Transcript: Former CIA Director Leon Panetta discusses GOP memo release
Leon Panetta, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, sat down with CBS News Friday to discuss the release of the memo by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. The memo details surveillance practices levied against former Trump campaign official Carter Page.
"I've been in public life for over 50 years. I have never in my lifetime seen anything like this happen," Panetta told CBS News' Jeff Pegues, referring to the memo's release.
Panetta told Pegues he fears the release of the memo will result in "some very serious damage" to the House Intelligence Committee and the bipartisanship needed to oversee classified information, among other areas of concern. Panetta said he also doesn't understand the president's thinking in attacking leaders in the FBI and DOJ -- people he appointed.
The memo -- crafted by committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, and staff investigators -- was released despite strong objections from the FBI.
What follows is a transcript of the interview with Panetta.
Q: You read the memo. What are your initial thoughts?
Panetta: "Well my principle concern here, and I think it's the concern of the American people is whether or not this was an effort to find the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, uh or whether this was simply a partisan effort to select a few facts to make some political points. If it was an effort to find the truth then one has to ask why did the committee did not look at the entire application for this warrant, why did they not interview the FISA judge who was involved in making the decision. Why did they not talk to the FBI agents that were involved and that wanted to testify on this issue? Why did they short cut the process with simply a staff member memo to summarize its own views. That's what concerns me, is that I don't, I don't see this as a serious committee investigation, of an issue that they were concerned about."
Q: As a former CIA director, former chief of staff, with this information out there, and it had to be declassified, how do you expect U.S. allies to respond to this? Will they cooperate the same way they did before or could this do some damage in that way?
Panetta: "I think, I think the release of this memo is going to do some very serious damage, damage to the intelligence committee and the bipartisanship that is necessary in order to do oversight of classified information – damage because the president and the Congress now have a position of distrust with the Justice Department and the FBI – damage to the FISA process which has been important to our national security, and all of this sends a terrible message to our allies who are going to worry about sharing classified information that is so easily released as part of this political effort, and it's also frankly going to encourage our enemies who will see this as a breakdown in our national security process."
Q: The underlying charge here in this memo is that the intelligence community and the FBI specifically is in some way bias against the Trump administration. How do you think that affects the FBI and the Department of Justice going forward?
Panetta: "That's what concerns me is that there's ... this is a staff memo, 3 ½ pages that selectively picks some facts out to come to that conclusion. Uh, the reality is in order to come to that kind of conclusion, and it's a serious conclusion, you need to look at all the evidence – you need to look at all of the application that was provided here. In my experience applications for a FISA warrant are usually 50 or 60 pages long and include highly classified information and a lot of very serious investigatory facts that are included in that kind of application – why wasn't that looked at? Why wasn't the FISA judge who has the responsibility to make the decision here? And these are very serious judges who ask a lot of serious questions, and don't take their responsibility lightly – why wasn't that judge asked about whether he was biased by that fact? Why weren't agents, the FBI agents and the leadership of the FBI allowed to testify as to all of the facts involved her e- those are serious absences in terms of any kind of legitimate investigation in to whether or not that was the case."
Q: But is there value to having this type of transparency?
Panetta: "I think it's always important to have transparency – if, if the investigation into the issue is one that is handled legitimately. If this involved both Republicans and Democrats of the intelligence committee, investigating this matter together, looking at all of the evidence looking at all of the factors and then coming to a conclusion, then it's important that they be transparent with the American people about their findings, but if this is just a staff member, a rogue staff member operating on his own and selectively picking out some classified facts to come to a certain conclusion then I think transparency can be dangerous."
Q: You said this least or at least you were quoted this week saying that the country's system of checks and balances is breaking down. Do you really believe that?
Panetta: "I believe it creates a constitutional crisis when the president distrusts the Justice Department and the FBI. They are a primary law enforcement institutions in this country. They're the primary law enforcement agencies under our Constitution, and when the president distrusts the FBI and the Justice Department as he did in this matter, I think it does create a crisis in our system of government."
Q: Well how would you describe or what exactly is a constitutional crisis? What does it mean for this government when people are saying this is a constitutional crisis or we're heading there. What exactly does that mean?
Panetta: "I think what it – what it means is that there's a breakdown in the fundamental trust that is important to the institutions of our democracy. The reality is that tour democracy doesn't function very well uh if there' isn't trust, and in this instance there has to be trust between the president and his primary law enforcement department and agency – the Justice Department and the FBI. If we're a country committed to law and order under a constitution, how can that occur if the President of the United States distrusts the very agency that is responsible for enforcing the law? That raises a lot of concerns, and it is, it's something that hopefully can be repaired quickly in the future because if it isn't then all of us have to be concerned about the breakdown in the constitutional process."
Q: But on Twitter earlier Friday, the president said that uh, you know he, he blamed the leadership at the DOJ, he blamed the leadership of the FBI, he applauded the rank and file. Can you make that distinction?
Panetta: "I don't understand the president's thinking. He appointed the leadership at the FBI, he appointed the leadership at the Justice Department- we're a year in to this administration. These are his people, and to distrust the leadership and somehow now argue that the rank and file is OK, I don't understand that logic. I think, as a matter of fact I think it's a dangerous logic because it tries to really create a breakdown in the relationship between the president and the leadership of the Justice Department and the people that have to do the day to day work at the FBI."
Q: You must though be troubled about the Peter Strzok text messages, some of the information that has come out about the associate deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr, and his contacts with the author of the dossier, you must be concerned about some of those issues as well as they've come to light, and the picture that paints of the justice system?
Panetta: "Look it's, it's really important when these kinds of issues come up to find the truth. That is important – that's the responsibility of the oversight committee, that's why the intelligence committee was created was to be able to oversee how highly classified information is used – that's important. So it should be investigated, but it should be investigated right. Uh, in other words they really ought to look at all of the facts, consider all of the evidence, talk to all of the individuals before coming to a conclusion. That's the way our process of justice, of due process is supposed to work, and it didn't work here."
Q: The way this is unfolding, do you think the American people are going to get the answers that they seek?
Panetta: "I would hope that in the end we will get those answers. This has been handled badly from the very beginning, and it is important now for the leadership, both of the Republicans and the Democrats, to work together, to really conduct a credible investigation of these issues because that has not occurred to this point, and responsibility of the people we elect is to exercise their responsibility to do proper and effective oversight of our intelligence agencies and our law enforcement agencies. That is ultimately what must be done if we're going to restore confidence of the American people in our system of governing."
Q: You spent decades here in Washington -- congressman, chief of staff, CIA director, Secretary of Defense. Have you seen anything like this?
Panetta: "I've been in public life for over 50 years. I have never in my lifetime seen anything like this happen. Particularly with regards to highly classified information. We, we have developed an approach to classified information that is aimed at protecting the very people that are out there gathering the intelligence that is essential to this country. To have that classified information misuse din this process, to have it selectively drawn from in order to score some political points is a, is a terrible abuse of the process, and I worry that it undermines our ability to continue to get the kind of important information we have to get if we're going to protect our country, so this is damaging to our national security, and I have not seen a political effort like this in my history, I've never seen a political effort that is aimed at undermining our national security."
Q: I want to revisit a question I asked you earlier. Given what has happened today, as a former chief of staff, former CIA director, with this declassifying of information, of intelligence, how do you expect our allies to react to it?
Panetta: "I think our allies are going to be tremendously concerned about what has happened here. Um, in the intelligence arena, when I was director of the CIA, we rely a great deal on our relationship with our allies abroad who share highly classified information with the United States so that we can all work to protect our countries – those countries are going to think twice about sharing highly classified information with the United States if that information is going to be abused the way it has been with this memo."
Q: So the final question: the underlying charge with this four-page memo is that the DOJ and the FBI are partisan. How do you go forward?
Panetta: "Well there's – you know the relationship has been badly damaged between the president and the Congress, the members of the Congress sand our law enforcement community. I don't believe for a minute that the leadership at the Justice Department or the FBI are partisan uh, but that, I believe they're professionals who want to enforce their job on a day to day basis because they are good Americans. We have got to take steps to restore that kind of relationship because we cannot have a situation where there is distrust between our elected leadership and the very people that have to enforce the laws of this country."
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