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The consequences of Trump turning against his intelligence community

When President Trump dismisses U.S. intelligence and says he takes Vladimir Putin at his word that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 election, what’s the long-lasting effect? Judy Woodruff gets analysis from former CIA officer John Sipher, who says Trump’s comments about Putin were “very troubling.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how does today's event look to someone with extensive experience in the U.S. intelligence community and with Russia?

    For that, we turn to John Sipher. He had a 28-year career in the CIA and was based in Moscow during the 1990s.

    John Sipher, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, as someone with long experience in intelligence, how did you read what you heard today?

  • John Sipher:

    Like many, I was surprised and shocked.

    I think our intelligence community, like our diplomats overseas and everybody in the national security structure, had low hopes for this meeting, and the bar was pretty low for Mr. Trump, but he still didn't get over the bar.

    And for him to say some of the things he said about Mr. Putin in this situation, I think, was very troubling. I think our intelligence community and our diplomats are resilient, and they will continue to do their best to provide him the information he needs to make sensible policies.

    But I don't think we have seen a president like this who doesn't seem to take his job seriously. He takes himself tremendously seriously, but he doesn't seem to focus on the same kind of issues, the national security issues that those in his administration do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We took note of a lot of comments today.

    One in particular, Congressman Will Hurd, Republican of Texas, he served in the CIA for nearly a decade. At one point, he said, "I have seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career. I never would have thought the U.S. president would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands."

    Is that going too far?

  • John Sipher:

    I don't think it's going too far, but, in a sense, we didn't need Vladimir Putin as an ex-KGB officer to manipulate Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump's foibles and ability to be manipulated are pretty clear for all to see.

    In fact, I think that's why most people, probably in his own administration, didn't want him to go to Helsinki for this meeting. He's the leader of the largest, most powerful country in the history of the world, and he's allowing Vladimir Putin, who has been sticking his finger in the eye of the United States and its allies for a long time, to be seen on an equal stage as a great power with the United States.

    That's troubling. He probably shouldn't have done that.

    But then to make the statements he made following that, actually turning against his own administration and his own intelligence community, I think it was a very sad day for us, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we heard Vladimir Putin, remarkably, at one point today point out — he said, I was an intelligence agent myself.

    What did you think when he had this suggestion that Russia could — that he would let U.S. officials come to Russia, interview Russian intelligence officials, and then an about-turn, Russian officials could interview Americans about the Russian interference investigation probe?

  • John Sipher:

    Well, I think it's ludicrous.

    He has a long history of sort of playing these kinds of games and making it look as if his country follows the rule of law and has the normal procedures like Western countries do. And, in fact, that's not correct.

    So I think this was, you know, him sort of playing a clever game to try to make it look like we're on equal footing here, which, in fact, is not the case. We don't need the intelligence community to show us what Russia has done. They have done it against all our allies and we have seen it quite clearly over the last couple of years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think, John Sipher, the effect of this is on the U.S. intelligence community? Is this something they just shrug off and look at it and say, well, this is what President Trump says, it's what he believes, I'm going to go on and do my job, or does it have some long-lasting effect?

  • John Sipher:

    That's hard so say.

    I do think the intelligence community is quite resilient. They put their head down and they do their work, but they take this very seriously. And they see the president as their primary customer and they will do almost anything to get the president the information that he needs to do his job.

    But I think it's going to be very hard for them to stay focused and to treat him as a serious person to exchange with if he equates Vladimir Putin with his own government, and if he blames the FBI and the CIA and the NSA and all these people as much as he blames the people who are attacking us.

    So they will do their job, they will continue to provide the best support that they can, but he's not making it any easier for them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, finally, John Sipher, there was a criminal complaint that was released today. This is separate from the Mueller investigation. It came out of the Department of Justice charging a Russian national, a woman, with conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia in the U.S.

    It's all about her supposedly trying to get close to a gun rights organization, presumably the NRA, get close to the Republican Party. What are we to make of this? Why is this outside of the Mueller probe?

  • John Sipher:

    Well, what's interesting here is, is most Western intelligence services are focused on collecting intelligence to provide to policy-makers, so they can make good policy.

    The Russian intelligence services, like the Soviet intelligence services before them, are focused on active measures. This is a thing we saw in 2016 against our own election.

    It involves manipulating the media, disinformation, fake news, deception, even assassination, forgeries and the like. What this is, is clearly part of that process. They are more involved in subversion and trying to use asymmetric means and political warfare to create havoc and cause problems in the West, more than just using spies and means to collect intelligence to help Mr. Putin.

    So I think this is part and parcel of a wider attack by the Russians against the West. It's a means of a weaker power taking on a stronger power by trying to affect and take advantage of its weaknesses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former CIA officer John Sipher, thank you.

  • John Sipher:

    Thank you. Appreciate it.

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