CIA directors past and present spar over President Trump's tweets

President Trump’s provocative use of social media — including his recent retweeting of three anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British fringe group — could put lives at risk, according to one former CIA director. The agency’s current director, meanwhile, countered that Trump’s tweets have helped uncover useful information for the U.S.

Such were the views expressed Saturday by Leon Panetta, former CIA head and secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, and Trump’s pick to lead the agency, Mike Pompeo.

Panetta and Pompeo were among scores of experts sharing sometimes-clashing views during a two-day conference on security and foreign policy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. Along with cyber-threats, a recurring theme was the threat posed by North Korea, which launched an intercontinental ballistic missile Tuesday.

H.R. McMaster, White House national security advisor, said the communist country posed “the greatest immediate threat to the United States.” When asked if the recent missile launch had increased the chance of war, he replied, “I think it's increasing every day, which means that we are in a race, really — we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.”

The exchange between Panetta and Pompeo over the president’s tweets came during the day’s final panel, with Panetta warning that Trump’s retweets of the anti-Muslim videos, an action denounced by the British government, could have far-reaching results.

“When you tweet something like that out there, you don’t know what the consequences are going to be,” Panetta said. “And the consequences could involve lives.”

He noted that Koran burnings have led to demonstrations and violence overseas.

In 2012, several U.S. soldiers misinterpreted an order to dispose of Korans that they believed were being used by prisoners at a U.S. detention center near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to pass written messages.

The soldiers dumped the Korans into a pit used to incinerate trash, an act seen by Afghan workers. News of the incident led to attacks that killed seven Americans and triggered riots that left more than 30 people dead.

Panetta, then secretary of Defense, apologized for the incident.

In 2011, a U.N. compound in Afghanistan was overrun and workers killed after news that a fundamentalist pastor in Florida intentionally burned a Koran.

Panel moderator and Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier asked Panetta to expand on comments he made days earlier about Trump’s retweets. “I’m not sure he fully understood the implications of what he was doing,” Panetta said.

When asked by Baier in a largely tongue-in-cheek manner whether “one account on Twitter makes your job hard” — a question that drew laughs from the audience — Pompeo pushed back.

“I’ve actually seen it help us,” he said.

Without getting into specifics, Pompeo said “some things” Trump tweeted “actually had a real-world impact” on the agency’s ability to understand what’s going on abroad.

Specifically, adversaries responded to those tweets in ways that allowed his organization to determine who was listening to what messages and how those messages resonated around the world, Pompeo said.

The discussion with the two CIA directors was part of the Reagan National Defense Forum, an annual conference that brings together defense industry representatives, current and former government officials, representatives of Congress and others to discuss issues such as foreign policy and the defense industry.

During the panel discussion, Pompeo and Panetta also touched on the threat of North Korean missile development, the need to improve both offense and defense against cyberattacks and battling terrorism.

Though largely congenial, the two did trade a few verbal jabs regarding the president’s use of social media.

Speaking from his experience as chief of staff during the Clinton administration, Panetta said Trump needed to have a check process on his tweets.

“The whole purpose of the White House is to develop some discipline in terms of messaging, in terms of policy, in terms of everybody getting on the same page,” Panetta said.

Pompeo noted that the international “flash points” Panetta mentioned earlier in the discussion, such as fighting terrorism and dealing with North Korea, existed before Trump took office.

“Message discipline, as you refer to it, got us to those places,” he said.

There has been speculation in recent days that Pompeo is being actively considered by the president to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of State. Baier did not shy away from the delicate topic, asking Pompeo in the first few minutes of the panel whether he has had talks about a “new job.”

The question got laughs from the audience. Pompeo responded, “I’m very focused on doing what I’m doing. There’s a lot of work to do.”

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

Twitter: @smasunaga

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