DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, now let's listen to a story about Russia and Russian spies from a man who knows this world really well. Daniel Hoffman is a former CIA station chief who served for five years in Moscow. Hoffman recently left the agency, which means his cover has been lifted. And he sat down with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Daniel Hoffman and I met on a steamy August afternoon, the sun beating down, traffic whizzing past. We sat on the terrace outside a coffee shop in McLean, Va., not far from CIA headquarters. Hoffman sipped green tea and reminisced about summer afternoons he'd spent in a different place.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: There was a tennis court and a little dacha and - with a sauna and then a big dacha, where, you know, families could go and get out of the city in the summer and relax. It's on the water, Moscow River.
KELLY: Hoffman is talking about a U.S. diplomatic compound in Moscow's suburbs, 1 of 2 facilities that Russia just announced it's seizing - this as President Vladimir Putin demanded that U.S. cut 755 staff from its embassy and consulates. Hoffman says this won't have much impact on U.S. spy efforts because the U.S. gets to decide who leaves. The greater impact, he says, may be on Russia's spies, including the successor agency to the KGB because it'll be mostly local Russian staff that's cut.
HOFFMAN: My estimation was always that no Russian would ever get a job at an American official installation if they were not reporting to the FSB. So they're the FSB's eyes and ears.
KELLY: Isn't there a case to be made that this is self-sabotaging for Putin in a way because if you send hundreds of them home, he is losing hundreds of sets of eyes and ears inside U.S. diplomatic facilities?
HOFFMAN: Well, Vladimir Putin needed to respond to the sanctions. He needed to respond to impose some level of reciprocity on the action that we took.
KELLY: Still, Hoffman says, Putin does stand to benefit.
HOFFMAN: He will generate a lot of discussion among different agencies at the embassy and probably some angst among those who are on the losing end of having their people remain in Moscow, whether Americans or Russians. And of course Russian intelligence services are very good at collecting on that sort of information.
KELLY: Speaking of Russian intelligence collecting information, I asked Hoffman about that Trump Tower meeting June 2016, the one attended by Donald Trump Jr., Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, campaign manager Paul Manafort and Kremlin-connected Russians.
HOFFMAN: To me, it pointed to a discoverable influence operation rather than some effort to establish a clandestine channel for collusion.
KELLY: Both in our interview and in an op-ed for The New York Times, Hoffman has argued that June 2016 meeting was meant to be discovered, that Putin deliberately left a trail of bread crumbs from Trump Tower to the Kremlin and that the objective was simple - to soil the U.S. political process and undermine the credibility of the 2016 election. Now, some other intelligence veterans disagree, but that is what former CIA station chief Daniel Hoffman sees. Here's what he doesn't see.
HOFFMAN: I've seen zero evidence of collusion.
KELLY: You're talking about this meeting specifically or overall?
HOFFMAN: Overall, I haven't seen any evidence of anyone actually colluding with the Russians, Russian intelligence colluding with a campaign to cause harm to another.
KELLY: Instead, Hoffman believes the Trump Tower meeting is significant mostly for what it reveals about Russia's motives and tactics, which prompted me to ask about the Steele dossier. That's the unverified set of allegations about Trump-Russia contacts compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
HOFFMAN: One possible explanation for the content was that Russian intelligence was aware that the dossier was being written and that they fed not only true information but untrue information as well, which is their regular modus operandi for covert influence operations.
KELLY: In other words, Hoffman believes Russia may have seeded the Steele dossier. But bottom line, does he believe Russia has dirt on President Trump?
HOFFMAN: The way I would answer that question is that Russian intelligence collects information on their own people. They focus to a great extent on us at the American embassy to collect information on us. They seek to understand what makes us breathe. They say in Russian, (speaking Russian)? What makes a person breathe? That's really what they want to know.
KELLY: So would Russian spies seek to understand what makes Trump breathe? What makes him tick? Sure, says Hoffman. Though, he insists he doesn't know whether Russia has compromising material on Trump. The president himself has dismissed the dossier as fake news. Meanwhile, Daniel Hoffman, who left the CIA in February, sees no sign Russian spy efforts are slowing. Every American official is a target, he says, adding, I should know; I was one of them.
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