United States

Former Counterintelligence Chief on the State of Security

A longtime Central Intelligence Agency operative sat down with NBC 5 to talk about his career and the new administration in Washington.

James Olson spent more than 30 years in the CIA and served under six presidents.

He now teaches at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and was a featured guest Friday at the Northeast Leadership Forum's annual meeting. 

"My career would really, I think, boil down to chasing Russians wherever there were Russians," Olson said. "They were our number-one Cold War adversary, and my job was to monitor their activities, but above all, to recruit them as spies for us and then to handle them as spies for us, which I did on the streets of Moscow among other places."

Olson and his wife were a team who went undercover overseas.

Eventually they returned to the United States, and Olson became chief of counterintelligence under President Bill Clinton.

He left his post knowing Russia inside and out. At one point, he says he tracked Vladamir Putin in East Berlin. We asked about the relationship the between the United States and Russia moving forward.

"We need to be very, very careful. I hope they are not naively going into relationships with Putin that are not going to be in our best interests. Kind of like trust, but verify. Let him prove his good intention to us before we commit to anything," Olson said.

"I do like the idea of possibly working together against ISIS because ISIS is bad news, and all the help we can get in defeating ISIS will be welcome," he added.

Olson said he believes the threat to the United States with global terrorism is worse than the Cold War era.

"ISIS is so dangerous because, first of all, it is so large, it is so well funded. It is very charismatic and it has been very successful in recruiting Americans and other westerners to their cause," Olson said.

He says the United States has to tighten its security, so we asked about the new administration.

"I am not political, but I am optimistic. I think the people President Trump has named to key intelligence jobs – people like Mike Pompeo (the new CIA director), Dan Coates (director of national intelligence), I think the new Secretary of Defense (retired Marine Gen. James Mattis), new Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) – are going to be strong national security leaders. I hope this is going to be a good administration for the intelligence community and for our country's safety in general," said Olson, who added later, "I just think we need to unite as a country behind national security. We are all in this together. Terrorism does not discriminate from one party to another."

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