In the latest installment of The Burn Bag Podcast, A’ndre and Ryan sit down with former CIA Senior Clandestine Services Officer Daniel Hoffman for a wide-ranging discussion drawing upon his experience and expertise as an operations officer and a CIA Chief of Station. Hoffman digs into what it means to hire spies and covers why human intelligence is still vitally important and reliable to the United States, and how that information is processed. Hoffman, widely considered to be a leading Russia expert, gives us his take on Putin’s Russia, discussing the recent revelations on the poisoning of a leading Russian opposition leader and how Putin aims to undermine the United States. Hoffman also talks about the importance of counterintelligence, and reacts to the recent news of a Chinese spy infiltrating certain political circles in the United States, that included the targeting of U.S. Congressman Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
00:16:52 ON Aleksei Navalny: “There are protests in Belarus, populist uprising against (Alexander) Lukashenko that has caused Putin to be very concerned, that if the local folk in Belarus think they can rise up against Lukashenko, then there may be some concerns about what might happen in Russia. Now again, Russia has a massive security apparatus and so they would deny the populace any chance to overthrow Vladimir Putin. And remember when the Soviet Union collapsed, it wasn’t because of a populist uprising, it was because of Boris Yeltsin, an insider. That’s what scares Putin, that someone in his own inner circle, a Boris Yeltsin of the 21st century (who’s not drunk all the time), might decide that Vladimir Putin isn’t tough enough, isn’t strong enough, and it’s time to remove him. That’s why Vladimir Putin lashed out and targeted Alexei Navalny with Novichok, this Soviet nerve agent which the Russians continued to develop and improve upon. That one was a discoverable influence operation. He wanted his own people to know that he could target an opposition leader. It’s not because Navalny is threatening Putin, but Putin needed to use him as an example for his own followers, that Putin is still ruthless, and you better not cross him or else he’ll kill you. They could have targeted Navalny with a number of options, including just running him over with the car — they were surveilling him for quite some time, but they deliberately use this Soviet nerve agent just like they did against Sergei Skripal, the Russian Military intelligence officer who was living in England in exile at the time because Putin wanted his own spies to know if you cross me then I’m going to go find you wherever you are even in the UK and I’m going to kill you and he wanted everyone to know about it. That’s why they killed the Former FSB officer Litvinenko with polonium-210. So that’s just kind of how he operates. The protests in Khabarovsk in Siberia are again, not enough to threaten the regime, but enough to cause Putin some concern that people in his inner circle might look at him and think he’s not the guy anymore in whom we can trust to enable our kleptocracy, because that’s really what Russia is.”
00:20:59 ON Russia’s capacity to execute operations: “When Russia wants to do things right, they can, they can pretty well do things right. When they want their operations to be discovered, again to influence the public dialogue, they will do that as well. Consider the massive numbers of discoverable influence operations they ran against us in the United States in 2016… They deliberately left a trail of breadcrumbs, that came back to the Kremlin. You don’t buy ads on Facebook if you don’t want to be discovered. You don’t outsource hacking operations to the Internet Research Agency which is run by Vladimir Putin’s chef Yevgeny Prigozhin out in Saint Petersburg. You don’t go to Trump Tower for a clandestine meeting. That’s the least clandestine place on the planet for then-candidate Donald Trump in June of 2016, and you don’t send three Russians with ties to the Kremlin… for a clandestine operation. Now the Trump family, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, never should have gone to that meeting. They were going to go take a piece of free cheese from the mousetrap, as Russians like to say, so they shouldn’t have shown up there. But that was just meant to be discoverable influence operation to make it appear like the Trump campaign was up to something nefarious. The Democrats would accuse them of just that, and then you’d have this rise in animosity between the two parties… and that’s what we have seen a lot of. “
00:30:25 China’s targeting of Representative Swalwell: “Well there’s two ways to do it. The first is again to get back to what I was saying about the CIA mission, is you detect the threat way out left of boom. If you’ve got a source in China who tells you that China is deploying these swallows… If we have a source telling us that the China is doing this, and even maybe tactically who these people are, then we could warn people beforehand. Otherwise, we’re going to have to rely on defensive counterintelligence briefings. Representative Swalwell is not guilty of any crimes obviously. The FBI said that Christina Fong didn’t steal any classified (information) from him. The only criticism I would have is that flops like this, they don’t get better with age… It happened in 2015, she went back to Beijing in 2015. We should have publicized this back then. Representative Swalwell should have said, look, this is what happened to me, these are the measures we have taken on my staff to vet individuals from criteria countries… Secondly, especially if he’s on the House Intelligence Committee, he should have said “look guys what we need to do here is have a program for our state and local elected officials so that they’re aware of China’s ruthless attacks so that they can better defend themselves…” Those are two failures on our part. Now, five years later, we’re learning a little more about this, but again, we should have dealt with it five years ago not now. Not this late. That runs the risk of allowing China to cause a lot more harm than they might otherwise have.”