MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It was last week we first heard reports that Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. In the days since, more details have emerged - reports of big sums of money being transferred, reports that some U.S. troops may indeed have been killed. Among the details still in dispute, whether President Trump was briefed on this intelligence. Reporting from The New York Times says yes, he was, that it was included in the President's daily brief in February. Administration officials disagree. They say Trump was never briefed because the intelligence was not strong enough to share with him.
Well, we're going to take the next few minutes to hear a view on all this from someone who has read countless presidential daily briefings. Jeremy Bash was chief of staff at the Defense Department and at the CIA, and he's here now.
JEREMY BASH: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: As someone who has seen this briefing process unfold from the inside, day after day, how is it supposed to work? By which I mean, who is supposed to decide what to tell the president and when?
BASH: Well, there's a staff that answers to the director of national intelligence, and they put together a binder every morning. Some of it is these finished intelligence products, the analytic products of the community that might look at, for example, an issue about an election in Mali or the economy in Argentina. But there's also, Mary Louise, quite a bit of raw reporting, raw intelligence collected from human sources that might, for example, have information about a specific threat to U.S. persons or interests. And if this information came into the PDB, it probably was in that category - raw reporting of a specific threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
KELLY: Now, it's been pointed out that this president doesn't always read everything put in front of him. Whose responsibility is it to say, look; whether it's in the binder or on an iPad or wherever, sir, you actually need to pay attention to this? This needs to be elevated to your level.
BASH: First, it's his responsibility. He's the commander in chief. He's the one who sends our troops, ultimately, into harm's way, and so he shoulders the responsibility for keeping them safe and for making sure he has the information. Second, I would say, his senior national security team, which includes his national security adviser. If there's something in the daily briefing that the president should have a further discussion about, the national security adviser should go to him and say, Mr. President, we want to have a briefing for you. The fact that either they didn't want to tell him about it because maybe they're afraid to present Russia-based information to him shows you, I think, Mary Louise, just how warped and distorted this national security decision-making inside this White House has become.
KELLY: Although, to be clear, if the director of the CIA, if the secretary of state, if the defense secretary, if others who have access to the PDB thought there's something in that the president really needs to see, there's nothing to stop them from picking up the phone and calling the president and saying, sir, you need to pay attention. Does this suggest, if he really wasn't briefed, that none of them thought he needed to know?
BASH: Not at all. First of all, the normal process would be they would probably reach out to the national security adviser first and foremost and say, have you talked about this with the president? Also importantly, the president has to be the one to say to his staff, if there's a threat to U.S. forces, I need to know about that. And the fact that his defense at this point, Mary Louise, is, well, I didn't know, God darn it, I'm outraged, and I want to hold Russia accountable, shows you that he actually isn't interested in the intelligence at all. He's just interested in escaping any responsibility for this.
KELLY: I do want to follow on something you said, which is the suggestion that maybe his staff didn't tell him about this because they were wary of approaching him on the subject of Russia. This is a question that Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has raised. We don't know if that's what happened or not in this case, but would there ever be an instance where it would be OK for the president's team to hold back intelligence because they feared it might risk a relationship, a presidential relationship, with another leader, with another country?
BASH: No. No such circumstance. He needs to know the information, particularly in this case, where the lives of service members were on the line. I mean, Mary Louise, according to some of the reports we've seen, three Marines were killed in April 2019, potentially from a IED that was done at the behest of the Russian government supporting the Taliban. So we need answers to this.
KELLY: Last thing to ask you, which is this - there is now a hunt underway for whoever has provided some of this intelligence to members of the press, for the leakers. As you know well from your experience at CIA, that's taken very seriously. What are you watching for as the hunt for leaker or leakers unfolds?
BASH: Well, again, I just hope that the administration has enough zeal for the issue of protecting our troops as they do to find out the leakers. Obviously, the people who put this out were very concerned about the way this unfolded. Can't condone leaks of classified information, but on the other hand, our troops lives are very important, and they need to be protected at almost all costs.
KELLY: Jeremy Bash - he served as chief of staff at both the CIA and at the Pentagon - thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.