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Bolton Observer Offers Close-Up View of Nominee

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Last Friday, Robert Hutchings spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff about John Bolton, who is nominated to be ambassador to the United Nations. And judging from accounts that leaked, he was extremely critical of Mr. Bolton. When Bolton was undersecretary of State, Hutchings was responsible for coordinating American intelligence assessments in 2003. He was chairman of the National Intelligence Council for two years, on leave from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He's back there now and joins us from Princeton.

Welcome, Ambassador Hutchings.

Former Ambassador ROBERT HUTCHINGS (Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: The New York Times quotes an e-mail from you accusing Mr. Bolton essentially of having fostered a climate of politicization and intimidation in intelligence analysis. What exactly did he do?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: I was trying not to personalize this quite so much but, really, to speak of a general pattern that was worrying to me, one that happens in every administration but perhaps is particularly acute in this one, in which intelligence analysts, mostly junior-level people, are subjected to pressure to conform to a political line. So my comments were not directed at Mr. Bolton, per se, whom I hardly know, but at the general problem.

SIEGEL: Well, to what degree do you hold him accountable for that in this past administration?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Well, my exposure was rather limited. It did entail the Syrian testimony, and it also included the results of an assessment on Cuba. So my personal knowledge of Mr. Bolton was not all that direct.

SIEGEL: By the Syria testimony, we're talking about 2003, I guess, when Mr. Bolton was preparing his testimony for the House International Relations Committee about Syria and unconventional weapons programs, as the US understood them to be in Syria. What did the US hold to be the case, and what was he about to say was the case?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Well, I have to rely on memory here because I'm no longer in government, no longer have access to all those records. But as I recall, we were given an early draft testimony, which I and others reviewed and found went well beyond what we felt the intelligence would verify. So we pushed back. And I actually instructed my staff not to clear on language that we could not support.

SIEGEL: Well, supporters of the Bolton nomination say this describes a process that should be taking place, push back here and there and out comes a result. Did you find something untoward about that exchange over Syria?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Well, it does happen, and draft testimony and other drafts get circulated around government all the time. In this case, I thought the initial draft showed, really, a lack of judgment and was a worrying disregard for the intelligence, in my view. So I instructed my staff to play hardball and not to clear on any draft that looked like this.

SIEGEL: How often did that happen in the course of your two years on the National Intelligence Council that you had to tell the staff to play hardball?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Maybe a handful of times that I directly got involved.

SIEGEL: Typically how different might the adjectives be or the verbs be in such a statement to provoke the kind of disagreement you're describing?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: The disagreements that I recall really came out of selection of isolated bits of uncorroborated intelligence that were then used to demonstrate a larger point, which went well beyond where the intelligence would really take you. And bear in mind this was coming at a time after we were already encountering in Iraq a reality different from that which the National Intelligence estimate on Iraq WMD had projected. So I thought it was our responsibility to be particularly careful with the evidence.

SIEGEL: The Silberman-Robb commission--that is, President Bush's commission that looked into the intelligence agencies--looked at what happened with discussions of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and concluded that they found, in that case at least, no evidence of political pressure to influence the intelligence community. Broadly speaking, are they being naive about what's been happening with policy-makers and the intelligence agencies?

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Broadly and narrowly speaking, they are being naive, and I think that they really missed the call on what constitutes politicization. Just because the intelligence community successfully resists pressures doesn't mean that there hasn't been an effect. And I worry about the effect on more junior analysts, who are led to believe that there's an expected answer to an intelligence judgment and there's a penalty to be paid for not reaching the pre-determined answer. And I saw it at work when analysts were getting more timid about calling things as they saw it. Intelligence professionals always ought to be willing to tell truth to power, but political officials shouldn't make it so difficult on them to do so.

SIEGEL: Well, Robert Hutchings, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Robert Hutchings spoke to us earlier today. He's now diplomat in residence at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.