, that stipulated that all American troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. When the Bush administration negotiated that, there was no wiggle room. You heard a very firm message from al-Maliki that American troops on the ground in Iraq were a non-starter going forward. He actually said that Iraq should get rid of them in order to protect its young democracy. So the Bush administration didn’t have a choice. When the Obama administration came in, in January of 2009, that agreement, that status of forces agreement, was still the law of the land. Now look, the thing is, the Obama administration, including then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, looked very closely at options to keep American forces in Iraq. But we have one cardinal rule, and we had one ultimate priority, and that was the safety of our men and women in uniform overseas. The Obama administration, in all theaters where they were deployed, did everything possible to ensure that we gave and provided the utmost protection to these young men and women who had signed up potentially to risk their lives in service to their country. We were not able to arrive in an agreement with Maliki’s government that would afford protections including immunity from Iraqi law to our men and women were they to remain in Iraq. So the option was would we fulfill the agreement that the Bush administration signed, or would we leave tens of thousands of troops in harm’s way and vulnerable not only to the forces on the ground opposed to the American presence there, but also to Iraqi law? And this is not some academic exercise. We all remember the incident with Blackwater in the square in Baghdad where 17 civilians were killed. Those people would have been subject to Iraqi law.
HH: So Ned, I get that, but what you said, we were not able to arrive at an agreement, is what we in the law would consider an admission against interest. But I want you to confirm, if you can, thousands of American troops went back without a status of forces agreement under President Obama. Am I not correct about that?
NP: Thousands of troops went back under a new Iraqi leadership, a leadership that was not sectarian, a leadership that was committed to fighting ISIL under the government of Haider al-Abadi.
HH: But without a status of forces agreement.
NP: It was a government that provided the assurances we needed to ensure that our men and women in uniform would not be in harm’s way, and would not be subject to the whims of another country’s judicial process, and frankly, a judicial process that wasn’t as developed…
HH: Last quick question, and then come back often, Ned.
NP: I will.
HH: Do you believe the withdrawal of American troops led to the rise of ISIS?
NP: Well, look, in 2011, it would have been quite hard to foresee the rise of ISIL. ISIL was not a group that really started its rise, and certainly its spread, until 2014. So you’re talking three years in the future. But look, had a status of forces agreement been in place, had the Bush administration signed one that would have allowed us to remain, to leave some troops in place, yes, I think it’s fair to say that the rise of ISIL, it may not have been prevented, but its spread may have been staunched. But that’s just not where we were.
HH: And Ned Price, I appreciate the candor. I really do. That’s very candid. And do come back a lot. I’ll see you on an NBC set soon.
End of interview.