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

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, Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace: 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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