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Leon Panetta: Donald Trump should not be tweeting intelligence criticism

Former CIA director Leon Panetta addresses the growing tension between the president-elect and the U.S. intelligence community.
/ Source: TODAY

In an exclusive interview with TODAY's Matt Lauer, former CIA director Leon Panetta said Donald Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community should be done privately “in the confines of the Oval Office” instead of questioning its veracity on social media.

“The fact that the president-elect is tweeting on this issue and taking it to the public, and in many ways undermining the credibility of the very intelligence agencies that have to provide information to him in order for him to be president of the United States, this is just unheard of and unprecedented,” he told Matt. “I think we all have to be concerned about this. This is not the kind of bickering that ought to be going on in public.”

A day before his highly-publicized briefing Friday with all the major U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s interference in the presidential election, Trump tweeted a series of posts disparaging their work.

In one tweet, he suggested that "the ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called 'Russian hacking'" was delayed until Friday because the team "perhaps more time needed to build a case.”

In addition, on Thursday, former CIA director James Woolsey quit as a member of Trump's transition team.

The moves have been part of the escalating tension between the president-elect and the intelligence community.

“He's going to find that it's easy to tweet about reactions to all kinds of issues, but to seriously deal with our national security and deal with the threats of our country is a business that's ought to be done in the confines of the Oval Office," Panetta said.

Intelligence reports have provided details about uncovered evidence that Russians not only interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign to help Trump win, but have been directly involved in other cyber operations against U.S. election systems over the past nine years.

Panetta said that in more than 50 years of public service, he's never seen an incoming president express such distrust for the intelligence community and said Trump is off to a dangerous start to his term.

"Very frankly if a president is going to be successful, this is no way to start. The president has to work with the intelligence community. The president's got to make tough decisions, he cannot make those tough decisions without the very best intelligence that can be provided to him," he said. "

"I'm concerned that it really is damaging the credibility of our intelligence agencies and the morale of the men and women who serve in those intelligence agencies."

Panetta said Congress has yet to define what kind of cyber attack constitutes an act of war but said Russia's actions have definitely threatened the United States.

"I'm not going to say it's an act of war, but it is an attack on our country. It's an attack on our election system, it's an attack on our freedoms," he said. "And when an adversary is willing to do that, this nation has to respond, and we have to do it in a unified way between the president, our intelligence community and our Congress."