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When The President Speaks With A World Leader, Who Else Is On The Call?


Now, let's bring another voice into this conversation. Joel Willett served in the National Security Council at the White House under President Obama. He is a career intelligence professor - or rather professional. He once worked in the CIA Directorate of Operations. Mr. Willett, good morning.


INSKEEP: So were you around the White House when calls like this were taken between the president - then-President Obama and foreign leaders?

WILLETT: I absolutely was. I worked in the White House Situation Room, which is the entity that produced the transcript that was released by the White House this morning.

INSKEEP: Yeah. This is what it says. It says, note takers, the White House Situation Room. So what's literally - assuming the process is just the same, what's literally happening in there? Are there people with headsets on listening?

WILLETT: Yes, there are. There are teams of career civil servants, which I think is important, that staff the White House Situation Room from all parts of the government - from the intelligence community, from the military and from the State Department. And when a head of state of call - head of state call happens, as you can imagine, those are logistically complex things. So we bring, you know, as many people as we might need to ensure that a call is executed properly.

And so there will be people with headsets on listening to the contents of the call. If there's an interpreter on the line, you know, that person will have a headset as well speaking back and forth. And there are note takers typing furiously. In fact, I was made fun of quite consistently for how loudly I typed during these calls as we produced notes.

INSKEEP: Should we have confidence that this - it's described as a transcript. Should we have confidence that this is an accurate depiction of everything that was said?

WILLETT: You should. I've looked at the document released. And what I can say from my experience having done scores of these is that it looks very consistent to the documents that I produced. One notable difference is that it says note takers, the White House Situation Room. Well, during my time, the names of the actual note takers would have been there, not just saying the White House Situation Room. So I thought that that was one interesting difference. But it reads very much like head of state call that I was a part of.

I know the situation room or the NSC was, you know, careful to put a caveat at the bottom of the document saying that this is not a verbatim transcript. And they need to do that to protect themselves because it's not made from a recording. It's made live in real time as you're listening. So of course there's some human error introduced. But I can tell you that we made every effort humanly possible to keep those as close to verbatim transcripts as we could. And I don't see any obvious insertion or deletions in this document.

INSKEEP: I think I know the answer. But why not record?

WILLETT: Yes. You do know the answer. Previous presidents have had some trouble with recordings, like President Nixon. And so I think it's been a pretty consistent position of the White House counsel and NSC lawyers to not have taping systems in the White House.

INSKEEP: So having listened to a number of presidential phone calls with world leaders in past years, when you read this whole transcript as you now have, is this a normal phone call?

WILLETT: There - it starts out that way, right? And I don't - you know, I was not a political appointee to the White House. So these congratulatory calls are very normal and foreign policy issues that are of concern, you know, are obviously raised.

But I should tell you that I never heard anything that would have made me, you know, want to go to the intelligence community or the inspector general. You have to remember, that's a huge step for any career professional to take. And I think we should, you know, not take that lightly.

INSKEEP: And, of course, that is a step that a whistleblower took. And we're still waiting to find out if we're going to get a look at that complaint. Mr. Willett, thank you very much.

WILLETT: Great. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Joel Willett worked in the White House in past years. He is a career intelligence professional, who also worked in the CIA Directorate of Operations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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