Former Head Of CIA's Russia Operations Reacts To Helsinki Summit NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Steven Hall, the former head of Russian operations at the CIA in Moscow, for a spy's perspective of the historic U.S.-Russia summit.

Former Head Of CIA's Russia Operations Reacts To Helsinki Summit

Former Head Of CIA's Russia Operations Reacts To Helsinki Summit

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Steven Hall, the former head of Russian operations at the CIA in Moscow, for a spy's perspective of the historic U.S.-Russia summit.


Yeah, I'm going to - I want to stay with this story 'cause I want to bring in another voice here, the voice of Steve Hall, who used to run the CIA's Russia operations and who is on the line now. Steve Hall, good to speak with you.

STEVE HALL: Great to be with you.

KELLY: I want to begin by noting you spent 30 years in the CIA's clandestine service. What went through your mind today watching the president of the United States, asked whether he believes his own spy agencies or Russia on this question of Russian interference - and the president seemed to tilt toward the latter toward Russia?

HALL: You know, Mary Louise, it's - you know I guess the first thing that came into my mind was, good Lord, how could this be happening? It's - you know, devastating were some of the words that - not to be overly dramatic about it, but it's just - I think all of us were asking ourselves, or at least I was asking myself, what is going to come of this when he - when the president emerges from this extended one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin, who for the majority of my career has been, you know, the main adversary? What is going to come out of it? And there were a lot of theories about, OK, it's going to be, you know, at least do no harm, Mr. President, you know, whatever. And this was so far off and so far - just so bad that I was really astounded and speechless.

KELLY: You mentioned this one-on-one that Trump and Putin had for something like two hours before they came out and took questions from the press. In the room with them were just interpreters. We may never know what was said. How do you rate - as a former spy, how do you rate the chances that room was bugged?

HALL: I would be surprised frankly if it were not bugged. The Russians I think certainly have the capability and the expertise to do something like that. So, you know, when you think about, you know, what are the upsides and what are the downsides, you got a one-on-one with Donald Trump. I would think that you would want to capture that electronically. I bet that they probably did.

KELLY: And what about the flip side, the CIA side - would have the expertise and interest in bugging it as well, purely hypothetically speaking?

HALL: (Laughter) Well, I think as you and I have discussed before, Mary Louse, I'm often reticent to talk about what our capabilities are. But suffice it to say that I think there's a lot of interest on both sides.

KELLY: I have never heard the CIA or anyone who's ever worked at the CIA admit to being outflanked by Russian intelligence.

HALL: (Laughter).

KELLY: So we'll leave that one there. Let me ask you this. How high are the chances that those interpreters who were in the room and heard every word - that they're being debriefed as we speak by their respective intelligence services?

HALL: You know, that's actually not something that usually happens. You know, the translators are often simply that - professional translators. They were there. I'm sure that the translator on the Russian side knows exactly, you know, what the negative consequences would be were information to leak. And usually on the American side, it's a very professional State Department translator who are very good. So their professionalism is usually not called into question.

KELLY: I want to ask you about one other question that came out right towards the end of the press conference which was about kompromat, to use the Russian term. Putin was asked whether Russia has compromising information on Trump or his family. He called the question nonsense, but he also didn't quite deny it either. Was that your read?

HALL: Yeah, and it's - I mean, it's absolutely in my view - in my professional assessment, it's absolutely inconceivable that the Russians have not collected kompromat on Donald Trump. Now, the question is, you know, what type? How effective would it be used because of course if the Russians are talking about having kompromat on somebody, the mere use of it, you know, can compromise their own sources and methods. But the amount of time that Donald Trump has spent and his associated have spent in Russia - they would have been collecting on somebody like that, so they have...

KELLY: Although Donald Trump said today, look; if they had this, this would have come out a long time ago.

HALL: Yeah, that's wrong. And he's...

KELLY: And is there a point? Does he have a point?

HALL: No. If there is kompromat on Donald Trump and if the Russians intend to use it, there's a lot of very subtle ways that it could be done. It just depends on the type of information. It depends on the circumstances. But I think it is a valid question to say when...

KELLY: Right.

HALL: ...The president comes out and it's so strange the way he comes out, why did he come out the way he did?

KELLY: Right, right. Steve Hall - he's former head of Russia operations for the Central Intelligence Agency. Steve Hall, thanks so much for taking the time.

HALL: My pleasure.

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