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Transcript: David Ignatius talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with David Ignatius, award-winning foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post and best-selling author of more than ten spy novels. Morell and Ignatius discuss the mechanics of national security journalism and Ignatius' experience reporting from the Middle East. They discuss the current leadership and dynamics of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel and Palestine. They also discuss Ignatius' success as a writer of spy fiction, including his forthcoming novel, The Paladin.  

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INTERVIEW WITH DAVID IGNATIUS

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

David, welcome to Intelligence Matters, it is great to have you on the show, and more importantly, it's great to see you.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Thank you. Nice to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So David, I want to start a little bit with your background, how did you get interested in journalism, how did you end up as a journalist?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Journalism was really the only thing I was ever, to be honest, any good at. I wrote for my high school newspaper, I got good grades, but that was the thing that I enjoy, that I felt I had a natural aptitude for. I used to go to the Howard Theatre here, in Washington, and interview The Temptations for my high school newspaper.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Wow.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Junior Walker and the All Stars, that was the lengths to which I would try play my journalistic card back then.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, most student reporters don't get those kind of opportunities.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, I would go there in my white shirt and tie and my school blazer, and I think people kind of rolled their eyes, 'What was this kid doing?' But I remember going to the basement of The Temptations' hotel room, and he opened the door, and you could imagine the smells that wafted out of dope, and that people who were dancing, and he said, "I think it's time for this interview to be over."

MICHAEL MORELL:

So what would you tell a group of young people today, who might be interested in journalism, about the profession?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

You need to really love it, because it's difficult. It's difficult in the sense that it's not very well paid. The number of places that you can do good journalism, alas, seems to be shrinking, certainly in print. It's great to be doing podcasts, and that opens up new ways for people to do journalism.

But you have to love it, you have to be prepared for a profession that doesn't always love you back. You have to be tough minded. That's what journalists need to do, they need to ask hard questions, and take their criticism. And I think, finally, you need to have good judgment. We see lots of things in the world that are news, but we need good judgment in making sense of them, and not going crazy, not being hysterical, not looking to our readers and viewers as if we're biased, as if we're starting off knowing what the right answers are.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What would you say the fundamental mission is of a journalist?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Tell the truth. Tell the truth, provide accountability for powerful people, help readers to make sense of a world that's increasingly difficult to make sense of. You know, I'd add just for these times, to the extent possible, avoid being infected by the craziness that's all around us. Keep your balance, don't be predictable, don't be on one team or another in the partisan debates that divide us. I think journalists, we have our own team, it's called journalism.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you find it difficult to stay in that sweet spot in these times that we live in?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

So Michael, I think one of the things that worries me most is that people vote with their clicks or where they decide to tune in for the kind of news that they want. And increasingly, it seems as if they want news that confirms their biases.

News that challenges their biases, news that is unpredictable, that just comes with the story, try to make sense of it, seems to be failing out to news that makes you feel good about, tells you the people you hate are really awful, and the people you love are great. And so people are choosing up which news team they want to be on.

I think that's just poisonous for us. I think it's poisonous for the country, too. But I think that's one of the dilemmas, the people we're hiring, who seem to be getting the clicks, sometimes are more tendentious.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So David, I consider you to be an expert in the Middle East. I consider you to be one of the leading, if not the leading, commentators, columnists on the Middle East. How did you get interested in the region?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

It was really almost a process of accident, initially. I had been working for The Wall Street Journal in Pittsburgh. I was hired by the Journal, bizarre as this may sound, to cover the biggest labor union in America, the steelworkers. So I went to Pittsburgh, and wrote about the union, and then about the steel industry. I was promoted then to Washington, and covered the Justice Department, began covering the C.I.A. And in 1980, the job of Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal came open.

And I was asked by the foreign editor and the managing editor if I would have any interest, and I said, 'I've never been there, I don't speak any of the languages, I don't know much about it.' And they said, "You're perfect." In other words, they wanted somebody who would come at this who was fresh.

I was then 29, 30, really still just starting out my career. So I spent the next three years covering the Middle East, I spent most of that time in Beirut. And it was a real education for me. Obviously, covering conflict, the Lebanese Civil War was going on, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the aftermath with the U.S. Marines, the bombing of our embassy, the bombing of our Marine barracks, just taught me a lot about that. But also, to be honest, it just got under my skin, I became fascinated by it. Especially fascinated by Lebanon.

And over these many years, I just haven't been able to detach myself. I began writing novels that were set in the Middle East, that added a new dimension for me. As you know, because you've been interested in it also, it's a heartbreaking part of the world. It's a place, as a colleague told me many years ago, where pessimism pays. You know, if you bet that things aren't going to work out, you're usually right. But all these years later, 40 years later, it still fascinates me.

MICHAEL MORELL:

An affection? Would you say you have affection for the region?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

I do have. I have a deep affection.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, so do I.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

I think the Middle East is a place where you make friends, and if you work at it, you keep them. I still see some of the people I met in 1980, through the years. And you grieve with them for the terrible burden of suffering that they bear. That's a part of our problem, I think, as Americans, is it engages our interests, but also our idealism. We really want to help people in the Middle East. And we seem often in that process to make things worse, I'm sorry to say.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So David, I want to break this into kind of two pieces, your writing as a columnist, and then your writing as a novelist. You have a twice a week column in the Post on foreign affairs. And I think you're unique in that your column both is news, you often break news. And then your column is also, has an editorial aspect of it, which are your views. Do you see yourself as unique in this space?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, I think there are other columnists who try to offer news, not just opinions. I'm surprised there aren't more. When I was starting out in journalism, growing up, the typical Washington columnists, especially on foreign affairs, tried to break news in every column.

They competed, Joe Alsop, Joe Kraft, Evans and Novak, these are names people have probably forgotten these days, but their columns were full of news. And I've always thought that's the most fun part of my job. I'm surprised there aren't more people competing in that space. I think it'd be good for me, and it'd be good for journalism. But I probably have a fundamental defect as an opinion columnist, which is, I'm not that interested in opinions, including my own. I'm interested in new information.

If I were to just write a column that's just kind of buzzing around the same hive that everybody else is, it just bores me. So I always want to look for something that's new, tell you something you don't know. And that's what keeps me going. Otherwise, I'd find another job, I'd be bored.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you have a process that you go through to identify what you want to write about, or do the ideas just come to you?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, sometimes I'll come into the office on a day that I have a column due, and I won't really be sure what I'm going to write about. Sometimes those are the best, you just let something preconscious take over your under severe deadline pressure, and it just happens, and you speak with a voice that comes from deep thoughts you have that you weren't maybe consciously aware of. Those can be fun. There's columns I spend weeks and weeks working on, or some months, where I would be working a subject, working sources, gathering string.

These days, I can write longer columns, I can let them run to 3,000 words or more online, and I'll cut them down to a tight 750 word version for the newspaper. But that's great. There's a part of me, I got started doing investigative reporting. I've never lost that interest. And thanks to the infinite space of the internet, I get to go back to writing longer form.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, that's great. I want to ask you a couple of things about the Middle East, in particular, and my sense is that just looking at my questions here, that you've written about all of these in the last few weeks. I'd love to get your thinking for our listeners on the U.S.-Iran relationship in general, and the strike that killed General Soleimani, in particular.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

The relationship, through all of my career as a journalist caring about the Middle East, the U.S.-Iran collision, has been a central fact of life. It's been the destabilizing element in the Middle East. The rage of the Iranian revolution of 1979 continues to destabilize the Middle East. And we have not, over that time, found an effective way, really I think, to deal with that regime.

We've tried different ways, we've tried being tough, virtually going to war during the Iraq-Iran War, on the side of Iraq. We've tried being generous in the negotiations that President Obama conducted for the nuclear agreement, and nothing's quite seemed to work. The most extreme action we've taken, probably, was the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran's leading military strategist and covert action intelligence officer, and we killed him. And we tried to kill his key deputy the same day. An unusual step. So far, it hasn't had the repercussions that many--

MICHAEL MORELL:

What was your reaction when you heard?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

My reaction when I heard was, first, that we had crossed a line. The killing of a senior military commander, at a civilian airport, in a drone strike takes warfare into a different place. And I worried, and I'm worried to this day, that anybody who thinks that this will be a unique example of countries using drones to kill generals of countries they don't like, that is wrong. We opened the door into a space that others are sure to follow. And we won't like the results, and that's one of the reasons that people exercise caution. On the question of whether it would be radically destabilizing, I think I share the fears of many people that Iran would retaliate in ways that would make our problems worse. So far, that hasn't happened. So you have to say -- we took, no question, that he was a killer, that he was a person who had brought much destruction to the region and to Americans.

And it's good that he's off the battlefield. Will it end up being a net positive or negative from the standpoint of U.S. interests? It's one of those questions, it's too early to say, but you'd have to say, we are in a new era, other people will try the same thing, that should worry us. The immediate repercussions have been less than expected, and that's good for us.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But this might not be over yet, right?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

This is in the Middle East.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Nothing's ever over.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

No, nothing is ever over.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So David, similar kind of question on President Trump's proposal for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, I saw the peace proposal, so-called, as essentially an invitation to the Palestinians to accept, ratify their defeat in this long struggle against Israel. It dates back really to the foundation of Israel in 1948. And over time, the Palestinians have been defeated not simply on the battlefield, but through, I think, extraordinary mistakes on their part, that failed at the diplomatic table. So they've turned down many peace offers, offers far better than this one. This really is a rejection of every fundamental demand that they've had. The bet that President Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and senior counselors crafted this over three years' making is that the pressure from other Arab countries that want to get on with it.

And normalize relations with Israel will be so strong, that in the end, the Palestinians, if Trump is reelected, because this is a second term strategy, the Palestinians will have no choice but to go along with it. I think that's the idea that Kushner and company have in mind. Is that realistic?

All wars end eventually, but I don't see any signs that this one is ready to yet. I think the depth of Palestinian rage, the idea that a people who prize dignity as much as the Palestinians do, will accept the public shame of essentially granting Israeli annexation of what they think of as their land. I don't think we're there yet.

MICHAEL MORELL:

There's this view out there that if just President Abbas were to move on, and the Palestinians had new leadership, that we might be in a different place. Do you share that view, or do you think the dynamics that you're talking about run much deeper among the Palestinian elite and the Palestinian people?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

I think Abbas is exhausted as a leader. I think he has so much invested in saying no that the idea of him being a creative partner really is gone. I think if the Palestinians had better leadership, the possibility that they would then generate trust among Israelis.

And there'd be an ability to move toward some better negotiations to be more favorable to the Palestinians, I think is possible. Right now, the Israelis say, even Israelis who really want a two-state solution say, the other side just isn't trustworthy, isn't a partner. And looking at Mahmoud Abbas, it's hard to argue with that. So as with any country, including ours, the biggest question is, what political leadership will be there, and will it be able to creatively change what's seen to be the fundamentals? And I hope the Palestinians have good leaders going forward, they need them.

MICHAEL MORELL:

David, one of the things that you and I have talked about quite frequently is Saudi Arabia, and Mohammad Bin Salman, and where he is taking that country. Your thoughts on that?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, this is a hard question for me to answer, because Mohammad Bin Salman, I believe, is responsible for the murder of my colleague and friend, all of your listeners know, that Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist, a contributor to my newspaper, The Washington Post, was murdered in October, 2018.

And I have tried to continue in my journalism ever since then, so more than a year, to try to understand how that happened. And I continue to believe that MBS, as the Saudi Crown Prince is known, and one of his top aides, Saud al-Qahtani, were involved in the approval of the operation that led to Khashoggi's death.

So that has to be my starting point when I talk about Saudi Arabia. I do think that Mohammad Bin Salman is appealing to a younger generation of Saudis, in the way that a modernizing autocrat does in the Middle East. I watched this for a period with Saddam Hussein, who was the great modernizer of Iraq. I watched this at various times in Egypt, where you had modernizing dictators.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Syria. Syria, too.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

So this is something that we know, and I think Saudi people are as hungry for change as people anywhere. I think Saudi young people like the new culture that's more open, where the religious police are not stalking the markets, where you can go to public entertainment. You know, they have country music shows, and UFC cage fighting, and all the things that people around the world seem to love.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

You can now get it in Saudi Arabia. I was in Saudi Arabia in July of this year, and went for a walk in Jeddah, in the old city, and I was just amazed to see families out, women in various stages of veil, unveiled, quasi-veiled. It's a different Saudi Arabia than I've ever seen. So I have to say, those changes are good. The problem is that the political bedrock in Saudi Arabia is getting more and more authoritarian.

There's no sign that I see that MBS realizes that he's building a police state. And once you build one, then you need even more police to enforce it. And that, I think, is a tragedy. I think a Saudi Arabia that changes, that moves into the future, we should all endorse that. And that part of what's going on, we should say, "That's great." But the worry is unless he broadens his base, unless he governs by something other than raw fear among people, it's not going to work.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I'm sure you saw the piece that Martin Indyk, from the Brookings Institution, wrote in The Wall Street Journal. And in that, he argued that U.S. interests in the region have declined significantly over the last several years, and therefore, what we're willing to invest in the region should decline as well. I just wanted to get your reaction to that.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, I thought it was a brilliant piece. Martin Indyk is the rare person who's really devoted much of his adult life to trying to bring peace and progress to the Middle East, on the National Security Council staff, the State Department, as Ambassador to Israel, he has really been laboring in the vineyard to try to do good things.

So when he reached this point of basically saying, 'Enough. You know, this isn't worth the trouble, the anguish that we experience,' I took it very seriously. I think many thousands of people that you and I talk to, or write to, think with, had the same experience. If Martin says that, we need to take it seriously. I think I would stop short of where Martin ended up. I think we have more strategic interests in continuity of American power in that region than Martin suggested. I think we've seen what happens when we kind of walk away, and say, 'Enough, I've had it.' Others who are very mischievous take advantage of that.

And although we don't need Middle East oil the way we used to, the idea of ceding that part of the world and others to kind of permanent hegemony by others, and the instability that will go along with that, I just don't see that in America's interests. So it was a great piece, in that it made us all think. Anybody who hasn't read it should go out and get a copy, and then think, 'Well, is Martin right? Is it time for us to bail out of this region? Or if not, what are the limits we're going to draw?'

MICHAEL MORELL:

It's a great thing to have a debate about, right?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Yes, absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Because we need to have a debate about this. Because we are slowly polling in that direction.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

The country is just fed up, and I'm struck by, in both parties, obviously Trump says he wants out, it's tougher, thank goodness, to do than he'd like. Because he would've created vacuums in Afghanistan and Syria by now, if he'd had his way.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Let me ask, David, one more question about substance, before we switch to talking about your books, which are absolutely fantastic. I presume you still talk to folks in the IC, you and I talked frequently. I actually learned a lot from those conversations in my office.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

I doubt that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

No, I absolutely did. How do you think the IC is holding up in the current political environment?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, the basic answer is, I don't know, because their performance, like everything they do, is secret. I'm told by people from other countries who deal with them, in liaison relationships, that they're basically as good as ever.

That the operations, officers, their sense of mission, all the different technical collection that we do through other agencies, is still robust and confidently managed. There's no way for me to judge, but I take that as a good thing. We need a strong, self-confident intelligence agency. I do worry that getting battered now, it's been three years, of pretty much ceaseless assault on these agencies, is going to take its toll, not least in people being afraid to be visible and accountable in a way that they need to be. I'll give you an example. The C.I.A. and the director of National Intelligence have essentially asked the Congressional Intelligence Committees for permission not to testify in public about their annual threat assessment.

This is one of the big events, as you know, Mike, you had to prepare this many times. It's one of those moments where the intelligence agencies really level with the country about what's going on. And sometimes what they say is at odds with what policymakers say, and that's why it's so important.

Last year, the testimony by Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, made President Trump angry, because it contradicted him on North Korea, on a couple of other instances. So this year, they don't want to be in that situation. I get it, you know, they want to be careful, they want to avoid offending the man in the Oval Office. But that situation, I think, should really grate people. It's good for them to have to stand up and speak the truth to power, not be afraid of what the power will say. That's really the heart of their mission. And so here's one small example of the toll that we're beginning to pay.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, I agree 100% with you. There are great benefits for the country, and for the intelligence community, in that annual event happening. And I worry greatly that it might not, for all the reasons that you said.

So David, you're also a fiction writer, and a very good one. You've written ten books, the 11th is on its way.

I must tell you that I get asked frequently by young people who are interested in C.I.A., particularly the operational C.I.A., about what books should they read? What book comes closest to what it's really like? And without hesitation, I tell them Agents of Innocence, which was your first book.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

I'm flattered. Thank you.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And it's an amazing book. A couple of questions. How do you find the time to be a novelist and also to be a journalist at the same time?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, obviously, the wonderful thing about writing novels is it gives me a chance to take things that interest me in the world of fact, as I report my columns, as I travel around the world, and then explore them on a much broader tableau in fiction.

So in a sense, the two worlds interpenetrate. I try to avoid either contaminating the other, and I just want to say, this is for fiction, and it's made up. And I hope my columns are fact only. Ever since my first novel was published in 1987, back then, I said to myself, okay, that novel was well-received.

And people said, "You ought to be a novelist." And I remember thinking, I have to make a choice. I have to decide I'm going to do this, be a novelist, or do this, be a journalist. And I just didn't make the choice. I never could figure out what the right way to go was. I thought the kind of novels I wanted to write would never have a big enough readership that I could really make a living, and send my kids to school, and do all the things that we want to do. So I wanted to keep my day job, in part, for financial reasons. But it's one of those moments, sometimes the best choice to make is not to choose. And that's why I continue to do both.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you do both at the same time? Or do you take a break to write a novel?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

A novel is like a physical thing that it's growing in your imagination. You know, you're building a world, characters, a whole world that begins to become real, it just takes up more space. So when I'm beginning working on book, I'll work on it two days a week, maybe three. By the end, I fall asleep thinking about it, I dream about it, I wake up thinking about it. I don't have a set time from 6:00 to 9:00, it's just every minute I can grab in my seven-day week, that novel wants to take, it's like a hungry baby. It just wants all the intellectual nourishment. So it's always a rush. Part of what's fun about this is

when the book just takes, it's living you, as opposed to you living or writing it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you have the whole arc of the story laid out in your mind? Or does that evolve?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

I usually start with an idea, yes, where I want the story to end up. And that changes as you get to know the characters better, as you understand better, the world they're living in, the dilemmas, some of the particular twists and turns change. But I think it's important to start with some basic tracks laid down, and then let yourself switch and imagine and reimagine.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you have a favorite?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Of my books?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Well, you know, it's like asking which child is your favorite. You love them all. The first novel, that you mentioned, Agents of Innocence, it was based on real life. It was based on a story I used to say was all made up. But it wasn't, it was based on real events.

At one of the most amazing intelligence operations the United States ever ran, where we recruited and ran as an asset the chief of intelligence of our leading terrorist adversary at the time, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He was for ten years operating as our guy in the PLO. And the people who did that, the way it was done, just overwhelmingly interesting to me. I wanted to find a way to tell the story, and fiction was the only way. So that book, where I kind of taught myself how to write a novel. The first draft of that was rejected by every publisher in America.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Really?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Often derisively, you know, "Wow, Mr. Ignatius, how interesting that you would think you could write a novel. See you later." But finally, somebody took a risk, and then I rewrote it a couple times. I think writing fiction is an iterative skill, you learn to do it by doing it. And as I said, just glad I had the chance, and then that I let myself keep doing it. And parts of my books, the new one, The Paladin, there are parts of it I love. My firstborn novel is my favorite.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So The Paladin, what's it about?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

The Paladin is about a C.I.A. officer, he's on the kind of blue-collar side of the agency. He's a technical officer, a guy who plants bugs, hacks systems, whose life is destroyed, his career at the agency is wrecked. His marriage is shattered, he loses his family, he loses everything.

Because, as we discover through the novel, he's been assigned to conduct an operation which, it's decided, is illegal. He is asked to invade the computers and space of an American "journalist," in quotation marks, overseas.

And he is abandoned by the people he thought had promised him that he'd be safe doing this. But as the novel progresses, we learn that he, in some ways, is the architect of his own difficulties. That rage that he begins the book with, at others, is in part directed toward himself. This character, his name is Michael Dunn, was interesting to me because if listeners have read the book, Hillbilly Elegy, about an angry person from the industrial heartland, this book's character, Michael Dunn, is very much that kind of person. He's from McKeesport, Pennsylvania, old steel town.

I mentioned earlier in our broadcast that I started my career covering the steel industry. So it's a part of America that I know pretty well. And the angry people there, like Michael Dunn, my character, those are the people who elected Donald Trump.

So there's a way in which this is a kind of allegory about what we're living through. I won't tell you where Michael Dunn ends up, but you won't be surprised if he doesn't end up with a Make America Great Again hat on.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I got an early copy, and I read it this weekend, and it is absolutely terrific. And I won't give away the ending either. Can folks preorder it now?

DAVID IGNATIUS:

It's on Amazon now, and they're welcome to go and preorder it. And you know, if Amazon delivery doesn't work, if you live in any ZIP code near mine, I'll hand deliver a copy.

MICHAEL MORELL:

David, thank you very much for joining us.

DAVID IGNATIUS:

Thank you, Michael.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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