Politics

Deputy CIA Director David Cohen on CIA’s 75th anniversary — “Intelligence Matters”

On “Intelligence Matters” this week, host Michael Morell is joined by Deputy Director of the CIA David Cohen to talk about the 75th anniversary of the agency and his career path to its top ranks. Cohen details the invisible work of CIA agents and responds to critiques of the agency. Cohen also weighs in on key players on the world stage: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. He notes that the CIA has not seen indications that Russians are planning to use nuclear weapons. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • Accomplishments, critiques of CIA: “I think part of the critique of the agency is really a broader critique of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national security decision making. We don’t make policy. We, as we’ve discussed, we provide intelligence, intelligence analysis to the policy community and over to the policymakers to make the policy. So I think that’s one thing. A second thing is, as I was mentioning earlier, a lot of what we do are not these big headline moments. It is the daily work of agency officers. And others around the IC to collect intelligence, analyze it, package it up, produce it, provide insight and deliver it to the policy community. That is entirely invisible to the American public. So I do think we are putting points on the board every day. But that scoreboard is within the confines of the agency. So people don’t see that. And so I think some of our successes, some of what we have accomplished over the years is not, by its very nature, is not visible to the American public.”
  • Russia and use of nuclear weapons: “I think your listeners will not be surprised to learn that we are paying very close attention to the potential use of WMD, whether it’s nuclear or otherwise. We have not seen, as we sit here today, we have not seen indications that the Russians are planning to use nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, to a demonstration strike. We haven’t seen the movements that would be associated with that. But we’ve got to continue to keep a close eye on this.”
  • What Xi Jinping is learning from Russia’s war in Ukraine: “He’s also learning lessons on a couple of different layers here. One, intelligence. I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that the Russian intelligence services did not serve Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership well here. They obviously grossly underestimated both the Ukrainian capacity to resist, as well as the willingness of the West, the EU, the United States, others to come together to support the Ukrainians. So I think Xi Jinping is wondering about his intelligence services, particularly. I think he’s looking at a lot of this obviously through the lens of Taiwan and his long-term goal of gaining control of Taiwan. So I think he’s questioning intelligence services. I think he’s questioning his military.

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF CIA DAVID COHEN 

PRODUCER: Paulina Smolinski

MICHAEL MORELL: David, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN:  Thank you. Great to be back. 

  1. MICHAEL MORELL: The last time you were on, you were the former deputy director of CIA. And now you’re the deputy director of the CIA again. So this is kind of backwards, right? Usually the correct- 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: -Back to the future 

MICHAEL MORELL: Back to the future. Anyway, it’s absolutely great to have you. And I want to come back later to this question of being deputy director twice, because I think that’s actually important. 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Sure. 

MICHAEL MORELL: I actually have a journalistic responsibility here to tell my listeners that you and I are friends. So I’ve now done that. 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Okay good. 

MICHAEL MORELL: And I should also tell them that our wives and our kids are a heck of a lot smarter than both of us.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yes, I think everybody who knows us agrees with that. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, this month, the Central Intelligence Agency is celebrating its 75th anniversary. And for those who don’t know, the CIA was created by the 1947 National Security Act, which became a law in the summer of that year. But which became effective in September. So happy birthday.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Thank you very much.

MICHAEL MORELL: And for the 50th anniversary in 1997, I was this mid-level CIA official in charge of the PDB staff and the briefers. I wonder where you were in 1997.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: So in 1997 I was a partner in a law firm here in Washington, D.C., and was actually right on the cusp of my first foray into federal service, into going to the U.S. government. So about a year or two years later, I went into the Treasury Department. This was at the tail end of the Clinton administration. Went in as a lawyer and began working on what we now call illicit finance. It was the anti-money laundering new office that was being set up in the Treasury Department at that point.

MICHAEL MORELL: So how did you get from that job in the Treasury Department to deputy director CIA? What’s that story?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: A somewhat circuitous route, I would say. So I did that job for a couple of years until mid 2001. Went back out, practiced law for about seven and a half years. And then at the Obama administration is coming in at the beginning of 2009. Many of the folks who I had worked with when I was in the Treasury Department previously were coming back in different roles, in different capacities. So Larry Summers was coming back. He was going to the White House. Tim Geithner, who had been an undersecretary of Treasury, was coming back to be the Treasury secretary. And there were other folks I knew, Neal Wolin, who had been the general counsel who I worked for at Treasury, was back at the White House as Larry’s lawyer at that point. Anyway, I begged and pleaded and cajoled people to take me back. And so I came back into Treasury right at the beginning of the Obama administration, in the new part of the Treasury that had been set up in the meantime, that was focused on illicit finance, on our sanctions programs, on combating money laundering around the world 

MICHAEL MORELL: I think it was created as a result of 9/11

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: It was created as a result of 9/11. It was sort of the national security side of the Treasury.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right. And then, deputy director, how do you go from there to deputy director?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: So I came in as the assistant secretary for terrorist financing, did that for a couple of years, then became the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. And in that role, in both of those roles, I worked quite a lot with the intelligence community, with the CIA in particular, and also worked with a guy named John Brennan, who, for the first four years of the Obama administration, was in the White House as the counterterrorism coordinator, the deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism. I was doing a lot of counterterrorist financing work. He had the whole counterterrorism beat in the White House. He had then, as you know, become the director. I was at the Treasury.

MICHAEL MORELL: In fact, you and I sat in many, many deputies meetings.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Indeed. Right. And he was the director. I was actually about to leave the Treasury Department. It was the sort of November, December of 2014. I had been in government for about six years at that point, and I got a call the- so your successor, Avril Haines, who was the deputy at the time, was leaving that job to come down to the White House to be the deputy national security adviser. And so John needed a new deputy, and I had gotten to know John a little bit in my prior capacity. And I knew Avril and a bunch of other folks. And I got a- basically got a call out of the blue initially from Avril who said that John was going to be calling me. I thought it was actually a prank call initially. And but, you know, John called, asked if I was interested and, you know, I jumped at the chance.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So here’s the interesting question. You know, going back to where we started in Washington, D.C., everybody is focused on the next step in the ladder. So you come back to the Biden administration as deputy director again. And that was the job you had at the end of the Obama administration. Why did you do that?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: The mission, I mean, basically the mission. So I had the chance to do this job for two years, for the last two years of the Obama administration. And I loved it.

MICHAEL MORELL: It’s a great job.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN:  It’s a fantastic job. And for someone like me and like you who are really interested in national security and foreign policy. As well as in serving our country. It is an extraordinary opportunity to work with really, really fantastic people doing really interesting and consequential things. And so I had the opportunity to do that for a couple of years when, you know, in the transition into the Biden administration, this opportunity arose and the opportunity arose to work with Bill Burns, who I had known from my Treasury days when he had been at the State Department. It was a very easy decision that I was delighted to have the opportunity to come back. And to keep on working with the terrific folks at the CIA and really around the intelligence community, around the national security establishment.

MICHAEL MORELL: So a lot of our, David, a lot of our listeners are students or young professionals who are thinking about their future in their careers. You know, you’ve made it to the deputy director of CIA. What advice would you have for a student or a young professional, you know, who wants to be successful, who wants to rise in the U.S. government?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: I think it’s a couple of things. I mean, I think one is working in the federal government, working in the national security space requires dedication. It requires you’re working hard. The folks who do these jobs, the folks who I get to work with every day, are deeply committed to what they do. And if you want to progress, if you want to succeed you’ve got to be able to work hard and deliver. Take it seriously and produce. So I think that’s part of it. The other is like, I tell folks who I have the chance to mentor and talk to about this, which is to keep your eyes open about- for opportunities. In my path, as I said, was this circuitous path to this job. I was very interested in foreign policy, national security issues in college. I decided not to pursue a career in this field. At that time, I went to law school, but I maintained my interest. And when that first opportunity arose back in the end of the Clinton administration to go in something that was not squarely in the national security space, but was at least adjacent to it. I took that opportunity. It was not a particularly smart career move at the time. I was a young partner of this law firm. And I left the law firm to take what was essentially a newly made up job, but that then created other opportunities. And when the opportunity came to go back in at the beginning of the Obama administration, again, I was a partner in a law firm. But I jumped again. So I think staying alert to opportunities and being willing to not think you have to go on the predetermined path.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. You know, I did that inside the agency. I just didn’t go up the ladder. I took advantage of all these different opportunities. So the 75th anniversary. How does this secret intelligence organization celebrate a birthday? Was there a cake? Did somebody blow the cake out? How does that work?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: I am neither going to confirm nor deny whether there was a cake. But we did a whole bunch of things. And it was, as you said, the actual birthday, I think was just a few days ago. But we have been building up and celebrating our birthday over the course of this past year. We’ve done a number of events. President Biden came out to the agency and spoke to the workforce from in front of the memorial wall there, expressed his appreciation for what we are doing for the national security and the sacrifices and the successes that the agency has delivered over the years. That was that obviously the highlight of our 75th anniversary programming. We’ve done other things. We had relatively recently inducted another five trailblazers into the roster of CIA trailblazers. 

MICHAEL MORELL: What’s a trailblazer?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: So a trailblazer is someone who has contributed to the agency in a way sort of above and beyond your average agency officer. It goes back to the OSS days, to the predecessor organization, to the CIA. And we have over, I think this actually began, I think it’s a 50th anniversary maybe.

MICHAEL MORELL: I think so, yes. 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yes, it’s the 50th with the original 50 trailblazers. And now on the 75th anniversary, we have topped up to 75. And so we inducted five new trailblazers. One, which was actually I think was long overdue, a woman named Virginia Hall, who was originally an officer in the OSS and then was the first paramilitary case officer in the agency back in the in the 1950s responsible for running agent networks behind enemy lines in denied areas, training, equipping, organizing resistance forces. And really a pioneer in the agency, the folks who are in the director of operations, there are paramilitary officers in particular. Look to her and her example, as still the shining example of how to do these sorts of operations. So we inducted a number of trailblazers and then one other thing we did. We have a museum in the agency, which we’ve had for a number of years. It has recently been refurbished. And so we had the opportunity to open up our new museum, which has artifacts from the agency’s history going back to its founding even before up until the present time. I think the most recent artifacts that we have in the museum is we have the model of the compound in downtown Kabul where Ayman al-Zawahiri was was living.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you built a model of that the way we did Abbottabad.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Exactly. So we have both the Abbottabad model where Osama bin Laden was living. And we have a model-

MICHAEL MORELL: -That’s very cool-

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: -of the compound and in downtown Kabul as well. And a whole host of other very cool artifacts to trace the history of the agency.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, let me ask a couple of questions about CIA’s 75 year history. How does the organization define success? There has to be some kind of yardstick to measure yourself against. What is that yardstick? Maybe it’s not just one thing. Maybe it’s many things. And based on that, how do you assess how the agency’s done over its 75 years?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Well, I think the agency has delivered for the country over these past 75 years in a really significant way. Which is not to say that we haven’t had our ups and downs, that it is not a history of unalloyed success. There have been stumbles along the way, at times where we have fallen short. But our fundamental responsibility is to provide the policy community, the president, with a decision advantage, with an understanding of what’s happening in the world so that the president, his closest advisers, and others around the community, around the foreign policy, national security community can make decisions about how to conduct U.S. foreign policy and conduct our national security in a way that gives us an advantage over our adversaries. And the agency, I think, delivers quite well on that fundamental responsibility. A lot of what draws attention are headline moments. And the agency has contributed to sort of signal successes in American foreign policy and national security over the years. But the way I would really grade the agency is how we do on a day in, day out basis in sort of the blocking and tackling of what it is that we are asked to do for the policy community. And that is collecting intelligence, collecting human intelligence in particular. Being an all source analytic shop that collates all that we collect and that our partners around the IC collect. And delivering insight and as I say, sort of decision advantage, indications and warning, understanding.

MICHAEL MORELL: Reducing uncertainty.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah, exactly. To the policy community. And I think we do a pretty good job. But I think the grade I would give us, though, is incomplete. Because I think our job is never done. So I don’t think it’s- I don’t think we’re ready to get a letter grade yet.

MICHAEL MORELL:Yeah. I’m going to show my bias here and say, with regard to stumbles, there’s not an organization on the planet that doesn’t have its stumbles. 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Sure

MICHAEL MORELL: Ours stand out because they’re so consequential, which tells you that the work itself is so consequential. So can you react to that?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah, I think that’s right. And look, I mean, as you know, the agency is asked to do difficult things. Whereas, you know. You know the motto: We go where others don’t go. We do things that others can’t do. And working in that space, working in the space where we are asked to do hard things, occasionally we will fall short and we have. And I’ll say one of the things that I am proud of in this museum that I mentioned is that we don’t shy away from some of the stumbles that we have encountered over time. There is a display, for instance, about the Iraq WMD intelligence and all about how the agency, I think, did not, frankly, perform the way it should have and could have in that whole episode, and in particular with Secretary Powell’s speech at the U.N. We are, and I think and I think it’s important that we acknowledge that. That we recognize that. 

Our museum is in large part used as a teaching tool for our officers. And so as we also show successes that the agency has had over the years, it’s also important that we you talk about our stumbles, and there have been those stumbles. I think it is largely born, if not entirely born, out of the effort to do hard things, in uncertainty, in difficult places.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So I think the media. I’m gonna show my bias again. I think the media has been harder on us than is reality. I’m thinking of a book like Legacy of Ashes, which basically says everything we’ve ever done is a failure. And I’m wondering, is that because- do you agree with that, number one? And if so, is that because of the nature of the role of the media in our society that they have to question government or, you know, are we not sharing enough? What’s your reaction to that? Is my premise wrong?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah. So I think at least the premise of the book of everything being a failure, I do not subscribe to. I think that is not right. Look, I think that the-  I think a couple of things. One is I do think one of the things that we have an obligation to do as senior agency officials and why I’m happy to be here today is I do think it’s important for us to talk about what the agency does so people understand what we do, what we’re asked to do and what we’re not asked to do. So I think part of the critique of the agency is really a broader critique of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national security decision making. We don’t make policy. We, as we’ve discussed, we provide intelligence, intelligence analysis to the policy community and over to the policymakers to make the policy. So I think that’s one thing.

A second thing is, as I was mentioning earlier, a lot of what we do are not these big headline moments. It is the daily work of agency officers. And others around the IC to collect intelligence, analyze it, package it up, produce it, provide insight and deliver it to the policy community. That is entirely invisible to the American public. So I do think we are putting points on the board every day. But that scoreboard is within the confines of the agency. So people don’t see that. And so I think some of our successes, some of what we have accomplished over the years is not, by its very nature, is not visible to the American public. But whether the media plays a role in this or not, I will leave to others.

MICHAEL MORELL: You’ll leave to me.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: I’ll leave to you. 

MICHAEL MORELL: The last question on the 75 years, I was just at a conference at the Belfer Center last Friday at the Kennedy School at Harvard on the 75th the whole day. And I was cornered by some academic historians who said-

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: -sounds scary-

MICHAEL MORELL: Who said, Michael. I was actually quite worried. Michael, you know, you guys release the analytic views of the agency at a certain point in history. But you don’t release the underlying intelligence that led to those judgments. And the point they made to me was because of what you do, we can assess whether the analysis was right. But we can’t assess how well the agency did at collection and how hard, and therefore, how hard the analysis was to do. How do you respond to that critique. I did not respond well to it. I didn’t have an answer for them.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Well, look, I think it is frankly, harder to release the building blocks, the underlying intelligence collection that goes into the analysis because that has the greater likelihood of revealing sources and methods. And one of our absolute fundamental obligations is to protect our sources. We have to recruit people who at great risk, risk of their lives, provide us information. And in analysis you can allow a little bit- 

MICHAEL MORELL: – It is not as clear 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Right. But if we were to release the underlying intelligence, that just heightens the risk that our sources and and our methods in collecting intelligence would be revealed. I think it is just more difficult to do that. I understand the critique, right? If you’re an academic and really want to understand how insightful the analysis is, understanding the building blocks that went into it would be useful. But we have an intelligence agency to run and maintaining faith with our assets and maintaining the secrecy and the clandestinity of what we do will enable us to continue to do that in the future.

MICHAEL MORELL:You also have a group of historians inside who aren’t shy about being critical and they have access to everything.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: I think that’s actually absolutely right.

MICHAEL MORELL: So let’s turn David, let’s turn to the future. What needs to stay the same? What needs to change for the CIA to continue to play its role in the U.S. foreign policy process effectively? How do you think about that?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: I think this is also part of our 75th anniversary, right? I mean, we’ve taken time to recount our successes to be clear eyed about where we’ve fallen short, but also to take stock of what we need to do going forward so that the next 75 years and beyond, the agency is able to do its job. I think the way we are posturing ourselves for the challenges to come is to be very deliberate about our strategic direction. So we are taking our cue from the policy community, from the president. Substantially increasing our focus on the People’s Republic of China. And that means organizationally creating a new mission center, which is how we organize the agency’s activities, a new mission center that is dedicated to China, to the PRC. We’re also increasing resources. We’re increasing the number of Mandarin speakers that we have in the agency. And we are ensuring that the agency as a whole, not just the China Mission Center, but the agency as a whole, is increasing its focus on the range of challenges that we face from the PRC. Military challenges, technological challenges, ideological challenges. You know, the list goes on.

MICHAEL MORELL: And a global focus.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: A global focus. I mean, it is the responsibility of our Western Hemisphere Mission Center to be thinking about how the PRC is operating in South and Central America. The same is true for our Africa Mission Center, our European Mission Center. Part of what they need to do in addition to a whole host of other things in their areas of responsibility is to think about and to work against the malign influence of China in those areas.

MICHAEL MORELL: This is really important. The only other two issues in the history of the agency on which we had a global focus were the Soviet Union and then counterterrorism. This is now the third, China.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah. So the China Mission Center was organized so that we are structurally and from a resource perspective focused on this issue. So we’re looking at an increasingly adversarial China. We are obviously focused on an aggressive Russia. And so this under the rubric of great power competition, we are obviously, and we can talk more about this, have been spending a substantial amount of time and attention on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But by creating the structure of the China Mission Center and of some other sort of subsidiary changes that we’ve made. We are trying very hard to keep our eye on the long term challenge that the PRC presents. 

So you’ve got China. You’ve got great power competition. We’re also focused on revolution in technology. The world is obviously awash in new technologies developing very quickly. The pace of technological change is something that as an agency and, frankly, as a national security community, we need to do a better job of understanding how new technologies from biotech to advanced computing to wireless, a whole host of different technologies create risk to our national security and we need to understand how our adversaries are weaponizing these technologies. And we need to do a better job, frankly, of engaging with the private sector so that we understand how technology is developing and how we can use technology better in what we do. So the other sort of major structural change that we have made in the last year sort of set us up for the future, is we created another mission center, the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, whose responsibility is to think about broader issues of national security: climate change, global health, global food security. These sorts of issues which have real national security implications but are sort of not traditional areas of focus, but then also with a really intense focus on technology and technological developments, both as a threat that we need to understand better. And we need to collect on. We need to write about. We need to explain what we see out there to our policy community, just like any other threat, but also do a better job of incorporating technology into what the agency does every day so that we’re able to execute our mission more effectively. 

And as we focus on China and technology, we will, of course, continue our efforts to protect this country against the threat of terrorism. It remains an important responsibility of the CIA to collect intelligence on terrorist threats, to work with others around the IC and around the national security community to address those threats. I think the strike that was taken by the U.S. government against Zawahiri in Kabul six weeks ago is a good indication the agency was deeply involved in developing the pattern of life of Zawahiri there and assisting the effort. Earlier this year, there was a U.S. counterterrorism operation that took out the leader of ISIS, Haji Abdullah, in Syria. So the agency going forward is going to continue its important counterterrorism mission as well.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned Russia-Ukraine, and maybe we could talk a bit about that because I think this is a historical event. I mean, someday in the CIA museum, there’s going to be something about Russia-Ukraine. I’m not going to ask what you guys are doing operationally, but this is an event that I think is going to define history for some time. So let me ask you some questions about that, and let me do it in a bit of a strange way. What I want to do, David, is first throw out some names of some of the key players and just get your quick reaction. And then I throw out some concepts. and get your quick reaction. Let’s start with the antagonist, Vladimir Putin.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: So I think as we sit here today. And I’m mindful that this is going to air probably in a week or so. 

MICHAEL MORELL: We’ve got to be careful here 

c Yeah. But I think this is a trend line that has been developing over some period of time and is, I think, not likely to change between when we’re together and when this broadcasts. Putin is feeling increasingly challenged in the pursuit of what remains a constant objective. So his objective is to dominate and control Ukraine. I don’t think there’s any reason to think that his fundamental objective, which led to the invasion last February and has just in the last day or so, led to him doing this partial mobilization, the draft in Russia, that objective remains unchanged. I think he even said so, frankly, in the speech he did recently. That being said. I think he also recognizes, and it took a little while for him to come to this recognition for a variety of reasons. But I think he now recognizes that his military adventure into Ukraine is not going well. They are not making, they were not making any progress in the east. They had, after the initial foray into Kiev was rebuffed, they sort of swung around and were trying to essentially take over the entire Donbas. Started in Luhansk and they were going to move down into Donetsk that had stalled out basically over the summer. The Ukrainians were holding them back.

In the last several weeks, the Ukrainians have kicked off two counter offensives, one up in the northeast in Kharkiv, where they have made really significant strides in pushing the Ukraine, the Russians back essentially to the Ukrainian Russian border. Down in the South in Kherson, there’s another offensive underway, which is, I think, is not progressing quite as well as the one in the northeast. But the skill and the success of the Ukrainians, particularly up in Kharkiv, I think has caused Putin to question his military. To question the capability of his military. And I think has led to this decision to do this mobilization which he has resisted doing.

When the war started Putin had about 180,000 troops amassed on the border of Ukraine, and they were part of the invasion. Now, six, seven months in, they have about 80,000 troops either killed or wounded who are no longer in the fight. He’s now calling for about 300,000 new draftees essentially to come.

MICHAEL MORELL: People who served in the military before

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Who have some military experience. They have a compulsory one year military service. So he has a large pool to to pull from. But what the forces that he has used, the troops that he’s used up to now have predominantly been young men and boys from outside of the major population areas and certainly outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. And so he has been able to externalize to some extent away from the elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg the pain of this invasion. Now with this mobilization, and you can see it with people voting with their feet in the last couple of days. You know, trying to get out of Russia, the reality of what has happened in Ukraine and the difficulty that the Russian military is having there is becoming more apparent. And I think that’s something that Putin is going to have to try to manage over the next weeks and months.

MICHAEL MORELL:  Ukrainian President Zelensky.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: You got to tip your hat to him. 

MICHAEL MORELL: You sure do. 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Right. I mean he has stepped up in a way that’s, you know, I think few people expected he would be able to. In a couple of really important respects. Certainly internationally he has been very effective in galvanizing support for the fight against the Russians. Internally he has managed to keep together what historically has been a fractious internal political environment in Ukraine. Obviously, the Russian invasion tends to concentrate the mind and concentrate the and reduce, I think, some of the difficulty of political intrigue, that would normally be the case and was the case in Kiev over the years. But he’s done a pretty good job of keeping the political situation within Ukraine well aligned to their objective here of fighting off the Russians. And he’s shown himself to be a pretty good commander in chief of the Ukrainian military. Now, a lot of the credit in how the Ukrainian military has performed is obviously, should go to the folks on the front lines who have shown incredible bravery in the face of the Russian army and their and their commanders. They’ve done a remarkable job. As well as Ukrainian citizens who have themselves obviously endured just horrific atrocities, but have also been an important contributor to the war effort in Ukraine.

MICHAEL MORELL: One more name. Xi Jinping as it relates to Russia-Ukraine.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah. So Xi Jinping, I think, is watching very carefully what is happening in Ukraine. Just before the invasion, Putin was in Beijing for the Olympics and the two of them declared their partnership without limits, sort of not further defined. But it was a part, but they said that they had this partnership without limits. I think what we have seen is Xi Jinping be quite cautious about the limits of his partnership with Putin and with Russia and has taken advantage of the situation. He’s been importing oil from Russia at a reduced price. Frankly, not unlike what they did back in 2014 when the Russians went into Ukraine the first time. So he is seeing an opportunity here to take advantage of his good friend, Vladimir Putin. But I think he’s also learning lessons on a couple of different layers here. One, intelligence. I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that the Russian intelligence services did not serve Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership well here. They obviously grossly underestimated both the Ukrainian capacity to resist, as well as the willingness of the West, the EU, the United States, others to come together to support the Ukrainians. So I think Xi Jinping is wondering about his intelligence services, particularly. I think he’s looking at a lot of this obviously through the lens of Taiwan and his long term goal of gaining control of Taiwan. So I think he’s questioning intelligence services. I think he’s questioning his military. I think seeing how the Russian military has struggled in Ukraine has likely caused him to question just how well the PLA, the Chinese military would perform if they were called up.

MICHAEL MORELL: Which hasn’t fought a war since 1979.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Right. And in so, which is sort of the same problem, in part the problem that the Russian military encountered, they had not seen combat for a long time. And when they got into combat, their weaknesses were revealed. Economically, he’s got to be paying attention. The sanctions that have been levied against Russia by the E.U., by the U.S., by others around the world, have had a significant, really significant impact on Russia, on its economy, on its ability to continue to feed their military capability. It’s obviously slightly different, more than slightly different situation in the Chinese economy versus the Russian economy. But I think he’s got to be thinking about how the economic response to the invasion of Ukraine would play out if there were a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The international reaction. I think he’s paying attention to. Xi Jinping wants to claim the mantle of global leadership. I think one thing that is evidence from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Putin’s standing in the world has gone down, not up. So I think Xi Jinping’s going to be thinking about that. 

And then finally, I think he’s got to be thinking about how Ukraine has performed in fending off an invader. And he’s got to be asking himself how Taiwan would perform if there were a military effort to gain control of Taiwan. So I think on a whole host of issues,  I think Xi Jinping is trying to understand the lessons to be learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me quickly run through some concepts and just get your reaction. Risk of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Putin. Is this total intimidation or only intimidation, or is there a real risk here?

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Look, I think we need to pay attention to what Putin says and his use of nuclear saber rattling. Recently, something that we’ve got to take seriously. Our responsibility as an intelligence agency and intelligence community is obviously to pay attention to what our adversaries say, but also what they do. And so I think your listeners will not be surprised to learn that we are paying very close attention to the potential use of WMD, whether it’s nuclear or otherwise. We have not seen, as we sit here today, we have not seen indications that the Russians are planning to to use nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, to a demonstration strike. We haven’t seen the movements that would be associated with that. But we’ve got to continue to keep a close eye on this.

It’s highly irresponsible for the leader of a nuclear weapons state to engage in this sort of nuclear saber rattling. I think every nuclear weapon state has a responsibility to be, to not use the threat of nuclear strikes for an advantage in this sort of situation. But it’s something that we’re watching very closely.

MICHAEL MORELL: Ukraine’s chance of driving Russia completely out of the country, including Crimea.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Look, I think that’s a tall order. But we have seen in the last several weeks some significant success by the Ukrainian military up in Kharkiv. But I think it’s also important to recognize that the Russian military still controls significant territory in Ukraine. And far beyond the February 24th borders, you know, where they were before this invasion kicked off, even with the success that the Ukrainians have had in the last couple of weeks, the Russians control a fair piece of eastern Ukraine. They have a land bridge that now connects eastern Ukraine all the way down to Crimea. And they’re dug in. And defense is easier than offense. And so I think it’s- 

MICHAEL MORELL: -a tall order- 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: I think as you said it’s a tall order 

MICHAEL MORELL: Putin’s staying power politically should he lose the war.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah. So there’s an embedded uncertainty in that question. What does lose mean? 

MICHAEL MORELL: I guess the way I would define it is his citizens have the perception that they lost.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah. Look, I think one of the things that, I know you as a trained analyst appreciate this, is we’ve got to, we have to be careful about mirror imaging here. Russia is not the United States. Putin is not the popularly, truly, popularly elected leader of that country. And the way he governs is not the way that we govern here. And so if Russia and as you say, the population in Russia perceives a loss here. That’s a bad day for Putin. No question. But I think we need to be sober about the grip that Putin has on the security services in Russia. Their capacity, which we have seen over the past, six, seven months now of this, since the invasion, to stifle dissent and that and to act in quite aggressive ways against people who are raising questions about the war.

But again, you cannot exclude the possibility that if there is a significant sense in Russia that they have lost, that they’ve lost face, that their Putin has led them into a situation that a huge number of folks in Russia find untenable that his grip on power could weaken. But I would not be, I wouldn’t be counting on it. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. Two more real quick. Russia as a nation state, as an international player in the aftermath of the war.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Yeah, I think Russia’s standing in the world is going to be diminished for a long time. And I’ll just say two reasons. One, just economically, the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia have already taken a toll. Their economy is in recession. Their inflation is through the roof. They’re drawing down on their reserves. And these sanctions are only going to as they stay in place that the effect of these sanctions is only going to continue to grow. I think they’re in a bleak situation right now, and it’s just going to deteriorate. And so Russia’s economic place in the world is going to, is not going to rebound. And just along those lines. Europe is accelerating its effort to become less dependent on Russian energy. And as they make that shift, I don’t expect that they’re going to shift back. So and that’s been obviously an enormously important source of revenue to Russia for many years. And so that is a long term problem for them. And then, look, I just think broadly, Russia’s standing in the eyes of the international community is deteriorating. You see it in the way that, they just had a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand. Both Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi in small ways, but significant ways, distanced themselves- 

MICHAEL MORELL:Yeah it was interesting 

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: That trend line is one that also 

MICHAEL MORELL: It’s a deep irony here, right? Because Putin wanted to be the great Russian leader. The leader that made Russia great again. And it’s just the opposite. Last one. Last question. The impact of the outcome of the war in Ukraine on the global commons. On the behavior of nation states vis a vis one another. On the possible behavior of China vis a vis Taiwan or Iran’s behavior in the Middle East. How important is this war to I guess the overall concept of deterrence globally.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Look, I think it’s important. People are watching. We were talking about Xi Jinping earlier. He’s obviously watching this very, very carefully. And I think about it through the lens of his desire to to gain control of Taiwan. The way that the international community has responded here, I think, is sending an important message. But this story is not finished yet. And the lessons that people will take from this will obviously be different. The world is a complicated place. There are lots of different leaders out there who draw different lessons based on their unique circumstances. But the fundamental modern notion that you can’t change borders by force. That sovereignty means something, and that self-determination is an important, sacrosanct precept. I think that has been reinforced. And as this continues to roll out, people will draw lessons on how it develops. But I do think that there has been an opportunity here that the international community, not uniformly, but as a whole has taken to emphasize the importance of those fundamental precepts. 

MICHAEL MORELL: David, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it. Fascinating discussion.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR COHEN: Thanks, Michael.

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