ALEX WOODSON: Hello. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I am joined by Yael Eisenstat. Yael has spent 16 years working on global political, social, and security issues as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, a diplomat, a senior intelligence officer, a special advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden, and, now, in the private sector.
Yael, thanks for coming today.
YAEL EISENSTAT: Thanks for having me.
ALEX WOODSON: For your entire government career it's safe to say that you worked behind the scenes, correct?
YAEL EISENSTAT: That is true, except for my tour as a foreign service officer. But other than that, yes.
ALEX WOODSON: But in the past couple of months you've been a lot more visible, sharing your thoughts on the Trump administration.
YAEL EISENSTAT: Yes.
ALEX WOODSON: In late January you wrote a powerful editorial in The New York Times with the headline, "The Shocking Affront of Donald Trump's CIA Stunt." This was written after Trump made a very public appearance at CIA headquarters on the day after his inauguration. So why did you feel the need to go public in such a big way and write this editorial?
YAEL EISENSTAT: Before I had written the piece—it's interesting, for the last 16 years I never really talked about my CIA affiliation. And sure, of course, anyone in Washington can generally read between the lines on a government career, but it's just not something I spoke about, a) because I didn't want to, and b) it's a strangely uncomfortable thing to talk about publicly. I had completely reinvented myself as a happy private citizen working private sector.
But when I came home on [January] 21st, I think it was, and I had all these text messages—"Did you watch his speech, did you watch his speech?"—it made me realize I shouldn't watch his speech before I go to sleep, so I waited until the next day. And when I watched it I was so overwhelmingly outraged. Any idea of "Give this man a chance, let's see what happens" went right out the door. I was so offended, first of all, which I mentioned a lot in the piece, about him standing in front of that wall of the stars at the CIA giving that speech. But it also made me really concerned about his relationship with the intelligence community and what that might mean for us as Americans.
I fully admit part of it was just in a moment of rage. I mean I wrote that entire article like that [snaps fingers], like in one hour, so it's not like I sat around for three days and thought to myself, Should I out my CIA past to the world? It just felt like the right moment to just take a deep breath and take that plunge, because I felt that I had a story and a perspective that so many Americans don't have, and I just feel like I have to use that credibility and that background now to help add to the discussion in a slightly more calm and credible way than a lot of people who are screaming about everything going on right now.
ALEX WOODSON: What has been the reaction from your former colleagues—many of them still are in the government—and just from the public at large?
YAEL EISENSTAT: Actually just to back up one step, because it kind of speaks to the reaction. I had actually "outed" myself the night before in a Huffington Post piece. I had been speaking to the journalist writing the piece about his speech, and I had given him some of my thoughts. I told him that I was writing a piece that I was hoping to publish as well at the same time.
But after I gave him my thoughts on what had happened at the CIA—and the whole point was about the president claiming he got a standing ovation—I made the point to the Huffington Post person that of course he got a standing ovation because he didn't actually tell anybody to sit down. The agency won't sit down if the commander-in-chief doesn't tell them so. And it was actually in that moment that I said, "And you can quote me on the record."
Just to be actually clear, and the reason I bring that up, was so that went out the night before. Not as big a splash, of course, as me writing my story in The New York Times, but I did get an email that night from one of my first mentors, actually. He was upset that I had written it. He was upset because he was trying to say, "You know, some of us were there because he's our president and we wanted to hear what he had to say," which I understood. That wasn't my point; I wasn't trying to disrespect anybody.
But after The New York Times piece the next day I got nothing but thank-yous. A lot of people go to work every day, they are hard workers, they do what they do, they get blamed when anything goes wrong, they never get thank-yous when things go right, and they're used to that. CIA employees know what they signed up for. But I think it's hard when you can never speak to what you're feeling.
It's been an overwhelmingly positive response, which is a weird thing to say because I didn't write it for a positive response. But yes, I expected a lot of backlash, and I didn't get it. I just got the one email from one person the day before who just was a little bit upset that I had spoken out. But other than him I got a lot of thank-yous; I got a lot of just sort of muted thank-yous from people.
ALEX WOODSON: Your editorial brings up the idea of if you're working for the government, do you have obligations to the American people, do you have obligations to the government, to the president? Is this something that you thought about during your career working for the government?
YAEL EISENSTAT: You know, it's such an interesting question because I never really did. When I was in government I knew that I served the American people, but you also know you're serving your president. And never during my career were the two at conflict for me so much. Obviously with each administration there are different policies and different people agree with them. I started under Clinton, continued under Bush, finished up under Obama, and I had my agreements and disagreements with each. But at the end of the day I knew I was serving the American people the whole time. I had sworn an oath at the CIA to protect the Constitution from domestic and foreign threats, and I never really had to think about separating who I'm serving.
And now I could actually see people having to really struggle with that question. I'm not in any way implying anyone or everyone, I'm just saying I'm sure there are some individuals who are struggling with if this really goes in a certain direction—I mean let's say we learn a lot more on these Russia stories, for example—there will be people faced with: Who am I ultimately serving here? Am I ultimately serving the president, let's say he becomes implicated in something—he hasn't yet—then they will have to question, do I serve him or do I serve the American people?
And it's possible in CIA's past people have had to think about that. I can only talk about—I started in the year 2000, not something I ever had to consider. So I suspect this is a really tough one for a lot of people inside, especially if things get worse.
ALEX WOODSON: But you obviously did think about your responsibility to the American people and to the government. This is something you thought deeply about. You wrote a Medium piece last November entitled "America: Do you deserve those who serve you?" There are some very strong passages in there and I urge everyone to read it.
Two questions: Did your colleagues think about this as deeply as you did? And where does this come from for you, where did you form this kind of thinking?
YAEL EISENSTAT: When I wrote that piece, it was obviously just after the elections, and I think I'm able to think about these things in a different way because I'm no longer in government. I very much wrote that piece after discussions—I had just been in Washington and I'd been speaking to so many of my friends who still were in the government—and not CIA; across the board—friends at the State Department, at United States Agency for International Development (USAID), friends at the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), all across the board—and some of them did struggle with: Well, can I actually work for this president? And I have no doubt that people on the other side, if Hillary Clinton had won, you would probably have some people asking the same question.
I wrote that piece—it was sort of a two-part story. It was about the lowest moment in my career. I was reflecting back on the moment where I didn't feel the American people necessarily deserved my work anymore. It was a fleeting moment, but it was a really low point in my career where everything we were doing and everything we had worked on—and all I was hearing on the news was how the CIA messed up. This was right after the six CIA folks were killed in Afghanistan and the Nigerian "Underwear Bomber" had tried to come into the United States. I was sitting at the White House at the time—I hadn't slept in days; I was just exhausted—and I remember the American people just tearing us to shreds on how we messed up. So that was a real low moment.
So it's that story combined with now the intelligence community in particular, but across the board, are working for a president who during the campaign said some pretty nasty things about these different agencies. He made it clear during the campaign what he thought about the intelligence community. So you combine those two things, and I imagine people are stuck with some really serious questions of do half of the country—well it wasn't half the country—but people at Trump rallies were applauding when he was saying terrible things about the intelligence community. And yet these are the same people that now have to work to protect you.
So I was just really exploring this. Whatever people decide to do, the American public has got to at least appreciate the efforts of the individuals in these agencies.
I know that doesn't really answer the question, but it was something that I do know that a lot of people in government right now are struggling with: What are my red lines? What is the point where it goes too far for me to say, "I can continue to work here"?
ALEX WOODSON: Just to clarify things a little bit, I think a lot of Americans, especially myself, are at a point where we're following the news a lot more closely, we're following politics a lot more closely, we're following activities at the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a lot more closely. I keep hearing this term "intelligence community," things like the report of Russia hacking the election was confirmed by 17 different agencies. I'm sure most people didn't even realize that there are 17 different intelligence agencies.
Is "intelligence community" a good term for what this is? Is this really a community? And how do these agencies work with each other?
YAEL EISENSTAT: It definitely is a community. I realize the number 17 seemed just obscene. I actually could not list all 17 if you were to ask me right now.
ALEX WOODSON: That was my next question.
YAEL EISENSTAT: Yes, so don't test me on this one.
But different branches of the military have their intelligence community. So the intelligence community is across the board. It includes parts of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and I could go on and on with acronyms and really bore the heck out of your listeners.
But it is absolutely, especially—we all learned this in a post-September 11 world—really important to understand that all of these different agencies brought some piece to the puzzle. We all know the accusations after September 11 that the CIA and the FBI didn't talk to each other and didn't communicate. But it's not just CIA and FBI. There are so many different agencies that play a different role, that have different ways of gathering information, they talk to different people. So they all do play a really important part in this.
With the Russia report that you're referencing, that one really broke down to, if I remember correctly—of course I read the unclassified one online like everybody else in the public; I haven't seen anything from the classified report. But if I recall—it's been a while since I read it—it was CIA, FBI, NSA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that had all agreed.
I used to coordinate the counterterrorism part of the president's daily brief when I was the senior intelligence officer at the National Counterterrorism Center, and to get those agencies to all agree with high confidence—which was the terminology used in this piece, "with high confidence"—to an assessment, that is not a small thing; that's a pretty big deal.
I feel there's actually a lot to unpack in this question. But just to give an example so people really understand what this means, the FBI and the CIA have different roles, obviously. The FBI have a different burden of proof when they come up with their analysis, because at the end of day their goal, or their point to their analysis, is to try to bring something—whether it's bring it to trial, whether it's prosecution—so that's a higher burden of proof in a certain way. It's what can we actually bring to court, what could we actually prosecute. Whereas the CIA, their job is to provide analysis on foreign intelligence and give their best reasoned analytic assessment. So these are two different things. And when you have the CIA and the FBI agreeing, that's not a small deal.
So yes, all of these different agencies, there's a lot of them out there. I don't know if all 17 agencies had a part in that assessment. It's whichever ones have a piece of it would be involved.
That was a bit of a long-winded answer.
ALEX WOODSON: No, that's great.
YAEL EISENSTAT: Yes, it is a very real community.
ALEX WOODSON: So just tying into that, what could be the consequences if the president and the White House are not on the same page as all or part of the intelligence community?
YAEL EISENSTAT: It's not so much if they're on the same page, because obviously the intelligence community's role is to provide their assessment and it's the policymakers' decision what they want to do with it. That's a really important distinction, because if the president views analysis and assessments and says, "Thank you for that information; this is what I plan to do with it," it's not the intelligence community's job to turn around and say, "No, this is what you have to do with it." So there is a difference between the president taking a daily brief, an assessment, or anything like that, talking it over with his cabinet, and really making a reasoned decision.
That's totally different than a president saying, "I don't even value your analysis at all." That, to me, is the more dangerous part, when he says that your analysis doesn't matter, which he has said—maybe those weren't his exact words, but he has said it in the past. That, to me, is much more dangerous. That, to me, says that he is making decisions based on, I don't know, one or two people whispering in his ear, based on his very inner circle, and has just told the intelligence community "your analysis doesn't even matter to me." That's a much more dangerous situation.
I can get into obvious reasons why.
ALEX WOODSON: Sure.
YAEL EISENSTAT: At some point beyond this Russian investigation there will be very real matters of national security that the president will have to make decisions on. Imagine that there's a terrorist attack; he is going to need the intelligence community. First of all, the intelligence community's first job is to warn.
So, regardless of all the Russia stuff, there are still analysts every single day who are assessing the different terrorist groups out there, assessing threats to the homeland, threats to our allies, threats overseas. He has to be able to look at that and use that to protect the United States.
I am absolutely not an Asia expert, but I would assume the CIA is very important for everything going on in North Korea right now. There are threats all over the world that are really huge matters of national security, and if he can't get over this argument over Russia with the intelligence community, who is he going to rely on when one of these other situations escalates to a point where he has to make a decision? That's where my real fear lies.
ALEX WOODSON: Moving beyond international incidents, terrorism, that could be affected by a rift between the president and the international community, what would you think it would do to the morale of people working at these agencies when you have the president so publicly questioning, to put it very nicely, their work?
YAEL EISENSTAT: That is actually one of my biggest concerns, which well before I knew it would go this far was kind of what I was hinting—well, I was not hinting, I was writing about in the Medium piece—and there are a few things I'm concerned about there with morale.
Again, as I mentioned earlier, these are men and women who are not working for public praise. They don't get to brag on Facebook about what they did today. They don't get to run and tell all their friends that they did something great. They are constantly criticized by the public if they do something wrong. So the number one source of pride in your work is knowing that the president of the United States of America values what you are doing and that you are making a difference. And if you're being told that you are not making a difference at all because he doesn't even care what your work is, first and foremost, the morale issue there, I imagine, is really quite concerning.
But there are two other effects. One is whether or not that actually ends up making people's jobs more dangerous. I don't know if there's any evidence of that yet. But imagine that people who are working in collecting information, on the collections side, in countries that may not be thrilled with some of the things they're hearing—whether it be the Muslim ban, although we're not calling it a Muslim ban, whatever the situation—we have CIA officers in these countries trying to do their job, and that could be dangerous.
A third effect is the ability to continue to recruit. I've spoken to university students and they're asking me, "If you were me, would you still enter the CIA right now?" I had a student the other day who had always been excited to go down this career path—I think she might have been looking at foreign service, and another student was looking at CIA—and I realized this could be a recruitment problem. You want your best and your brightest and your most dedicated Americans to be excited to apply to work in the intelligence community. We rely on that; our safety relies on good people working there. It's not just a question if they are Republicans or Democrats or agree with Donald Trump or not. If they don't think that that's a place where their work will be valued, I'm not so sure they will be rushing to sign up. I think that could be a really big concern too.
ALEX WOODSON: We've been talking about how Trump has been attacking the intelligence community. He's also been attacking the media very strongly. I'm just wondering, as someone who has worked in the government, someone who has worked for people that might have had an adversarial relationship with the media, what do you see the media doing right now, and what is the media's role right now?
YAEL EISENSTAT: Obviously when I was in the CIA I never spoke with the media. I never had negative feelings about it. There was a wall there, and the wall made sense.
So it is funny now, as a private citizen, my appreciation for the media has grown exponentially. The funny thing is I used to actually want to be a journalist way before I ever worked at the CIA, so I've always respected the role.
But right now I actually believe our democracy absolutely relies on the media. Most Americans are so inundated with what's fake, what's not, and the accusation of fake news in and of itself. It is just obscene how that term is thrown around for everything right now.
I do think that the investigative journalists, in particular, who are doing work every day on what are the actual Russia connections, because right now there's so much happening, there's so much being thrown at us, that every day you kind of forget the story from the day before because then the next big thing comes up. And it's these investigative journalists, each one has their story, and they're not going to let it go until it becomes resolved. I think that is critical for us right now.
The government is accountable to the people, and right now I think the only ones who can really make sure they're accountable to the people is the media. I can't say I overly see Congress making sure that our government is accountable. I just think the role is extraordinarily important.
I know we didn't really get into the idea of leaks and how crazy that situation has become. And I'm not saying that I think I want people in these agencies to be leaking information to the media, because that is also dangerous; that's not what I'm saying at all. But good journalism—at least asking the right questions, asking the questions no matter what these answers are, continuing to ask the right questions—is the only thing, I think, that is going to make the government accountable to us right now, and that is critical.
ALEX WOODSON: It seems to me like the leaks are happening because Congress won't do its job in some ways.
YAEL EISENSTAT: This is another one we could have an hour-long discussion about. I mentioned this recently in another interview. And I think I saw this mentioned—maybe it was by former director Hayden; somebody did an op-ed [Editor's note: It was Michael Hayden.]—who also said it's interesting that he [Trump] keeps accusing the intel agency of leaks before it has been proven who has been leaking what. We don't know if those leaks are coming from his own circles in the White House; we don't know if they're coming from people in the agencies; we have no idea. So it's also dangerous to already make accusations of who's leaking what.
I do think that it's something that should be investigated. As former CIA you are never going to hear me endorse the idea of people in the intel community leaking information. That's why I think as long as the media keeps asking the right questions, even if leakers don't come forward, the American public will start to listen and demand answers. The only way that we are going to get answers is if we keep really important questions in the public eye.
ALEX WOODSON: Just to completely switch topics a little bit—well, not completely but mostly—in addition to your government experience you also worked for ExxonMobil for a couple of years.
YAEL EISENSTAT: Yes, I did.
ALEX WOODSON: Now the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, is secretary of state. Just very broadly, what are your thoughts on that appointment?
YAEL EISENSTAT: When I left government, from 2013 to 2015 I worked at ExxonMobil headquarters. I was working on the corporate social responsibility efforts and strategies.
When he was first named, I recognize all the optics behind another very wealthy individual, another oil and gas person; I recognize all the optics behind him being put in this position. But I did take certain comfort in the fact that my understanding is—I can't say I know the man so personally, but I did work at headquarters—this is a man who I don't believe is an ideologue. I believe his ethics are pretty solid. He is an engineer by trade. I think he even talked about this in his hearings, but I saw this firsthand. If you can support what you're trying to do with facts, data, and very well-reasoned analysis, then I believe he's going to read your case, listen to your case, and make the best decisions possible.
One example is the fact that ExxonMobil, the group there that I sat in, convinced him to spend $80 million, or something like that, on women's economic empowerment programs around the world, because the folks working on that showed him all the research necessary of why that was a good investment. The reason I bring that up is that, to me, is a good signal that this is a person who will listen to these things.
But the concern is we have no idea where his influence will lie within this administration. It's off to a bit of a rocky start. I think it's really worth watching. Does he have a seat at the table? If Jared Kushner is running Israel policy instead of him, what does that mean?
I'm not sure where I fall on this right now. I do believe he is someone I want to give a chance. But it is more and more questionable where his influence is going to lie in this administration, so I think that one just remains to be seen.
ALEX WOODSON: I want to try to end on an optimistic note. A lot of Americans are scared, and in my opinion rightly so. But I think that's in part because there's so much about how the government works that we don't understand. So maybe, as someone who has worked in the government at many different levels, many different agencies, is there something that is giving you hope, maybe co-workers that you worked with there or how it's organized, anything like that?
YAEL EISENSTAT: I myself am concerned about many things right now. But the one thing is I haven't given up hope on our institutions yet. Our institutions really are the backbone of how we function. I know that the men and women in the CIA—I also worked in the FBI for a while and at the State Department—and the men and women I worked with were dedicated; they were dedicated to what they were doing. Yes, you have the appointees who come and go, but the majority of our government employees in these agencies are careerists, and they're there whether it's a Democrat or Republican in power. To this point right now I still have confidence in the institutions.
But the danger there—and I know you want to stay optimistic and I just went to the danger—is we do have a White House that is hammering at these institutions, and doing this publicly—I assume this is for his base, trying to convince his base not to trust in these institutions. And so the question is, at the end of the day who wins this debate?
Right now I do believe that these folks are still working the same way they've always worked, doing the same top-notch work. Until we see otherwise, I have to have faith in my institutions at this point, otherwise then I'm really just going to go live under a rock.
ALEX WOODSON: We all hope not.
YAEL EISENSTAT: So to the men and women that I always worked with, I admire the heck out of them for the job they do every day, and just hope they carry on.
ALEX WOODSON: One thing that I'm optimistic about is what I was talking about before, that average Americans are so much more engaged in politics and the government right now. That is giving me hope that once we get through maybe a rough time, we'll all have a better idea of how our government works and what we need to do to keep it working.
YAEL EISENSTAT: That's actually a really great point. I know that people have started re-reading the Declaration of Independence, people are reading the Constitution. I was shocked—I am going to sound really old for a second; I didn't realize we don't teach civics in school anymore. I was totally shocked to learn that.
But even I re-read the Declaration of Independence a few weeks ago and I re-read part of the Constitution. So I agree. I think people are going to start learning more about how their government works. It seems like there was a period where we sort of stopped doing that. So, yes, that is a really good point.
ALEX WOODSON: Great. Yael Eisenstat, thank you very much for coming, I appreciate it.
YAEL EISENSTAT: Thank you.