Steven Hall ran the CIA's Russia operations for years — and he calls attempts to leverage Trump campaign aides a textbook case of recruitment by Russian spies. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Hall about this week's revelations in the ongoing Russian investigation.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK, we heard Carrie talking there about events unfolding back in March 2016, and it was that same month - around March 14, 2016 - that George Papadopoulos was in Italy and met a professor who claimed to have connections to the Russian government. About 10 days later, the pair got together again in London, and the professor brought along a woman - a Russian national claiming to be Vladimir Putin's niece. Papadopoulos later learned she was not in fact related to Putin.
Steve Hall says this is exactly how Russian intelligence operates. Steve Hall knows a thing or two about how Russian spies operate having served three decades at the CIA, running Russian operations for the agency.
STEVE HALL: It's very consistent from what I saw with the - mostly with the Russian external service, the SVR, over the course of my time at CIA.
KELLY: SVR would be, like, Russia's answer to the CIA.
HALL: In rough terms, yes - the external service. And it does indeed bear a lot of the hallmarks of typical Russian tradecraft in that you start with a cutout. You start with somebody who is not alerting, who's not going to make anybody nervous - in this case, a college professor, an excellent choice. The Russian professor then became quite interested in the next important thing for the Russian intel services, which would be access, you know? Is this somebody who can provide information or have a good place inside whatever the target organization is. In this case, it was the, you know, the Trump campaign and specifically the foreign policy committee or team of that campaign.
KELLY: You also - you write about this in The Washington Post this morning, and you mention that Papadopoulos would have been an attractive target not only because of the access you mention but also because he was outside the U.S.
HALL: Yes. And that's another thing that's, you know, obviously a plus for the Russians. The further that you can get away from the prying eyes of the investigative prowess of the FBI, then, you know, the safer you are in terms of operational security from the Russian perspective.
KELLY: I want to mention here that the professor in question is not actually named in the court documents. Various media outlets have identified him. He has denied any contact with the Russian government - so ongoing questions there. But with that in mind, what persuades you that this was the SVR, that this was Russian intelligence luring a Trump campaign aide into contact with Moscow?
HALL: It's very common for the Russian intelligence services to start a particular target down a slippery slope. And so what the Russians did in this case with Papadopoulos was simply say, hey, look; you work for the foreign policy piece of the Trump campaign. Would you be interested in getting together with some guys in Moscow, maybe work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just to talk about, you know, foreign affairs, how we can improve the relationship between Russia and the United States, which is something that candidate Trump, you know, had said wouldn't be such a bad thing. But that's a very common piece of tradecraft where you start off with something very innocuous.
And then I think the next step down the slippery slope is where it starts to get interesting in that the professor says, hey, in addition to these MFA folks, I've also got this woman who is very interesting. She's very well-plugged-in. She may be related to Putin. She might be a niece. So that's a step towards a little bit more of a dangerous line. Now you're talking about somebody who - meeting with somebody who might actually be close to, you know, the real power centers of the Kremlin. So you start from a very innocuous meeting with, you know, a professor. And you end up talking about information which, you know, could skew an election in the United States.
KELLY: Will all this coming out into the light of day and receiving public scrutiny - will it change the way Russian spies operate going forward, do you think?
HALL: Yes. They learn from these things, and they will indeed adjust and morph. And that's the challenge - is to figure out how to continue to push back against that and to try to ensure that our democracy is not corroded by Russian activities.
KELLY: Steve Hall - he retired from the CIA in 2015 after three decades running Russian operations. Steve, thanks so much.
HALL: My pleasure.
KELLY: And Steve Hall joined us by Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.