He was there in Moscow in 1993, an American spy watching as Boris Yeltsin's allies shelled the seat of government in Moscow to repel a rebellion.
And he was in D.C., up to 2015, running the CIA’s operations in Russia.
Now he’s here, and he’s in demand.
Steve Hall and his wife, Stephanie, moved to Oro Valley after Hall’s retirement from the CIA in 2015 for all the usual reasons — climate, quality of life, golfing opportunities. But now he finds himself driving regularly into Arizona Public Media’s TV studios at the University of Arizona to appear on CNN as an expert on Russia and spying — two of the hottest topics of the moment.
Hall grew up around Latin America with a father who was in the State Department, he said. When he entered the CIA’s operations branch in the 1980s, training to become a Soviet specialist seemed like a smart career move — everyone knew the Cold War would be going on for decades.
Then it unexpectedly ended, but Russia, where Hall was stationed again from 2010 to 2012, has remained a focus of U.S. intelligence operations. It became clear why last year, when Russia apparently interfered in our presidential election by spreading propaganda and influence to undermine our system and, according to the conclusion of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, harm Hillary Clinton’s chances.
I talked with Hall at the UA campus on Wednesday, after he gave a lecture there, and by phone Thursday about his experience in our best-known spy agency and his thoughts on current events involving Russia, the CIA and the Trump administration:
Q: How do Russia’s intelligence services, which are blamed for interfering in our 2016 election, work differently from our own?
A: The Russians have a tendency first and foremost to use intelligence for propaganda and influence operations. In the West, we tend to gather the intel and get it to the policy-maker so they can make decisions on how to do foreign policy.
The end goal for Western intelligence is to provide intelligence so they can make policy. The end goal in Russia is often something different. It can be propaganda, fake news. The Russian services collect info to weaponize it.
Q: President Trump has referred to the intelligence agencies as “Nazis” and otherwise raised tensions with them. What do you think of that?
A: It’s not very smart. Any president will recognize quickly they rely on the intelligence community. Most presidents are blown away when they sit in the Oval Office and see the depth and breadth of intelligence provided to them. When you start off by calling them Nazis and incompetent, it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.
He seems to make these points when he’s questioned about Russia.
Q: What do you think of the many connections pointed out between Trump, his team and Russia?
A: It’s suspicious. Any one of these things — Michael Flynn going to Russia or Paul Manafort having such a close relationship with Ukraine and Moscow, the family lawyer Michael Cohen’s relationships — any one of these things or even two you’d say that’s just a coincidence. There’s so much smoke, you’ve got to wonder where’s the fire.
The only way to get to the bottom is if there is an independent committee — if we really want to get to the bottom of this.
Q: Has Russia already succeeded in its aims simply by having us think and talk about them so much?
A: Russia has a declining economy, declining demographics, their life expectancy is extremely low. What they have is, “We’re a great power despite all that.” It’s an important part of Russia’s psyche — respect, being a great power.
That, in and of itseslf, is a foreign policy goal. It’s to be at the table. That’s what Syria was about. There was no strategic reason to be in Syria, but it put them in a position to be a kingmaker there.
At the root of it, it’s an insecure foreign policy. They want to be in the news, viewed as important.
Q: WikiLeaks just released supposedly secret CIA information. What do you think about WikiLeaks and its possible connections to Russia? Is there anything you learned while there?
A: If I were the Russian intel officer in charge of Ed Snowden’s information or the info stolen from DNC servers, or the recent cyber stuff — if I’m the Russian in charge of getting that stuff, I’m going to give it to somebody like WikiLeaks to get it out myself. It seems quite plausible and likely WikiLeaks is a dissemination mechanism.
There’s little doubt there’s a Russian link to WikiLeaks. The latest dump makes the U.S. more vulnerable.
Q: What do you think about Snowden?
A: He’s a traitor. He’s a guy who tries to hide behind whistleblower status. I’ve been privy to see what Snowden didn’t publish. At the minimum he gave the Russians a whole bunch of info that has nothing to do with “mom and apple pie” principles.
Q: Some parts of U.S. society think, following Trump, we should be more friendly with Russia. What do you think?
A: It’s sort of a Western tendency that we have in the United States. We’re optimists, we’re forward leaning, we’re looking to get things done with other countries. Every president thinks, “I’m going to be the one to turn this around.’”
There’s very little we share. The Russians take advantage of that quaintness that we have in the West of thinking there must be some way to cooperate.
The U.S. Border Patrol has for years been an especially unresponsive agency when it comes to questions from the news media. In its place, the agents’ union, the National Border Patrol Council, has stepped in to fill the role. It looks like that inadequate situation will be continuing.
After a Border Patrol detainee escaped from Banner University Medical Center, prompting a search by border agents and Tucson police, a lot of questions came up. I asked nine in an email to the agency’s local public affairs office on Monday.
On Wednesday morning, I got this response: “Hi Tim, ‘This case is under investigation, no comment.’“
Kelly for Congress?
Rumors have been circulating again that Mark Kelly may well run in southeast Arizona’s Congressional District 2 and try to retake his wife’s old seat from Rep. Martha McSally.
This isn’t the first time. In fact, these rumors have been regular features of Tucson’s political life since Gabrielle Giffords was forced to resign from Congress because of the injuries she suffered when she was shot on Jan. 8, 2011.
But they’re more intriguing this time because Democrats sense McSally may be vulnerable because of the unpopularity in the district of her party’s standard-bearer, President Trump.
I’ve asked around and received no direct reply from Kelly or his representatives, but Democratic Party leader Bill Roe told me, “I asked him like a month ago and he was emphatic he was not interested in doing that race.”
So that solves that — till the next round of rumors.