As most of the President’s men and women in senior roles re-iterated and even provided more detail about the Russian threat to U.S. national security in the days following the Helsinki summit, the President tasked his national security advisor to extend an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the White House to continue the dialogue that was started seven days ago.
Meanwhile, the President’s top-serving intelligence and law enforcement leaders rolled out detailed explanations of the threat, including a report released late last week by the Department of Justice that addressed what specific actions the DOJ is taking to address cyber threats.
Former CIA Chief of Station Dan Hoffman talks about the real threat and where the government’s focus should remain while the President sends a different message.
The Cipher Brief: What should the focus of the Intelligence Community be while the President is inviting Putin for a visit to the U.S.?
Hoffman: The first thing I’d say about the Intelligence Community is that there is a flow of intelligence from the IC to the President. The CIA does all-source analysis that informs the President’s decisions. But the IC also relies on policy makers to share what the policy is.
There were countless times when I was serving in senior positions in our headquarters when the director, or the acting director would come back from a meeting downtown and brief us on what was going on so that we would be in the know, and to help us understand what the requirements were for intelligence collection, because at the end of the day, the intelligence community is requirements driven. We send requirements out to the field, with our HUMINT (human intelligence) collectors and foreign sources to collect on what the policy makers, starting with the President, require. So, the first area of concern, and I think it’s reflected in some of the public polling about the way people feel about the Helsinki summit, is that there has been no definitive, detailed statement yet from this administration about what took place. Right now, we’ve ceded the post-summit discourse to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. The President said he didn’t want anyone with him because he was concerned about leaks. If I allow myself to be a little bit presumptuous, if I had been asked I would have said, “Mr. President the biggest concern about leaks is that they end up in Vladimir Putin’s hands. You’re in the room with him, the last thing you need to worry about is leaks.
The second thing about the summit is that we have about four areas of concern. One is on Ukraine and the idea that Putin had floated a resolution there where there would be a referendum to deal with pro-Russian separatists. And that is not something that the U.S. government would support, and the Russians got their answer this week when Secretary James Mattis approved $200 Million dollars in security cooperation assistance in the form of advisors and equipment and training for Ukraine. So, we’re standing by Ukraine, and standing by their independence, but I didn’t hear the President make any public statement about that. We don’t know what he said to Putin privately and that’s important to know.
Another issue is Syria, where there was apparently some discussion about a resolution in Syria whereby the U.S. and Israel might together not oppose Assad taking control of the country, including the area around the Golan Heights. The risk there is that I don’t think we can rely on Russia to have any influence over Iran, or Syria not in that sense, and I’d be concerned with any strategic alliance with Russia based on the fact that they’ve been complicit, and in alliance with Syria and have enabled Assad to commit crimes against humanity. The Russians have never had our interests at heart in Syria. They lied to Secretary Kerry when they said there wasn’t a military solution in Syria, when they went ahead shortly thereafter and imposed one. And it certainly didn’t turn out to be the quagmire that President Obama warned it would be for Russia. It’s really been the key that’s unlocked their resurgent leverage in the Middle East. I think the best we can hope for there is the sort of tactical collaboration of the sort we saw recently in Helsinki when General Joseph Dunford met with Russian Army Chief of Staff Gerasimov and talked about de-conflicting military operations, which is good to do. But strategic partnership, not a chance.
Another area of concern is Putin’s odd proposal to allow the Muller team to go to Russia and interview the 12 GRU Military Intelligence Officers, and in turn the Russians would get to have their turn with Ambassador McFaul, and Bill Browder. Browder’s not even an American citizen, and there is no extradition treaty with Russia and the fact that we’d even come close to equating the rule of law in the U.S., with this warped KGB authoritarianism that exists in Russia is not only wildly disconcerting to any of us who lived in Russia, but really quite dangerous. So those are three areas where we have some concern and I wish the administration would have come out and spoken out about those, and anything else that was discussed in the summit.
The last, and fourth area of concern is related to Russia’s cyber intrusions, and I don’t like to use the word meddle, meddle is too soft. We’ve gotten in this habit of saying they are meddling in our affairs, they’re not meddling they are influencing, they are intruding into our cyberspace with espionage purpose. So I think we should be careful to call it what it is, and raise some alarm bells. This week, the National Security Agency, and Cyber Command talked about taking counter-measures in cyberspace against Russia but before you do that, what you really need is for the President to warn Putin. That’s what deterrence is all about. The aggrieved parties, publicly state “if you cross this red line, we will take action.”
The Cipher Brief: But that’s clearly not the President’s strategy, so from a realists perspective, what now?
Hoffman: Right, so he didn’t do that, and so what Putin knows is that the U.S. intelligence community is preparing counter-measures. But when we take them, Putin will come back at us and portray himself as the aggrieved party. What Putin is trying to do here, in my view, is far more subtle and nuanced. He hates us all. He hates democrats, he hates republicans, he hates Secretary Clinton, he hates President Trump. We are all Russia’s main enemy. And, on Russia, we shouldn’t be each other’s enemies. We should be united, maybe with a slightly different take on specific policies, but at the end of the day we should be united with the understanding that Russia presents a threat to us.
There are limited areas in which we can work together like in arms control and counter-terrorism, we all know that. What I think what Putin wants to do, specifically with the idea of the trade of allowing Mueller’s team to speak with the GRU officers, is to divide the republican party. The same republican party of Reagan, that not only called the Soviet Union the evil empire, but was responsible for tearing down the Soviet Union. There are a lot of other reasons the Soviet Union fell apart, certainly Boris Yeltsin was the most important figure in tearing it apart from within. There was also the war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl, a failed economy and they lost the war of ideas to us. But for Putin, who continues to consider the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century, he knows that the republican party has been a stalwart defense against Russia’s expansion. And nothing would please him more than to divide the party, and drive a stake through it. And I continue to believe that what Putin is trying to do is to soil our democracy, and divide us by using discoverable influence operations and I think what he’d like to do is to continue to see republicans arguing amongst themselves as we see with Senator Lindsey Graham, vociferously arguing about how the President appears to be confusing what Senator Graham calls meddling with collusion. And there are some in the Republican party who are defending the President, and some who are not. But I think the end game for Putin is to try and do what he can to exacerbate the differences within the party, and try to break it. And I’m saying this because I’m trying to see the world through the twisted KGB eyes of Putin. I’m not an expert on domestic U.S. politics I’m the one who’s focused on understanding what makes Putin tick.
The Cipher Brief: We’ve seen Dan Coats, we’ve seen Christopher Wray and a number of other seniors in the administration reiterate the Russian threat on the heels of the Helsinki summit, so for those who do believe the threat is real, including the IC, that should put their mind at least a little at ease. However, what should we be focused on looking ahead that’s going to move the ball in the right direction for U.S. national security despite whether or not the President pushes forward with his next step, which is inviting Putin to the White House?
Hoffman: Where the IC will play a role right now is on reflections of the summit. That’s the immediate goal. So the IC will collect reflections on how Putin and his team assess the summit. So we’ll learn what was discussed in the summit, but we’ll learn it through Putin’s eyes and I guarantee that he will not accurately describe the results of the summit, even to his own people. That’s why it’s vitally important that we know, from President Trump, what the real facts are so the President can parse the intelligence we obtain from Putin and his team, from the facts.
The Cipher Brief: It sounds like you’re getting to the point of why it’s really so complicated to be the only person in the room when you have a meeting like this. Is the IC now handed a mess to try and figure out?
Hoffman: Yes. President Reagan had one on one meetings with Gorbachev, so it’s not unheard of, and it’s ok, but President Trump needed to have sat down, and maybe he did this, I don’t know, with Director CIA, Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and walked them through right away everything that happened. So, to get back to the role of the IC, the first thing is to collect on those reflections and get that back to the President so he is aware what the Russian’s are thinking now about the summit, and their way forward. What does Putin plan on raising in Washington D.C. during the visit? We don’t yet have a date for that summit, but certainly Putin will have his own ideas about what might make sense in terms of the issues he will want to raise and that is up to the IC to think about that. Collection on Russia’s relationships in Europe, and their covert influence operations are always important, never more so than now.
Ukraine is really the canary in the coal mine here. Because they are at war with Russia. I would argue that the country that scares Putin the most is Ukraine. Russia’s neighbor with a sizable Russian speaking population, a commitment to democracy and tilting politically toward the EU, as well as an aspiring NATO member. Putin is trying to influence U.S. political discourse on Ukraine and Europe as well, so collection on how he is going to portray Ukraine, and his plans for influence operations is really important.
Every time you meet with Putin it’s like he’s setting a bunch of traps. It’s like you’re out in the woods someplace, and you wish you had night vision goggles to see all the traps. So for us, the night vision goggles are counter-intelligence and understanding where Putin is trying to hurt us. But if you don’t understand that, you risk getting your leg caught in a whole bunch of traps. He’s setting a whole bunch of traps for us- Ukraine, Syria and this Cyber-Security working group idea, those are all traps that he has set.