Interview of the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. Mike McConnell, by Charlie Rose on PBS
January 8, 2009
Dr. Thomas Fingar
Date: Fri, 9 Jan 2009 13:47:14 -0600
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Interview of Mr. Mike McConnell
Director of National Intelligence
The Charlie Rose Show – PBS
January 8, 2009
MR. CHARLIE ROSE: Welcome to the broadcast. Tonight, the person who coordinates all
American intelligence and the man who briefs the President of the United States everyday. Mike
McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence.
DIRECTOR MIKE McCONNELL: I’m concerned about and I worry about is through cyber
means, the right kind of sophistication, undeterred by the result, meaning if your intent is to
destroy data you could impact global finance, you could impact electric power, you could impact
transportation, there are all kinds of things that you could cause strategic damage to a nation.
And we’re the most vulnerable because we’re the most dependent upon it.
CHARLIE ROSE: Mike McConnell for the hour, next.
CHARLIE ROSE: Mike McConnell is here. He is the Director of National Intelligence. The
Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversees and coordinates the 16 agencies that
make up the United States Intelligence Community. Six mornings a week he personally delivers
the President’s Daily Brief, telling the President what is going on around the world.
Director McConnell served in the U.S. Navy for 29 years, 26 of them as a career intelligence
officer. During the Clinton administration he served as Director of the National Security
The Office of DNI was created in 2004 when Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and
Terrorism Prevention Act after serious concerns about the CIA and events leading up to 9/11 and
the erroneous intelligence about Iraq.
Here is what the President told Charles Gibson about his understanding of intelligence leading up
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the
intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons
of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t just people in my
administration. And, you know, that’s not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been
different, I guess.
CHARLIE ROSE: President-elect Obama is expected to announce that he will choose retired
Admiral Dennis Blair to be the new DNI and former Congressman and White House Chief of
Staff Leon Panetta as the new CIA Director.
This evening we want to look ahead with Director McConnell to the challenges of the future, talk
about CIA intelligence reforms, misperceptions of intelligence, and what he has learned from
mistakes of the past. I am pleased to have him here at this table for the first time. Welcome.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Thank you, sir.
CHARLIE ROSE: It’s a pleasure to have you here.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Delighted to be here.
CHARLIE ROSE: You will be at your desk until the new President walks into the White House,
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Yes, sir. I will.
CHARLIE ROSE: And when does the transfer take place from you to the new DNI?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Twelve noon on the 20th of January. There’s a possibility if
confirmation is not complete by that time, it could go for another day or two, but by the end of
this month I’ll be in the private sector.
CHARLIE ROSE: You said interestingly that this is a 24×7 job.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Yes, it is.
CHARLIE ROSE: You work from 4:00 o’clock in the morning until about 11:30 at night. And
the thing that it demands the most is stamina.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: True. Very true.
CHARLIE ROSE: Tell me how you see the world. What factors are converging on us that will
influence not only this country but every country?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: I think first of all, Charlie, it is a shrinking globe, a globe that is
being made smaller by technology. Just think about it for a second.
We can move information halfway around the world or completely around the world in less than
a second. We can move a person halfway around the globe in 12 hours. So it’s the fact that we
have to recognize that it’s an interconnected, globalized world and problems in one area can very
quickly be problems in another area.
As we forecast for the future, the relative position of the United States, the United States is the
most powerful nation on earth. It’s a $14 trillion economy and the next player is a distant
second. As we go forward, relatively speaking, particularly with the shift of wealth from West to
East — the first time in our lifetime or in the last century we’re going to see a shift in that power
to India and to China.
CHARLIE ROSE: And you in fact said that by 2025 China’s economy will be probably the
second largest economy in the world?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Probably second largest, and a little bit after that it will be the
largest economy in the world. They will surpass the United States.
CHARLIE ROSE: Other factors that you look at in terms of this shift of wealth, the most
dramatic shift of wealth has taken place not only to Asia, but to the Middle East.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: That’s true.
CHARLIE ROSE: What’s the impact of that?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: It has significant impact. One of the things we worry about are
sovereign wealth funds and how they will be used and how they’re invested. Some of them are
very transparent. You go to the northern tier of Europe, very transparent. If you go to the
Middle East, there’s no transparency at all. Will they be used for political purposes?
We will have, I would forecast, a conflict between nation states over energy resources. Let me
just use China as an example. China today produces about 75 percent of their power from coal.
The problem with coal is it poisons the atmosphere, poisons the soil. They produce about ten
percent of their energy resources from oil. They’re going to import about ten percent. But the
growth of imports in China outstrip all other nations. China is going to have to have more
resources in terms of petroleum products from outside China. That’s going to cause stress and
competition for those resources.
CHARLIE ROSE: They’re going to be out trying to sew up all the energy resources they can
possibly find and possibly contract for.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: I would, if I were speaking to my Chinese counterparts, my
interlocutors, I would say that a little bit differently. I would say it’s in China’s interest and it’s
in the United States’ interest to have a stable environment where energy resources are managed
in the most productive way. So we will eventually have to go to alternative sources of energy.
That probably will take a long period of time, so we should manage the process with stability and
prosperity across the various players. It could be done that way. But notice, most regions where
there is oil, there is some level of conflict or authoritarian rule or some set of issues. And quite
frankly, that often fuels many of the problems we have today. I would use Iran as an example.
CHARLIE ROSE: I’ll come back to Iran, for sure.
There is also the issue of demographics as population changes. There is the issue of food prices.
And there is the issue of scarcity of water.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Indeed.
CHARLIE ROSE: How does that impact and what will that do to the changing relationship
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Let me start with demographics. Sort of the major centers.
China is in for, in a relatively short period of time, a major impact from demographic trends.
They’ve had a one child policy for a long time and it’s about to hit and hit in a big way, so just
think of it as a cliff.
Japan’s in the same situation.
CHARLIE ROSE: Mostly an older population.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: An older population. Think of it this way. If you have a healthy
balanced society you have older people at the top, a broader base of working people, and the
younger working people are supporting those at the top. We’re going to see this start to tilt a bit
with regard to China, potentially Japan, and Europe.
CHARLIE ROSE: And Russia.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: I was going to add, especially Russia. Russia, of the industrialized
nations, Russia is one of the few where life expectancy is declining as opposed to getting longer.
Now the two major regions of the world in terms of economic impact where the demographic
trends are not in a negative way are the United States and India. India because of the birth rate;
and the United States because of immigration.
CHARLIE ROSE: How about the Middle East?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: There is a youth bulge, so it’s not as much of a demographic
problem. In my view the problem in the Middle East is distribution of wealth so that those at the
bottom of the social structure have opportunity for advancement, education, being a productive
member of society. My belief is that’s where those who wish us harm in the context of
radicalism or terrorism and so on, that’s mainly where they recruit from. That’s not to say that
all the terrorists are illiterate or unfortunate. That’s not the case. Many of the leadership came
from the elitist ranks.
CHARLIE ROSE: Do you believe that between now and 2025 which has been the kind of
measurement time for you in some of the studies that I’ve seen, that there is a rising possibility
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: I do. There is a rising possibility of conflict between nations over
energy resources. You mentioned water. Particularly water. There are going to be nations in the
world that do not have enough water that’s potable for drinking and cooking, and also not
enough water for irrigation to grow sufficient crops.
CHARLIE ROSE: On a particular continent, or where?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: The most impact will be the northern tier of Africa in the near term,
and also in the Middle East. That’s where it will hit first.
CHARLIE ROSE: We have the worry of Iran and nuclear weapons which I want to talk about.
But you have also argued or suggested that the risk of nuclear weapons being used, using your
words, is grayer in the future than it is today.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: That’s true. We normally talk about it when we have a forecast or
a dialogue with the Congress or a set of members in the executive branch in terms of weapons of
mass destruction. I would put four items in that area.
First is biological, then chemical, then nuclear, and what surprises many people, then cyber
weapons, the ability to degrade infrastructure. Of those four, the most likely is biological; the
least likely is nuclear. But it is going to increase in likelihood from now until 2025. It’s a very
small percentage, but —
CHARLIE ROSE: The percentage of likelihood? The percentage of —
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: A small likelihood that it will happen, but it is an increasing
CHARLIE ROSE: How do you measure that?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Probably the best way to say it is informed judgment. We have
analysts who study these things and trends, and we have engaged. When we produced this
estimate that we do every four years we try to publish it at the end of November or December
before the President is sworn in for the new term, and the attempt is to try to serve the executive
branch and the Congress in a way that says here’s our best guess at the unclassified level on what
to expect over the next 20 years. We just published that in November. It’s on the web site.
Anyone can download it.
Interestingly, as sidebar, when we publish it there’s no protection for it so it becomes a best
seller in foreign countries as soon as they can translate it. (Laughter).
CHARLIE ROSE: And you know at least governments are buying it for sure.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Indeed.
CHARLIE ROSE: Everybody who talks to the person who briefs the President every day about
intelligence has this one question, everybody. What keeps you up at night? What is the big
worry for you? Because you see all the bad news.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: There are a number of things. Let me just put it in the context of
terrorism, radicalism, someone who is willing to die for a cause being empowered with some
kind of a weapon or capability that could have devastating impact. Now that could be biological,
it could be nuclear, it could be cyber. But we are vulnerable as a society to all those kinds of
CHARLIE ROSE: Elaborate on cyber.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Most people think about today information technology, the internet,
computers, wireless devices, as wonderful inventions, global communications, instant
communications, efficiency, just-in-time production, and all that’s true. It’s made our lives
much richer and better. It’s increased productivity and it’s had a very tremendous positive
The more sinister side of it is everything’s connected. If everything is connected it is potentially
Think about it this way. If you ask most people how does the globe communicate, they would
say, they would pull out a cell phone and they’d say a wireless device. Ninety percent of the
world’s communications is carried on fiber optic cable, either underground or under the sea.
You should think of wireless devices as on and off ramps.
So once you’re in this cyber infrastructure it’s all connected computer to computer. What
happens is, and I’ll just use the financial services industry as an example. We don’t have a gold
standard and we don’t have printed money in the bank. It’s all based on confidence of
CHARLIE ROSE: Which are made electronically.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Which are not only made and moved electronically, but are
Now the banking industry learned a valuable lesson as a result of 9/11 and there are backup
systems and they have alternate control centers and so on. But there is still a level of
vulnerability. To a sophisticated attacker, if that attacker could be successful in scrambling the
data for one large bank you would have an instant catastrophe because you lose confidence in the
system. And one bank’s not confident it can reconcile with another, then things start to grind to
Actually in this financial crisis that we’re going through, if you’ll look back over the history of
it, you’ll notice how the decisionmakers in the financial world scrambled to save Bear Stearns, I
think it was last March. You didn’t want that to collapse because it creates a cascading effect.
So what I’m concerned about and I worry about is through cyber means, the right kind of
sophistication, undeterred by the result, meaning if your intent is to destroy data you could
impact global finance, you could impact electric power, you could impact transportation, there
are all kinds of things that you could cause strategic damage to a nation. And we’re the most
vulnerable because we’re the most dependent upon it.
CHARLIE ROSE: Does it suggests that people have tried to do this?
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Let me separate it between exploitation of data for information
advantage. That happens every day. There are terabytes of data taken out of the United States,
whether it’s competitive information or banking information or academic information or defense
information. Everything’s attacked. Terabytes are taken. There are over 100 nations in the
world that are sophisticated that have this capability. Think of it as you’re stealing data for some
purpose. Usually competitive advantage.
That’s different from someone who is motivated to destroy data. What I worry about is most of
those stealing it have a vested interest in stability. So there is some level of deterrence that if you
have the ability to penetrate and take, it’s not in your interest to destroy. But if you are someone
like a radical terrorist and you had the ability to do this, you want damage. That’s the part I
worry about. When the level of sophistication reaches a point that there could be strategic
damage to the United States, and that time is not too far off.
Now as a government we’re not organized and focused to be able to address that threat in the
most comprehensive way.
CHARLIE ROSE: But you at the same time have technology advantages in this country.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Huge.
CHARLIE ROSE: Because one of the strengths of this country and our economy has been the
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: That’s right.
CHARLIE ROSE: And some people worry that that lead may not be as wide as it has been A,
because of education and people going back to a whole range of countries; and immigration
policies; and other things.
DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Yes. And particularly the fact you can reach into our information
infrastructure and take information out.
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