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CIA Veteran John Sipher On The Trump-Putin Meeting


We may not know for some time the full impact of yesterday's summit in Helsinki between President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, but already some of Trump's own advisers are doing some damage control. Trump suggested that he trusts Putin's denials of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and that prompted the White House Director of National Intelligence to issue a statement saying the U.S. intelligence community has been clear about the Kremlin's past and, quote, "ongoing pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy." So will the doubts expressed by Trump fundamentally change his relationship with the intelligence community or somehow change the work that they do? Well, we're joined in our studio in Washington, D.C., this morning by John Sipher. He's a former member of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He served in the agency for 28 years. John Sipher, thanks for joining us this morning.

JOHN SIPHER: Thank you. My pleasure.

GREENE: So if you work in the U.S. intelligence agencies right now, what message did you get yesterday from your president?

SIPHER: A very troubling message, but it's not a new message. Since he's been in power, he's talked about, you know, not necessarily trusting his intelligence services. He's talked about a deep state. He's been attacking the FBI and other places for a while. So it's clear to people in the intelligence community that he is both uncomfortable with the intelligence community as well as being new to it. But they're sort of used to that. I mean, the intelligence community sees the president as their main customer, and they take that very seriously. And I'm sure they've been working very, very hard to get him information he needs in a way that he wants to consume it. So I think it's probably been a difficult relationship, but the intelligence community's going to continue to work to try to get him what he needs. But what happened yesterday probably set it back quite a bit.

GREENE: It's interesting to hear you talking about yesterday almost as business as usual, like, that the intelligence community is resigned to hear such doubts and criticism. You say they're still trying to do their work and get him what he needs. But, I mean, going forward, is the work fundamentally different when you don't really feel like the president has your back?

SIPHER: Well, this is fundamentally different. And we've never had a president who doesn't seem to take his job seriously. He doesn't seem to take the notion of national security and foreign policy seriously. He takes himself very, very seriously. And so this is probably a really hard nut to crack for the intelligence community to figure out how to best serve him. But they will continue to try to do that. Intelligence collectors, you know, they're a pretty resilient bunch. They can put their head down and continue to do this. You know, we've served every president since Truman. And, you know, this is just going to be a very hard challenge for the intelligence community.

GREENE: Is the nation less safe when the president and the intelligence community don't seem to be working hand in hand?

SIPHER: I believe that's true. I don't want to overstate, you know, the essentiality of the intelligence community for our policy, but, you know, overseas - you know, I was in the Clandestine Service collecting, you know, from human spies overseas. And the one thing we have that I think makes our intelligence community the best in the world is, you know, we work for the United States of America. So there's lots of places overseas, countries that are corrupt or are - you know, people see the United States as something special. It's a place that works on the rule of law. It's a country that, you know, people look up to and want to visit. And so it's going to be much harder for one of those people who's frustrated with their own government and the corruption in their own government to look at the United States as something special when they see President Trump almost acting like one of their own corrupt leaders. And secondly, it's really important for the intelligence community, if they're going to support the executive well, is to understand, what is the policy? We have to understand, for example, towards Russia - what is our policy towards Russia? What are we trying to accomplish? And if that's clear to the intelligence community, they can do a good job of focusing on what they need to collect and what they need to provide the president. But on this right now, neither of those things are clear to us.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about that policy because you suggested that President Trump is not serious about national security. Although, we should say the Trump administration has imposed some real consequences for Russia. I mean, we have these indictments against Russian intelligence agents. You have a growing list of sanctions, diplomatic expulsions. I mean, is it possible that people in the agencies are getting some private reassurances from the White House not to take so much from the president's comments and that the policy against Russia's still incredibly aggressive?

SIPHER: (Laughter). I would like to think that that's the way it's happening, and if so that's fine. The intelligence community can deal with that. What I suspect is more likely is that there's some friction inside the administration. The national security professionals are pushing forward. You know, the Justice Department is pushing forward with indictments and those type of things. The State Department and others are trying to push sanctions. And the president, you know, puts up with some of that, but his comments are sort of going in a completely different direction. So it's not clear to me whether he's just saying those things for his domestic political base and then inside supporting these policies or whether there's actually a division within the administration.

GREENE: Can I just ask you about the implications from all of this on the Russian side? The Trump administration announced these indictments of 12 Russian military agents interfering in the U.S. election. It was really public. It was surprisingly specific. Do Putin and his intelligence agencies now have to wonder how much more the U.S. government might know about their activities?

SIPHER: Yes. I think that's a real thing. I think in this case, you know, those indictments, they had names. They had specific ranks. They had, you know, very detailed information about what the Russians were up to. And so as Putin looks at that, he's going to have to think to himself, what do the Americans know? Because right now he's in a good position. He can deny that he's done any of this stuff, like he did yesterday in Helsinki. But, you know, the more information that we can put forward like that was in the indictments, it makes just those denials more and more implausible.

GREENE: Do you think President Trump did anything yesterday in Helsinki to make Putin less worried about all of that, if he had gotten worried at all?

SIPHER: You know, I think probably most national security professionals and probably people inside the administration would have advised President Trump not to have that summit. You know, he's the leader of the most powerful and richest country in the history of the world, and he's meeting with sort of a dictator who has been weakened, doesn't have a lot of support overseas, doesn't have many allies. And so he really put Mr. Putin in a position to step up and look like a great power, and that's not a good position to be in.

GREENE: John Sipher is a former member of the CIA's Clandestine Service and Senior Intelligence Service. Thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

SIPHER: My pleasure. It was fun. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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