Transcript: Tom Donilon and Mike Morell on "Face the Nation," Jan. 7, 2018

As two of the highest-ranking national security officials in the Obama administration, former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and former acting CIA Director Mike Morell were involved in making some of the most consequential foreign policy decisions in recent memory.

Donilon served as President Obama's top national security aide from 2010 to 2013 and previously served in both the Carter and Clinton administrations. Morell, a CBS News senior national security contributor, served in the CIA for more than three decades, including as deputy director for three years during the Obama administration and two stints as acting director.

Donilon and Morell joined John Dickerson to discuss their views on foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration around the globe and weighed in on a New York Times story about U.S. intelligence on North Korea.

The following is a transcript of the interview with Donilon and Morell that aired Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, on "Face the Nation."  


JOHN DICKERSON: To help us break down new developments on the foreign policy front, we turn now to Tom Donilon, national security advisor to President Obama, and Michael Morell. He served as the deputy director of the C.I.A. and is now a CBS News senior national security contributor. Micheal, let me start with you. This New York Times piece about intelligence agencies missing North Korea. What do you think?

MIKE MORELL: John, I think this is a deeply flawed piece. It's not consistent with my experience which is that, over a very long period of time, the intelligence community has accurately assessed both North Korea's nuclear program and its missile program. And it's not consistent with the observable facts.

And what I mean by that is, if the C.I.A., at the end of the Obama administration and the end of- the beginning of the Trump administration was saying we had years here, then why did Barack Obama tell President Trump in the transition that this was his most urgent and serious problem? And then why did the Trump administration move so quickly to put maximum sanctions on North Korea, right? This is not an intelligence failure, this is an intelligence success.

JOHN DICKERSON: Tom, give us your sense of where things stand right now in North Korea. The director said months away still from a- from the missile that could hit the United States. Where do you think things are?

TOM DONILON: I agree with Michael's point on the analysis. This- The United States should be, given the high-cost potential military conflict on the peninsula, doing everything it can do short of war at this point to press the North Koreans to the- to the negotiating table and to achieve our- our goals, as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said earlier.

That includes working with our allies. It includes continuing sanctions or pressure. And by the way, we've just started really in a lot of these areas, in the banking, finance, and- and oil, and energy area, and it's having some effect. And I think we saw some of that effect with respect to Kim Jong-un on New Year's Day reaching out to the South for talks.

I agree with the assessment that it's not likely to lead anywhere fundamentally different at this point. But nonetheless, I think an indication of the pressure. We need much more aggressive enforcement. We should be thickening our ballistic missile defense system as part of our deterrence efforts. We should put pressure on the human rights front and to get to a negotiation at some point. I think there's a lot more pressure we can put on them frankly.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, we're going to be back to this segment in a moment. We need to take a short break. We'll have a lot more with Mike Morell and Tom Donilon when we come back.

JOHN DICKERSON: Welcome back to Face the Nation. We're back with Michael Morell, former deputy C.I.A. director, and Tom Donilon, former national security advisor to President Obama. Mike, let me start with you. The president said this week that the talks between the North and South in Korea are the result of his hard pressure. Do you buy that?

MIKE MORELL: I think what the North Koreans are doing, John, is reaching out to the South for two reasons. One is to divide the United States and South Korea. This is a long-term strategy on the part of Seoul, and this is just another example of it. The second is that they are looking for some economic gains here.

They are hurting as a result of the sanctions, and they'd like to come to some arrangement with the South Koreans where they get something for being more positive. On the South Korean side, they're being receptive because they're concerned about the tough rhetoric in Washington. They're concerned about war, and they don't want that to happen.

JOHN DICKERSON: Tom, what do you make of the president's tweet about nuclear weapons?

TOM DONILON: Yeah, I agree with Mike's analysis on this, on the- on the North coming. I think they are under the pressure and the sanctions starting to bite. On the tweeting on nuclear weapons, no president should talk about nuclear weapons in a cavalier fashion. It's a- it's a- it's a really decidedly bad topic for tweeting, frankly.

You know, since the dawn of the nuclear age in August of 1945, every president has sought to speak in the most precise terms about nuclear weapons and the circumstances under which the United States might use them. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, presidents have endeavored to speak about nuclear weapons separate from conversations about regular weapons, right, that we might use.

Peggy Noonan had a really good column in The Wall Street Journal yesterday which I encourage your viewers to take a look at where she said that this could de-stigmatize, right It leads to a de-stigmatization of the use of nuclear weapons which is not in our national interest

Every president since John F. Kennedy has sought to make the use of nuclear weapons less likely rather than more likely. We've been lucky over the course of, whatever, 72 or 73 years, and it's- it's the result of care and precision and really a consciousness of the- of what these weapons are about.

And we really shouldn't press our luck. So it's a- it's a profoundly bad topic for Twitter. My last point on this is I would encourage the White House staff, I know that General Kelly has said that he doesn't pay attention to the president's Twitter account. That's a mistake.

These are presidential statements, and the world pays attention. And I would encourage them to have a national security carve-out, if they could ever achieve it, with the president to say, "These are the kinds of things you need to get advice on. These are the kinds of things you should sit with your advisors on and do in a much more precise, conscious fashion."

JOHN DICKERSON: Mike though, the C.I.A. director said, "No, this is perfectly in keeping with the U.S. policy, which is if it looks like the president is, you know, ready to go then that helps put pressure on the Koreans," and even the Chinese too.

MIKE MORELL: John, I couldn't agree more with what Tom said. And I would just add that people often defend the president on this by saying he's keeping our adversaries off-balance, right? From a tactical perspective, that's something you want to do on the battlefield, for example.

Strategically, you want just the opposite. You want great clarity in terms of what the United States wants, what its red lines are, and what we're willing to do about what we want, right? And this is a strategic issue. So you want great clarity from the president, not- not things that raise questions about what we will or won't do.

JOHN DICKERSON: Tom, moving over to Iran-

TOM DONILON: Yeah.

JOHN DICKERSON: -what do you make of the protests and how should we think about those?

TOM DONILON: Yeah. A couple things. One is that I think the protests in some respects reflect failed expectations, right, by the Iranian people. The director of the C.I.A. was right, they are different in kind and geography from the protests in 2009. It is out in more rural and outside the big cities.

But, you know, the nuclear deal put pressure on the regime to deliver, right, on economics. That was the promise that President Rouhani made. And they haven't been able to live up to that, and that's I think somewhat of the cause for this. There's also internal politics.

You know, in general, two- one quick thing on this. We do have a situation here where the president has to decide this week whether he's going to continue waiving the sanctions as part of the nuclear deal. All of the objective observers indicate that Iran is complying with and we're getting what we wanted out of the nuclear deal, which was a transactional approach to put a lid on there and roll back and stop the- their nuclear program. For the United States to pull out will only isolate ourselves, right? And it will make us the issue as opposed to Iranian behavior the issue.

JOHN DICKERSON: Mike, let me ask you that question. How does the U.S. calibrate putting pressure on an authoritarian regime, but on the other hand not becoming a thing that they can use to rally-

MIKE MORELL: Right.

JOHN DICKERSON:  -you know, "Look at the bad, the United States"?

MIKE MORELL: Right. Let me just add I think that these are the most significant protests in Iran since the revolution in 1979. I think they're more significant than- than 2009 which was limited in geography, as Tom said. It was limited to those people who were already ideologically opposed to the regime

This is much more geographically spread, and these are the supporters of the regime. These are the supporters of the supreme leader. These are the supporters of Rouhani, right? So this is fundamentally different. There are- And 2009 was about an election; this is about economic opportunity, this is about corruption, this is about the regime itself.

So this is very significant, right? In terms of what we do going forward, I think we have to speak out for freedom in general because we want to send a message to the rest of the world. But I think we have to be extremely careful about how we do that because there is nobody inside of Iran who wants U.S. interference in Iran, right? So I- so whatever we do, I think we need to be careful, and I think we need to do it with our allies and partners.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, we're going to have to end it there. Tom, Mike, thanks so much. And we'll be right back with former Governor Haley Barbour. Stay with us.