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Why Kremlin mole story is ‘disruptive’ to U.S. intelligence

Reports that the U.S. extracted a Russian spy from the Kremlin in 2017 have reignited a discussion about intelligence community sources and methods. Specifically, questions are arising about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin himself ordered interference into the 2016 presidential election. Yamiche Alcindor reports and talks to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Reports that the U.S. extracted a Russian spy from the Kremlin have dominated the headlines over the past few days.

    The news sparks discussion about the sources and methods used to develop the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of Moscow's interference in the 2016 election.

    Our Yamiche Alcindor has more.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In early 2017, the U.S. intelligence community made a startling accusation: Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.

    They made that conclusion with — quote — "high confidence."

    That is the kind of qualification reserved to the most solid intelligence. That led to years of speculation about what or who provided that confident assertion.

    This week, a series of reports emerged about a Russian asset whom the CIA extricated. The Washington Post reported that the source is living in the Washington, D.C., area.

    To discuss these revelations, I'm joined by Andrew Weiss. He oversees Russia research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Thanks so much for joining me, Andrew.

    What do you make of the fact that all of this information about this Russian informant has been made so public?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    There's something here that doesn't add up.

    First off, it's a problem to see this kind of information being talked about publicly. It goes to the heart of what our intelligence community is about, which is protecting the sources and methods they use to gather sensitive information.

    Setting that aside, what we see is a lot of swirl right now. Is this person high-level? Is this person the bag carrier? Is he the person who basically helped run the motor pool for the Russian ambassador in Washington?

    So there's a lot of information that is being dumped out there that doesn't fully point in the picture of someone who was high-level.

    What it suggests is that it is someone who was in the know and who was in policy-making circles in the Kremlin. And that could have been very valuable for U.S. intelligence.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    How unusual is it for the U.S. to infiltrate the inner circle of the Russian president? And what does it mean that that asset could have been lost? And how might the U.S.' ability to gather information in Russia be impacted by that?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    We don't know about what kind of sources the United States government currently has or has had in the past in Russian ruling circles. It's a very closed society.

    Putin is a notoriously circumspect person. The Russians are very good at protecting sensitive information about their foreign policy activities, including their interference in the 2016 presidential election.

    What we do know is the message this sends to the world, which is that the United States doesn't do a good job of protecting information about people who assist us.

    And so the fact of this information coming out, I think, sends a very negative signal to people who might want to work with the United States going forward. It's a very, I think, disruptive set of revelations, not because it necessarily blinds us in Russia, but it just really sort of casts a negative cloud over the U.S. intelligence-collecting apparatus.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump has tweeted out an image of surveillance that is widely believed to be classified.

    He has also shared sensitive information with Russian officials when they were visiting the White House. The CIA is pushing back and saying that it would be inaccurate to report that anything the president has done has impacted their taking — possibly taking out a source from a foreign country.

    But that being said, what do you make of the president's actions? And how could they have at all impacted the U.S.' ability to protect classified information?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Well, I should emphasize, the negative cloud here really is not really on the U.S. intelligence community. It's on President Trump.

    From the very first meeting he had with a Russian official in the Oval Office, with the Russian foreign minister, he was basically retailing secrets. He was sharing information that we had gotten from a foreign government, in this case Israel, dealing with a terrorist threat involving ISIS.

    So, he has basically thrown convention out the window. By virtue of his office, he is able to declassify information basically on a whim. The problem is, the president doesn't seem to understand the consequences of that.

    And day in, day out, President Trump basically trashes our allies. He said something in a campaign appearance the other day, where he just saying, our allies are worse than our enemies.

    And he doesn't seem to understand that so much of the information the United States receives from partner intelligence services comes from our allies and it comes from governments around the world, who basically see their interests as aligned with us.

    And so what we have got right now is a completely undisciplined and disruptive presidency, which is going to have lasting consequences for how we cooperate with people the world over.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    You served on the National Security Councils of past administrations. There are very strict guidelines to safeguard sources.

    Tell us about those guidelines and why they are put in place.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Well, the protections are in place for a bunch of reasons.

    They're to prevent disclosure of sensitive information involving the sources and methods for our intelligence collection. They're also there to protect, as we were saying a few moments ago, the sources of that information, so that they don't face harm or inadvertent disclosure.

    What we normally have, I think, tried to do inside U.S. government circles is allow the intelligence collectors — intelligence collectors to do their thing and the policy-makers to do their thing. At times, there's a need for policy-makers to have a little better sense of what might motivate someone to share information, what the reasons were or how this information was collected.

    But, you know, up to now, I have never read information like this in the press about, you know, things that involve, you know, a very important event in U.S. foreign policy and national security. It's — this is really, as I was saying earlier, an unprecedented event to have this level of disclosure and this level of disruption.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    An unprecedented event.

    Let's now talk about Russia and its response. What do you make of Russia's response? And how is it comparing to past responses where spies have been revealed?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    So, the Russian government takes a very hard line on these things. And Putin himself tends to speak in a very cold-blooded and rather chilling fashion about, traitors need to be wiped out. Traitors need to pay the price for their conduct.

    In this case, the Russian government has done something very different. They have basically said, this guy was a joker. He had some sort of role here. He certainly wasn't a high-level adviser to President Putin.

    They basically disparaged the initial Western press reporting on the subject. But what they have also done at the same time is tried to say, we never did anything anyway, so this is all just a compounding of, you know, unfair and malicious slander aimed at us.

    That also just doesn't hold a lot of water. But, as a result, what you see is a mockery. And I think the mockery does have a chilling undercurrent to it.

    There was a cartoon on one of the Russian state news agencies last night, and it basically has the mole showing up in the Oval Office popping up in Donald Trump's office and saying, you burned me, basically. You were the one who ratted me out.

    So the government is sending a message to Russian officialdom that, we are all watching you very closely. Don't make any mistakes.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you so much for being here. These are certainly extraordinary revelations, Andrew Weiss.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Thank you so much.

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