Chuck Hagel Weighs in on Iran, U.S. Intelligence

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, talks about Iran, Iraq and whether America can have confidence in the intelligence community. Hagel is a member of the Senate's Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we'll talk about whether South Africa is at a political crossroads, and we'll bring you an update on the story of the young black woman in West Virginia. Authorities believe she was held captive and tortured by a group of whites there.

But first, we're talking to Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He's a war hero. He served in Vietnam with great distinction. He's also a successful businessman. And since his election to the Senate in 1996, he's earned a reputation for uncommon candor and independence, particularly on matters of international affairs. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

Thank you, senator, for speaking with us.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): Michel, thank you.

MARTIN: You know, senator, one of the biggest issues in Washington right now is why the CIA decided to destroy what officials say were hundreds of hours of videotaped interrogations of two key terrorism suspects just after 9/11. First, CIA Director Michael Hayden said members of Congress were told about the case, or some key members were told. And then yesterday, he said the agency had not kept lawmakers fully informed. And as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have to ask you, did you know anything about this?

Sen. HAGEL: I did not. And before we get too deep into the interview, just a reminder, as you know, but also for your listeners, I'm obviously limited on how deep I can go into some of these areas. And I want to answer your questions as forthrightly as I can. But I did not know, and as you noted, General Hayden said and has been, I think, noted by CIA officials that only the so-called top four - that means the two senior members, Republican, Democrat on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees - were informed.

MARTIN: And I think you're referring to the fact that most of General Hayden's communications with the Congress would be classified.

Sen. HAGEL: Yes, that's correct.

MARTIN: But just based on what you have heard, have you decided whether the CIA did something wrong, and if so, what did they do wrong?

Sen. HAGEL: Michel, I know often people think that when members of Congress or national leaders equivocate or condition their answers, that it's just another dodge or another way out. I've never done that on anything. So I say that because what we're dealing with here is a very imprecise business. Intelligence gathering and sharing and analysis is not a neat process. It is a process of mosaic pieces, and then you come forward.

And as general and former Secretary Colin Powell once told the current director of National Intelligence, Admiral McConnell - I think it's a good advice for all of us - tell me what you know, tell me what you do not know and then tell me, if we ask, what you think. Do not confuse the three, and do not integrate the three. Keep them separate. And I answer you question that way, because we are 16 intelligence agencies in our government. All are important, and they bring together a dimension of composite, comprehensive intelligence.

Now, the environment that we - the world, especially the United States has been living in and dealing with since September 11th, 2001, obviously, has been something we've never ever experienced before. And that is a really cut to the basics and the core of our intelligence agencies. What do we expect from them? How are they to conduct themselves? And I think that gets to the point, Michel, of why it's so important that we define the standards of interrogation techniques and other dynamics, because, if for no other reason, we the Congress are elected by the people of this country. We're Article 1 of the Constitution. We have constitutional responsibilities to set those boundaries, working with the White House, of course. But our professionals in the intelligence business need to understand what those parameters are and then work within those.

MARTIN: Is there an argument that the CIA can't win on this? They're criticized for intelligence failures before 9/11, and now they're criticized for going too far after 9/11.

Sen. HAGEL: Yes. I think there is a very serious danger that that did not only could occur, but is occurring.

MARTIN: But then whose responsibility is that to set those parameters? Is it within the agency, or is it with the political leaders, the civilian leaders?

Sen. HAGEL: It is the political leaders. If you follow the Constitution and how we have framed our government and the accountability of that process, it is the responsibility of the Congress to set those parameters. And then like every agency, whether it's intelligence, whether it's defense, whether it's the veterans administration, and then the professionals work within the parameters of that. Is there some latitude? Is there some subjective analysis? Of course there is.

But when it comes to things like perception of interrogation techniques, are you using torture? Are you using waterboarding? Are you violating the very principles of our country, the very principles, for example, of Geneva Convention Article 3? There must not be any mistake about that because, if in fact, just as 22 generals and admirals sent another letter to the president yesterday saying to do anything less is not only unwise, but it's impractical and it doesn't work. So we are in the middle of a windstorm here, and we've got to use our heads here and stay very clearheaded and bring a new sense of gravity to this and common sense.

MARTIN: But, senator, as a person who lived through Vietnam in a very profound way at a time when many Americans came to believe that their government was not telling them the truth, I'd like to ask you whether you have confidence that you are getting the intelligence that you need, that is accurate, that's fully free of political or ideological bias.

Sen. HAGEL: Michel, that's, of course, the core of anything, and it's trust. Can we trust the professionals to give us the honest answers? Therefore, to your point, then that carries over to the American people. Does the American people - do the American people trust us? And what we're telling them, is it the truth? And we must always tell that the truth. It is the only currency that counts. Now, what's interesting about…

MARTIN: I'm sorry. So, sir, do you have confidence in the intelligence you're receiving or not?

Sen. HAGEL: I do. But what's interesting about this, though, is - let's make no mistake. We, the Congress, the oversight body of the intelligence agencies in this country are captive to a great extent to what they tell us. So therefore, you could say, Michel, well, but senator, you say you have confidence, but that's based on what these people are telling you. How you do you know that they're telling you the truth? Very good question.

We have ways, obviously, to find that out, and processes. But the entire basis of democracy is built to some extent on trust and confidence. Now, that's the role of the press. That's the role of everybody else to make sure that that trust stays. And there are some reasons for that trust. But that's why the Congress has to get more into this than I think we've ever been before and we will.

MARTIN: Well, it speaks to a question over the weekend. You said you don't think a special council is warranted to investigate this issue of the tapes and the severe interrogations tapes, which some people would consider torture, that they supposedly show. Do you have a problem with special councils in general, or you just don't think this rises to the level of one where it's needed?

Sen. HAGEL: Well, first of all, I don't think what we know now - we may know something as we get into this - that a special council would be warranted. When you bring a special council into a process, that starts an entirely new track of investigations, which I'm not sure at this point that is warranted. Plus, more important, in my opinion, that's a role of Congress. That is our responsibility to find out what happened here - why did it happen - to stop it. If there was something that shouldn't have happened, obviously, there are some rather serious inconsistencies at best here. That's our role. And I think to defer that to a special council is abdicating our responsibilities.

I'm not generally opposed to a special council, if it's required. The Justice Department, as you know, is now looking - taking a preliminary investigation and putting it on track in this or others. Both committees of the Congress are looking at this. We'll have a number of people before our committees for the next few weeks. Then, in the end, if we think we need some outside counsel, then I'm sure we will move to that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senator, I have to ask. You know, the first voting in the presidential elections is very close now. It doesn't seem that Republican voters are madly in love with their choices. So do you regret not getting in there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. HAGEL: No, I don't regret it at all. Those kinds of decisions about deciding to enter a presidential contest are big decisions, and they are comprehensive decisions, and I'm going to do stay focused on my job up here for the next 12 months. And I know that this country is stronger than any of us and it has been, and it's going be around a lot longer after all those Republican candidates are gone and I'm gone. And I have confidence that our society will pick the kind of leaders we need to bring this country forward in the 21st century.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of, you know, picking the leaders that we need. The Republicans have — had to be talked into going to the Univision debate. They skipped the Iowa Black and Brown debate. Most of the people who were the front-runners at the time declined to go to the PBS debate, which focused on minority issues. What message do you think that they're sending to this portion of the electorate when they seem to have so little interest to speaking to these constituents directly? Or it's just smart politics? They figured that African-Americans and Latinos aren't going to vote for them anyway, so why bother.

Sen. HAGEL: Well, I don't think that's it all. I would say, though, Michel, I don't think there is a citizen in America that's aware, who will tell you that they don't believe that there has been enough presidential politics. Please bring on more debates. Let's have more Gong Shows. I don't think that's the case. As a matter of fact, I think the process got started way too early. And I think it hurts the candidates.

MARTIN: Well, it started the same time for the Democrats and they all seemed to show up at those events.

Sen. HAGEL: Well, I mean, I can't judge individual responsibilities and decisions on this thing, but I would say this, quite frankly, I've been very disappointed in the media on these formats. I think it's really debasing - the kind of dumb questions that most of the media asked of these people. Why wouldn't you have a program like you and I are on these debates? And why wouldn't you give each candidates four minutes to say what would you do as president about Iraq, about Iran, about our intelligence agencies. Why are we getting into - do you believe every word in the Bible is true?

All of these strange things out there that - I think that turns off a lot of the American people when - that this is not a serious process. This is just kind of a Gong-show show business thing and that affects decisions. I don't think that any Republican candidate out there — and I can't speak for any of them but you asked me the question — has said or that's their strategy. Well, the African-Americans won't vote for me or Hispanics won't vote for me, therefore, I'm not going to show up. I'm not aware of any Republican candidate who has taken that attitude. I don't think that's true.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, senator, for joining us this morning.

Sen. HAGEL: Michel, thank you.

MARTIN: Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.

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