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The Afghan Government Retains Significant Military Capabilities, CIA Chief Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. military is leaving Afghanistan. The withdrawal will finish next month. Not all Americans are leaving, though. Diplomats will stay, and so will American spies. The CIA is there trying to gather intelligence on a country where the security situation is getting worse.

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WILLIAM BURNS: The trend lines that all of us see today are certainly troubling. The Taliban are making significant military advances. They're probably in the strongest military position that they've been in since 2001.

KING: That is the new director of the CIA, William Burns. He talked yesterday in an exclusive interview to our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered. Good morning, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What did Director Burns tell you about intelligence reports that suggest the Afghan government could fall as soon as six months after U.S. troops leave?

KELLY: Well, he acknowledged that's certainly one possibility. But he also stressed that the Afghan government does retain what he called significant military capabilities. Here he is.

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BURNS: The big question it seems to me and to all of my colleagues at CIA and across the intelligence community is whether or not those capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower and unity of leadership that's absolutely essential to resist the Taliban. So as I said, the trend lines are certainly troubling. I don't think that that should lead us to foregone conclusions or a sense of imminence or inevitability.

KELLY: So not inevitable, he's saying, that the government will fall. But things are definitely not looking great. And this squares with what I have been told in recent days by Pentagon officials as well. The view from the U.S. government is the stakes in Afghanistan, how this ultimately turns out is going to come down to the will of the Afghan government.

KING: OK. And in the meantime, how will U.S. intelligence operate when the U.S. military is gone?

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, this is fascinating because the CIA was there before the military went in. They were the first boots on the ground after 9/11. And, as you noted, they're going to stay, even after the military is gone next month. But the question you raise is a great one. And I put it to him.

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KELLY: How does the military pullout affect your ability to collect intelligence?

BURNS: Well, it obviously has an impact. But we work very closely with the military to help ensure that we retain a capability to collect on and counter, you know, those efforts to - for al-Qaida to reconstitute itself 'cause I have no doubt but that they will make that effort.

KELLY: I mean, you're saying here, and I've heard you testify, that it's simply a fact that as the U.S. military goes, it becomes harder for the CIA to collect the intelligence you need to give to policymakers. Can you give any kind of example of what that - what you won't be able to do?

BURNS: Well, I think - I mean, the point I would stress is we'll still be able to do a lot, first. And second, al-Qaida is today not nearly the threat it was, you know, 20 years ago.

KELLY: And when you interview CIA officials, Noel, you're always listening for what they don't say with...

KING: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Reading between the lines. And you hear him there, understandably, declining to elaborate on how the CIA is going to be handicapped. But there's no question that they will without the support and the bases that military troops have provided for 20 years.

KING: OK. And I know that you also asked him about Havana Syndrome, which is this mysterious illness that has afflicted U.S. officials since 2016. What did he tell you?

KELLY: Yeah. He is deeply invested in this. And that is because a hundred or so CIA officers and families have been affected. He says it is a big deal. Just, you know, to remind people - this is - the victims report that they hear - pressure, ringing in their ears. And then the systems - the symptoms escalate from there up to traumatic brain injury. So Burns told me he has tripled medical personnel, full-time, who are focused on this. He's trying to shorten wait times for Walter Reed Medical Center.

I asked, who's doing this? And he danced around it a little bit. But he cited a report from the National Academy of Sciences which points to some form of directed energy.

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BURNS: And that sort of narrows then, you know, the number of potential suspects who could have used this, have used it historically and have the reach to do this in more than one part of the world, too. So yeah, we're very focused on getting to the bottom of this.

KELLY: Is it Russia?

BURNS: Could be - but I honestly cannot - I don't want to suggest until we can draw some more definitive conclusions who it might be. But there are a number of possibilities.

KELLY: A number of possibilities - but yes, could be Russia.

KING: Could be Russia - OK. And there is more of your interview today on All Things Considered, right?

KELLY: Yeah. Speaking of Russia, we talked about cyberattacks, whether the CIA sees any sign that they are slowing. We talk North Korea. We talk China. So we'll do kind of a lightning round on what he sees as areas for the CIA to concentrate on this afternoon.

KING: Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered - thanks so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You are welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.