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Sen. Warner: Trump Advisers Lack Deep Experience In Intelligence Community

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In about two months, President-elect Donald Trump becomes commander in chief of the United States military and also takes charge of intelligence agencies. He's known to be a skeptic of their work. When U.S. intelligence agencies said Russia was interfering in the presidential election, Trump publicly cast doubt on that finding. Trump also has opinions about what the agencies should do, for example, repeatedly promising to bring back torture, which is now outlawed.

It's not yet clear who President-elect Trump will name as director of national intelligence or CIA director, but we do know whose job it will be to watch after those agencies - the Senate and House intelligence committees, which provide oversight. The committees include Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, soon to be vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

What, if anything, do you know about President-elect Trump's approach to intelligence agencies and the intelligence business?

MARK WARNER: We're still trying to figure that out. Frankly, both parties are. There were certain people in his transition - Mike Rogers, the former head of the House Intelligence Committee, who left the transition - that gave me great pause because, well, I didn't agree with him on everything. I think he brought a reasonable approach to the intelligence community.

INSKEEP: Is there anyone left around Mr. Trump on national security who gives you reassurance?

WARNER: Well, there's a fairly narrow group of people who seem to be around him, and not many of them have deep experience in the intel community.

INSKEEP: That's a no, essentially.

WARNER: That's a statement of, I'm hoping to see more names come forward, but there are not a large group of people that I've seen, at least, rolled out on transition committee that's got the kind of background in intelligence. This is a complicated area. I've been on the committee for seven years, and it took me a couple of years just to fully understand what each entity did.

INSKEEP: And let's remind people that one of Congress' job is to provide a check on executive power, and that falls to you and other members of the Intelligence Committee. You get to see classified information and get at least a peek into what the intelligence agencies are doing. Do you believe that you are in a position to provide an effective check on whatever this president may do?

WARNER: I think the role of the intelligence committees in terms of oversight, because we're in such dangerous times and with such an unproven and, frankly, new person to government in the case of the president-elect, I think our role is going to be more important than ever. The good news is it is also the committee that is the least partisan of any that I serve on. So yes, I think we are up to the task, and I think the task will be never more important in my time in public life.

INSKEEP: I guess a Republican might ask you, as a Democrat, are you prepared to support this president on national security issues, even if he's pursuing policies that seem to you or are different as he tries to take his own approach?

WARNER: I'm open to novel or different if I believe they're in the best interests of our country. The president-elect needs to understand that the words of the president matter in a way dramatically different than the words of a candidate. And the president-elect, I believe, needs to bring kind of a more tempered voice than we saw, clearly as a candidate, and even in this period of transition, at least in some of his tweets.

INSKEEP: During the campaign, Mr. Trump said that he favored torture and he was willing to call it that - waterboarding and perhaps something worse, which is something that the CIA has said they'll never do again. Does the CIA have the power to decline such an order?

WARNER: It is the policy of the American government not to condone torture. It does not work. It has not worked. I think there would be extreme pushback from the intelligence professionals if they were to receive those kind of orders.

INSKEEP: Would they ultimately have to agree to them, though, or can they say, this is an illegal order, I can't follow it, I will not follow it?

WARNER: Hopefully, that hypothetical will - we won't have to address.

INSKEEP: Is that because the answer is a little unclear?

WARNER: Hopefully, that hypothetical we won't have to address. I think, when you get fully briefed up from the intelligence community and you realize the implications of both your words and actions, I'm hoping for more sober and appropriate actions from the president-elect.

INSKEEP: Virginia Senator Mark Warner is a Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator, thanks very much for talking with us again.

WARNER: Steve, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.