In the aftermath of my review of The Spymasters, author Chris Whipple was very generous in accepting to respond to a few questions. If you have not read the book already, I trust this interview will provide you with an additional incentive to do so.
The content of our exchange follows.
Mr. Whipple, in light of the nomination of Ambassador William J. Burns as Director of the CIA (pending his confirmation), could you tell us in what direction the relationship between the President and the Director will lead things?
Given his breadth of knowledge in the national security field, and his hands-on experience with CIA operations when he was ambassador to Jordan, William Burns will have a short learning curve as CIA director. As an outsider, Ambassador Burns is very much in the Leon Panetta mold. And like Panetta, he is grounded and confident—essential qualities for a great CIA director. His congenial relationship with President Joe Biden is also a tremendous advantage.
In your excellent and thrilling book, it is fascinating to read about how each president receives his PDB. I would be curious to know how President Biden consumes his intelligence briefings. Could you tell us more about it?
President Biden is an avid consumer of intelligence, and he takes his oral briefings every morning in the Oval Office. DNI [Director of National Intelligence] Avril Haines accompanies the designated briefer almost every day, and I expect Bill Burns will also attend in person frequently.
In the political food chain of Washington, D.C., where would you rank the power of the Director of the CIA?
It depends almost entirely on the relationship between the director and the president. John Brennan was a powerful director; James Woolsey was not. Based on Joe Biden’s respect for Burns, I would expect him to be one of the key officials in the administration. As he or she should be. The CIA Director is ultimately the person we depend on to prevent another 9/11 or lethal pandemic.
In your opinion, who was the most influential Director of the CIA and why?
Richard Helms was extraordinarily influential. Flawed as he was—he sometimes followed dubious presidential orders—he wrote the template for the CIA director as the honest broker of intelligence. And in the end he upheld the rule of law, and the independence of the CIA, by standing up to a corrupt president, Richard Nixon, during the Watergate scandal.
China is omnipresent in discussions about intelligence and national security. It goes without saying that President Biden is different from his predecessor in every way. From what you know, what do you think will be his approach and who will have the most influence on him on that file?
I would expect Tony Blinken [Secretary of State], Jake Sullivan [National Security Advisor], and Bill Burns [Director of the CIA] to be key players on China Policy.
I’m always fascinated to read about the operations of the Mossad. Apart from the episodes you included in the book (the neutralization of Imad Mughniyah was a real treat to read), are there other episodes that captures the level of closeness between Jerusalem and Langley?
One of my favorite stories was Leon Panetta’s first lunch with Mossad chief Meir Dagan, when Panetta asked, “how would you handle Al Qaeda?” And Dagan replied, “You kill them.”
Would you say that the Mossad is the intelligence organization that is the closest to the CIA?
That’s above my pay grade. Better to ask an expert on Mossad.
Since you are a virtuoso writer about power and politics, do you plan to write another similar book in the near future?
Yes. But you know the old saying: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Thanks for the kind review.
I would like to express all my gratitude to Mr. Brian Belfiglio of Simon & Schuster for his generous assistance in organizing this exclusive interview with Mr. Whipple.