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Longtime U.S. CIA officer in Middle East points to how global conflicts are linked

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The other day, the State Department issued a rare alert - a worldwide caution. Now, State puts out alerts for one country or another with some frequency, but this one warns U.S. travelers abroad of, quote, "increased tensions in various locations around the world" - tensions that raise the potential for terror attacks, demonstrations or violence against U.S. citizens. This speaks to quite how unsettled a moment we find ourselves in - how many global crises are unfolding at once, even as all eyes are focused on the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East. Well, we wanted to hear how this moment looks to someone with many years' experience in U.S. intelligence. John Franchi is on the line from New York. He's a former CIA chief of station, served throughout the Middle East - 29 years at the agency. John Franchi, welcome.

JOHN FRANCHI: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How unusual is it to see this many crises at once? I'm thinking we've got war in the Middle East, war in Ukraine, an unpredictable Iran, a saber-rattling Korea with a penchant for testing nuclear-capable missiles, and I'm not even touching the domestic political chaos here in the U.S.

FRANCHI: Exactly. It's just one of the most perilous times I think I've seen over the past 20 years. It's reminiscent somewhat of, like, post-9/11, where we had a lot of threats at that time, but even more so because, like you said, we're touching upon Ukraine and how that impacts on us and, again, the domestic scene.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, looking at this through an intelligence lens, do you see separate threads, or would someone with your background be eyeing how all these threads could fuse?

FRANCHI: I think that's a good point. Because when I started to look at this and you start to see it unfold, and you take a step back, I think it's all pointing towards one character, which is the Iranians and their activities in the region.

KELLY: Huh.

FRANCHI: If you start to look at what's happening around what happened in Gaza and where it came from - so if you take a step back from the horrible nature of what happened, and you start to look at, how did this develop and then how are other players starting to be leveraged and involved? - it all tends to point to the Iranians.

KELLY: And I guess that would extend to that Iran has been documented to be arming Russia in its war on Ukraine.

FRANCHI: Right.

KELLY: Yeah.

FRANCHI: And I think there are some loose affiliations if you think of China and Russia and their roles in this and supporting it - maybe not actively in the decision-making, but being supportive in a moral sense, as well as - it advances their agendas as well.

KELLY: So how worried should we be about the possibility of Iran getting involved in any of this in ways beyond acting behind the scenes?

FRANCHI: I think at this point, that's where their interests lay. They don't have to be directly involved. They've got enough proxies in the region to be able to do what it is that they want to do. So whether it's Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, the groups that are in Iraq as well as in Syria, all of these are levers that they can use at any given moment to be able to kind of shift focus and really test Israel, but also the United States and the West and moving forward.

KELLY: I'm thinking of something that Richard Haass, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this week. He had a piece in The Wall Street Journal, and he wrote - one rule of Middle East history is that things get worse before they get even worse.

FRANCHI: (Laughter) Yeah.

KELLY: I mean, it's - would you agree? And how do you break that rule?

FRANCHI: Well - and they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, right? So I think - how do you break that? - by consistency, I think. That's one of the things we've been lacking, I think, for the U.S. and for the West in the region - is a consistent policy to move forward. And I think there's an inherent sense that the U.S. has become weak, and that's why a lot of this is playing out. I think there's a lot of factors as to why this is happening, but that's one of the things where countries feel safer to be able to say, OK, let's test the limits. Let's see if they're actually going to do what they say they're going to do.

KELLY: Yeah. I want to ask about the consensus that emerged after the Hamas attack on October 7 - that it represented a massive Israeli intelligence failure. Understanding that you do not speak for the agency, that you are retired, that even if you weren't, you couldn't talk to me about it, but does that seem fair? Was this a massive intelligence failure on the part of the Israelis?

FRANCHI: Well, I think it's hard to lay blame at this point because we don't know. There's going to be a huge investigation, I'm sure, of how this comes out. But I can say this didn't just happen in a vacuum. If you look at maybe, say, the last 18 months, the attention has really been focused on the West Bank. I think all of this has been scripted in a sense, by the Iranians, where they were able to take attention away from Gaza, put it on the West Bank. They started their own - a new group, the Lion's Den, which has been attacking settlers for at least a year and, again, taking up a lot of resources and sucking a lot of the oxygen out of the room.

KELLY: Do you believe Hamas expected October 7 - the attack on Israel - to succeed at the scale it did, or did it wildly exceed their expectations?

FRANCHI: I think they had expectations that it would be - look, if you think about probably the intelligence they had and where they targeted, you know, they've been watching these places for at least 20 years, if not longer. For anybody who lives in the Middle East or has lived in the Middle East, there's a surveillance aspect to society, where there's people who - their only job is - or all they do is they sit on corners and watch. And it wouldn't surprise me if that, you know, fed into the calculus for Hamas to do what it did at the time that it did it.

So was it more successful than they thought? You know, I - you could argue either way. I've seen articles that say that they were surprised. I don't think it really matters because it is what it is. And it's something that they - you know, that they have to deal with and cope with. And the resulting reaction by Israel, which is justified, is going to be pretty severe.

KELLY: To circle back to that State Department - the global travel advisory that I cited at the top. Would it be right to read that as, you know, a lot of people around the world are angry at the U.S. right now for policy in the Middle East and elsewhere and looking to target all things American?

FRANCHI: I think you can look at it from that perspective. You could look at it from the perspective of people wanting to take advantage of these protests for whatever their causes are. And I think this is a concern that strikes the U.S. as well. You're starting to see these protests being usurped and being infiltrated, so to speak, by groups - anti-Semitic groups, white supremacist groups, groups with similar cause, similar justifications or similar missions or goals as, you know, what they're putting forward. And that's, I think, the concern that's out there - is, so far, these things haven't gotten really violent. The ones in Lebanon got somewhat violent. I believe there's some of the ones overseas. But, you know, will they take that spin and will these tipping points that we're going to be reaching over the coming weeks - days and weeks - will those take these protests to another level?

KELLY: Last thing - I just want to put to you a question that I have been putting in recent days to American diplomats and military officials. Can the U.S. manage all these crises at once? And from an intelligence perspective, can U.S. intelligence manage rising threats in the Middle East and Ukraine and Russia and Iran and China - I could go on - all at once?

FRANCHI: No. It can. I mean, the U.S. is the only country, I think, in the world that can do that - that has the skill sets, that has the knowledge base, that has the capacity to absorb that and do that. It's leadership that we need. We need to make sure we have strong leaders that allow us to do that - that can act decisively, make decisions when they're necessary, send messages that are followed up by action. If that doesn't happen, then we're going to fail or we're going to stumble, and that's not good for anybody.

KELLY: John Franchi, CIA officer of 29 years who served in posts throughout the Middle East, speaking with us on the line from New York. John Franchi, thank you.

FRANCHI: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "CONFESSIONS (FEAT. LELAND WHITTY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.