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Politics

TNH Exclusive: An Interview with John Negroponte

A prominent figure in the administrations of both Presidents Bush, John Negroponte has had a career which exemplifies the term “career diplomat.” Having served as the first Director of National Intelligence, as well as Deputy Secretary of State, and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte is also one of the most prominent Greek-Americans. He recently sat down for an interview with The National Herald.

Let’s begin with a question about the Capitol attack, and with an element the intelligence community hates: were you surprised? Should any of us have been surprised?

Well, in my career, I’ve been in a number of different countries and situations where there were problems of maintaining public order, including Paris in 1968, when they had the so-called events of 1968, when the country was thrown into absolute chaos, and Paris was sort of taken over by revolutionaries. Rule number one when you face situations of disorder like that is to have enough force facing the troublemakers, because the greater the presence you have on the ground, the less likely they are to get out of hand. I think that what happened was the Capitol police did not have enough of a display of presence and force there, and I don't think they took the threat seriously enough. Then that went and invited all sorts of trouble. They almost let these people into the Capitol.

Was it a terrorist attack?

It's a combination of disorder and subversion at the same time. In a way, the nomenclature is going to be decided by the legal process. There are people who are being charged with various crimes and those are going to be brought to trial, and we'll see what people end up being convicted of. But it was certainly hostile. It was behavior that was hostile to our constitutional process. I think I’ll pass on what to actually call it at the moment. These people weren't trying to kill others or to send a political message; they were trying to derail our constitutional process. It's almost a higher crime than terrorism, if you will. It was sedition.

You have expressed your opinion about President Trump many times in the past few years; you've warned, among others of the possibility of such an event. And you've mentioned that it was a failing, which it was -on many levels: political, intelligence. Coming as it did at the end of a chain of events in the Trump presidency, was it an issue of lack of leadership in the intelligence community?

I think where you're trying to take me is to call it an intelligence failure, or something like that. I think it was just a badly mishandled situation. I think it was inadept, it was maladroit, they were not adept at handling a situation that could have been nipped in the bud, it could have been controlled if people had responded in a more effective and efficient manner. That's a separate question for whether I thought Mr. Trump was a good president or not. You know I opposed him before the 2016 election, and I opposed him again last fall. I was one of those former national security officials from the republican party who openly opposed Mr. Trump.

And you had previously endorsed Secretary Clinton.

Yes, I endorsed her, and I endorsed Mr. Biden. But certainly, in the case of Mr. Biden the endorsement -and all of us who were involved in preparing that letter and issuing it agreed-, the priority was not to make a political statement about how we preferred his philosophy or something like that. We thought he had the character and the integrity to do the job and he has character and integrity that Mr. Trump lacked -still lacks. He didn't deserve to be elected the first time and he certainly didn't deserve to get be elected the second time.

Do you still consider yourself a republican?

Yeah! (laughs) I think there's still hope for the party. And some of its core philosophies I still believe. It is the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt; a number of other very luminous political figures in our history -George H.W. Bush, especially. So, yes, I’m still a republican. And I think it's important that we have a healthy republican party. It's important for our democracy; you don't want any one party to predominate too much.

Following the attack on the Capitol, there's been a lot of talk about freedom of speech -in general, but also on social media. Is it better to host potentially dangerous speech in plain sight, where it can organize, but at the same time be monitored? Or is it better to try and drive it to darker corners, in the hope of making it more difficult?

Well, you raise a great issue, and it's an issue that Americans have debated for decades: The debate between personal freedom and maintaining law and order in society. And here we see this debate again. But I don't think smashing into the halls of Congress is exercising free speech! That's committing a crime. Just as Abraham Lincoln said, freedom is not the right to cry fire in a crowded theater. There comes a point where certain kinds of activity steps beyond the realm of free speech. Now, should people be able to say mostly whatever they want to say, on twitter and so on? I’m sure most of our courts and most of our legal system will, by and large, always bend over backwards to accommodate free speech, but, if it's incitement to violence, what do you do?

You have handled this issue for many years. Free speech is not just about being able to communicate what you choose; it is also about each individual selecting their audience. On many occasions, you have revisited this issue, as it was tied to your tenure as Director of National Intelligence. What is your position on mass surveillance of people in the United States right now?

I was a career diplomat and then I was asked to be Director of National Intelligence. And for me the main activity was foreign intelligence, not domestic intelligence. The whole issue of domestic intelligence makes me uncomfortable. I'm not sure intelligence officers should be conducting any kind of surveillance whatsoever. That's a police function; it should be best left to the FBI and to local law enforcement, and it should be done with proper warrants from judges who authorize the activity. And one has to show cause for doing it. So, I guess my basic position is my focus was on foreign intelligence. That was what I consider to be the emphasis of my activity, and I was always very leery of domestic intelligence. The one exception to that was when we were monitoring foreign telephone calls and foreign communications, communications from outside the country to people here in the United States, from people like the Taliban and people like ISIS reaching out to contacts in the United States. And to quote President George W. Bush on that one -which I thought was a pretty good summary of the correct position- he said, “when al Qaeda is talking to someone in the United States, I want to know about it.” But if you, in New York, are talking to somebody in California, even if it's about some of these same kinds of matters, basically I think you need to have a judge's warrant to conduct that kind of surveillance.

You were the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, which the Biden administration appears to be engaging more closely. Why is it so difficult for many Americans to accept this notion of multilateralism and this return of the country to international organizations and agreements?

We're a big country, and a global power. Like Russia, China, certain others, we may be having an inclination to feel less constrained by what other countries think; we're not as dependent, at least in the immediate, on the international system for our safety and security and well-being. But, I think, sometimes we lose sight of the degree to which we are interdependent and the degree that we ought to play a leadership role in an interdependent world. Americans sometimes forget that we're only 4% or 5% of the world's population. I think at the same time our country's economy represents maybe 20% of the world's GDP. Think about it this way: in 1945, as we emerged from WWII, the United States represented 50% of the world's GDP, as a result of having had an active economy during the war, and emerging as a sort of a real economic superpower immediately upon the war's end. So we have to listen to our better angels and appreciate more the value of the multilateral system, what it can bring to us, how we can leverage our influence, and we have to understand also how other countries, smaller countries in many instances, depend much more on the international system. They don't have -they can't afford- all these different institutions; they can't have an independent intelligence capability that has global reach; they can't do a lot of things that a country as big as ours can.

There's again a lot of effort going into a dialogue between Greece and Turkey. Are you following those advancements, and are you hopeful that something might come out of them?

I noticed they've just sort of started, and that they're not even being billed as negotiations, they're being billed as kind of exploratory talks. I always thought -way back in the 90s, I think, it was- when foreign minister Papandreou started his outreach to the Turkish government, I thought that was a positive development. Both countries belong to NATO, they’re neighbors. I know there's serious differences. There are very bitter lessons of history involved here. But, at the same time, we have to live in the world as it is, and we have to chart a more hopeful way forward. So, yes, I think it's a good thing. It remains to be seen whether any kind of serious agreements are possible or not. That's what these discussions might eventually lead to, but we don't know now, and I certainly would have to say that you know some of Turkey's behavior over in recent years and some of their domestic political developments have been a serious cause for concern.

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