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What's At Risk When A Non-Diplomat Engages In Diplomacy


For the moment, Mike Pompeo remains the director of the CIA - not a diplomat. So what are the possible risks or upsides of having him engage in diplomacy? To explore that question, we turn to Jeffrey Lewis who studies nonproliferation and arms control at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Welcome to the program.

JEFFREY LEWIS: It's nice to talk to you.

SHAPIRO: As we just heard, high-level intelligence officials have engaged in diplomatic negotiations in the past. How unusual is it for the director of the CIA to make these kinds of overtures?

LEWIS: Well, it's not unprecedented, but it's unusual. George Tenet, both as deputy and then ultimately the director of central intelligence, helped run the Middle East Peace Process first for the Clinton administration and then the Bush administration. So it's not that it's never been done, but it's usually not done because there's some downside or some risk.

SHAPIRO: So imagine you are the president of the United States. In what circumstance would you tell the secretary of state to secretly go on a mission like this as opposed to the CIA director?

LEWIS: Well, I think the default would always be to send the secretary of state or a representative from the State Department. In the past when that rule has been bent, the excuse or explanation usually given is that this is a security or an intelligence matter and that the intelligence professional will be a more credible interlocutor. I think that's generally, probably, a pretty bad idea. There's no reason that the secretary of state can't handle those things. So if it were up to me, I would never do it even though I know that presidents sometimes do.

SHAPIRO: I know I'm asking you to read between the lines here, but do you think this could be a case where it's not so much that the Trump administration wanted to send the head of the CIA as it is that they expected the head of the CIA would soon be the secretary of state?

LEWIS: Well, you know, it's a little bit difficult to tell because the administration isn't being terribly open about all of this. I think the most charitable interpretation is that there was an intelligence channel that existed during the Obama administration and that Pompeo just picked that up and ran with it. But in many ways, this helps illustrate the problem. It's one thing if Jim Clapper is going to Pyongyang and is keeping the secretary of state in the loop. It becomes quite another thing when the director of the CIA is angling for the secretary of state's job.

SHAPIRO: The CIA is supposed to exist apart from politics. Is there a risk to sending the CIA director to do this kind of a diplomatic negotiation which is inherently political?

LEWIS: Oh, it's not just a risk. It's a cost. When George Tenet was asked to take over the Middle East Peace Process, he was incredibly reluctant for this very reason. We've already seen reports that some intelligence professionals were uncomfortable with how Mike Pompeo was presenting their analysis to the president. There was a sense that he was implying North Korea was more ready to give up nuclear weapons than, perhaps, the intelligence analysts think. And I think now you see the reason for that concern, which is that it turns out that Pompeo wasn't just briefing the president on the intelligence but that he was an active participant in making the policy.

SHAPIRO: If this gambit works - if this ends in a successful meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, do you think it will have been worth it to have had Pompeo pave the way for that meeting?

LEWIS: Well, I suppose it will end up depending on how we define what a success was. I think it's always easy, in hindsight, to look at an outcome that we like and say, well, it was good that we bent the rules to get there. But ultimately, we're setting up precedents that may come back to haunt us. And it could be especially problematic if it turns out that the summit is not everything that the president was hoping for. Maybe the summit is a success, but Kim Jong Un does not give up his nuclear weapons. It will be interesting to see who Donald Trump turns his ire on when that happens.

SHAPIRO: I'm struck by your using the phrase, bent the rules. Are there actual rules in a situation like this, or is there just standard practice?

LEWIS: Yeah, they're just norms. I shouldn't say rules. But when Clinton asked Tenet to do it, it was a big deal. And when the Bush administration took office, they initially suspended the CIA's role. So there was a pretty strong norm. Eventually, the Bush administration decided they didn't have any better ideas, and they let the CIA go back to it. And so we've kind of developed this modern tendency to use the senior officials in the intelligence community as diplomats, and I still don't like it.

SHAPIRO: Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He's also the founder of the website Arms Control Wonk. Thanks for joining us today.

LEWIS: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "THE INFORMANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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