Bonus Intercepted Podcast: Jim Risen Goes Inside the NSA’s Secret Channel to Russia

A Russian intermediary offered U.S. officials dirt on Trump and info on hacked NSA files. The NSA used its Twitter feed to send Russia coded messages.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain. Screenshots: Twitter. Photos: AP (1)

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The legendary national security reporter James Risen has a fascinating new expose detailing how U.S. intelligence agencies opened a secret communications channel with Russian operatives, who were offering to sell damaging or compromising intelligence on Donald Trump. The discussions have been going on for the past year and, according to Risen, started with an offer from a Russian “intermediary” to give U.S. operatives information on the hacking and theft of NSA files on a wide range of hacking techniques used by the Agency. Those files were allegedly stolen by the hacking group known as Shadow Brokers. Who is behind the group remains a mystery and U.S. intelligence agencies are still trying to determine how much and what specifically was stolen beyond what Shadow Brokers has already made public. Risen reports that soon after the secret negotiations on the hacked materials began, the Russian intermediary soon tried to entice the Americans with offers of compromising intel on Trump — for a price.

The New York Times published its version of this story a few hours after Risen’s was published by The Intercept. The Times concluded that U.S. officials believed the offers were likely Russian disinformation aimed at sowing discord in the U.S. But Risen reports that within the CIA, which is headed by Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo, there has been debate on taking possession of compromising information on Trump because some officials do not want to assist Robert Mueller’s investigation. Risen also reports that there are fears of a backlash from Trump, who is famous for targeting and shaming anyone who challenges him or is perceived as anything other than 100% loyal to him. This is especially true regarding the Russia investigation.

There is also a truly wild aspect to this story about how the NSA used its official, public Twitter account to send secret messages to Russian operatives. In this special bonus episode of Intercepted, James Risen lays out the whole story.

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted.

The legendary national security reporter James Risen has a fascinating new report out at The Intercept where he reports that U.S. intelligence agencies opened a secret communications channel with Russian operatives and that those Russians were offering to sell damaging or compromising intelligence to the United States on Donald Trump. The discussions have been going on for the past year, Jim reports, and they started with an offer from a Russian intermediary to give the Americans information on the hacking and theft of NSA files on a wide range of hacking techniques used by the agency.

Those files were allegedly stolen by the hacking group known as Shadow Brokers. Now, we still don’t know who is running Shadow Brokers, but American intelligence is trying to determine how much, and what specifically was actually stolen beyond what Shadow Brokers has already made public. But soon after these negotiations and the offers began, the Russian intermediary started trying to entice the Americans with offers of compromising intelligence on Donald Trump — for a price.

The New York Times published a version of this story after Jim Risen broke this story at The Times, in its report, concluded that U.S. officials believed it was likely Russian disinformation that was aimed at sowing political discord in the United States.

But Jim Risen reports that the CIA, which is headed by Donald Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo, has feared taking possession of compromising information on Donald Trump because it might help the special investigator Robert Muller in his investigation, or that it could spark backlash from Trump himself. Of course, Trump is famous for targeting and shaming anyone who challenges him or is perceived as anything other than 100 percent loyal to him. He values that above all else, especially regarding the Russia investigation.

There’s also a truly wild and entertaining aspect to this story, about how the NSA used its official public Twitter account to send secret messages to the Russians. We’re going to get into all of this right now with my colleague James Risen. His article at The Intercept is titled “U.S. Secretly Negotiated With Russians to Buy Stolen NSA Documents — and the Russians Offered Trump-Related Material, Too.”

Jim Risen, welcome to this special episode of Intercepted.

James “Jim” Risen: Thanks for having me.

JS: So, let’s just start from the beginning. How did you start working on this story? And I know that there’s not a lot people can share when you’re working with confidential sources and trying to protect your informants but give us a sense of how you first got onto this story?

JR: Well, I’ve been working on it for a quite a long time and I had sources who told me a while ago that there was this effort between the United States and Russian operatives to recover NSA documents, hacking documents, from Shadow Brokers. And one of the most interesting questions when I first heard about this last year was: What is Shadow Brokers? And that’s what I think the U.S. intelligence community first began looking at.

There’s a sense that perhaps Shadow Brokers, which is this group that nobody quite understands, that apparently stole some of the NSA’s most lethal cyber offensive weapons and then kind of put them out in the wild, there’s a sense that they are a front for Russian intelligence, that’s what some people in the U.S. intelligence believe.

JS: But that’s not been proven yet.

JR: No, no. But, so there was a lot of questions about what is going on here and so the U.S. intelligence needed some connection with Russian intelligence to try to figure out what was going on and this all was coinciding really, with that end of the 2016 election and the transition to Trump from Obama. And so, there was a lot of things going on, a lot of moving parts happening all at once.

JS: A question that I’ve had in reading your piece and I know that I’ve seen other people wondering online, when you say that the United States was looking at the possibility of recovering this set of tools that were stolen through hacking that are actually part of what they call tailored operations in the NSA, essentially their computer-hacking tool kit, what do you mean by recovered because, aren’t we talking about digital files that would have been copied essentially, that’s the form of theft — what does it mean to recover those kinds of materials?

JR: I think what they really wanted was to know what documents the Russians and Shadow Brokers had. It wasn’t like they thought that somehow they were going to get all the copies back and then the Russians and everybody else would not have them. It was a matter of figuring out, “OK, what is the extent of the damage that we’ve suffered?” Because some of the documents have been released publicly, but the sense was there’s still a lot more that haven’t been publicly released by Shadow Brokers. And so what they were trying to determine, was not — I guess recover, I don’t know if maybe that’s not the right word, but to find out the full extent of what the theft had been, so that they would then know how badly damaged they had been.

You know, it wasn’t like they thought they would actually get all the copies back and that nobody could then have them. It was a matter of trying to learn the extent of the damage because they didn’t believe that Shadow Brokers had publicly released everything.

JS: Right, and so what time period are we talking about here when American intelligence officials started this campaign aimed at trying to determine the extent of the hacking or theft by Shadow Brokers?

JR: Well the shadow brokers, as you may remember, they announced, they first started putting stuff out in the summer of 2016 and this started in the transition when some U.S. intelligence officials contacted an American intermediary, who they thought — I think they believe that he had previously told them that he had information that would suggest that there was going to be a leak of NSA documents. And then those leaks happened, and I think that this intermediary had a network of sources in Europe that they found valuable, and so they turned to him and asked him to help them figure out what had happened, and he began reaching out to various people — kind of a network of informants that he had. And through that network, he talked to hackers and then it finally lead to Russians, and it was in the process of doing that that the discussions expanded to include material about Trump and the 2016 election.

JS: So when this first began, your sense from your sources in your reporting, is that what the Americans thought they were getting into was the possibility of being given a complete picture or a more complete picture of what hacking tools had been taken or accessed by Shadow Brokers? That was the extent of it at the beginning?

JR: That was what they first wanted. Yes.

JS: And how did they first learn that what you call Russian intermediaries were going to be offering them potentially damaging information or documents related to Donald Trump?

JR: I think that came fairly soon, like last spring. The main Russian intermediary that they began dealing with, I think at first they weren’t sure who he really represented. I’m not sure they ever really quite understood that. They knew that he had ties to other people in Russian intelligence and they clearly believed he was, he genuinely had ties to Russian intelligence officials, which is why I think they kept dealing with him. But the extent to which the dilemma they faced for everybody involved was, “OK, you know the Russian says you can get the Shadow Brokers’ material but he’s also talking about Trump. And what do we do about that?”

And that was like throwing a hand grenade into this whole thing for people in the intelligence community because they, over the months after this they first made contact with the Russian and he began to talk about this stuff, there was a lot of back and forth in the intelligence community: “OK, what do we do about that?”

You know, I think that led to a whole, a very lengthy, kind of, months-long period where the CIA would back away from the process and the N.S.A. would try to stay involved, and so there was a lot of back and forth between the NSA and the CIA over, “What do we do? Do we want to pay him, do we not want to pay him? You know, what will we do with this material? Would we give it to Mueller, or would we not give it to Mueller? Would we just refuse to take it?” I mean there was just a — I think it was very controversial.

JS: Was there an aspect of this that, in your view, became a partisan, political in the sense of — I think if you look at this purely from a nonpartisan intelligence-gathering perspective, and correct me if I’m wrong here, we’re talking about two potentially valuable things to U.S. intelligence. On the one hand getting a sense of what hacking tools that were previously secret are now potentially going to be shared with the world or with the highest bidder, and on the other hand, you have a Russian intermediary who is saying, “We have damaging information on Donald Trump.” From an intelligence perspective, you’re looking at that and you’re saying, this could be a problem if our president is compromised in some way by a foreign adversary.

So presumably that would be the motive of an intelligence operative for trying to determine if that intelligence is real, that they actually have this, and if it does what they say it does, that it damages Trump in some way.

JR: Right, right it’s a minefield — if you’re a CIA case officer or you know somebody from the NSA and you’re trying to figure out, “what’s my job here?” You join the CIA to gather foreign intelligence but suddenly the President the United States is a subject of foreign intelligence collection. And it’s a fascinating dilemma.

JS: And what’s happened at the highest levels of the CIA and the NSA, because your reporting seems to indicate that Mike Pompeo, who we should note is a very militant partisan and is a very clear Trump ally politically, what has Pompeo’s reaction to this attempted intelligence-gathering been?

JR: I can’t prove that it was coming directly from Pompeo, but there was clearly a back-and-forth at the CIA about stopping and starting their involvement in this, that there would be periods where they would want to be involved and periods where they didn’t want anything to do with it. And I believe that came because of the possibility of accepting anything about Trump and the fear that they had within the organization of taking possession of material about Trump. And I think that is clearly something that comes from the top of the agency.

JS: Yeah, I want to read something from your report here. You write, “the agency” — meaning the CIA — “seems to indicate that U.S. intelligence officials are torn about whether to conduct any operations at all that might aid Mueller’s ongoing investigation into whether Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.”

And then you continue: “Many intelligence officials are reluctant to get involved with anything related to the Trump-Russia case for fear of blowback from Trump himself, who might seek revenge by firing senior officials and wreaking havoc on their agencies.”

That’s very different than what the kind of Trump camp and Fox News are saying, which is that the deep state is trying to undermine Donald Trump. If I’m reading this correctly, Jim, it seems like what you’re saying is basically the opposite. That the CIA seems to be afraid that they are going to see something that is damaging to Trump and they don’t want to — it’s like see no evil, hear no evil.

JR: Exactly. That’s exactly what happened, I think.

And anybody who’s covered the CIA or knows the intelligence world knows that there’s no such thing as a deep state. These are the people at the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, they are normal people with mortgages, kids, having to pay college tuition — they’re just bureaucrats.

And there is no conspiracy in the intelligence community to get Donald Trump. And so, to the extent that the story, that what I wrote helps dispel that myth I hope, then I did what I wanted to do. Because that’s the truth. The truth is the intelligence community, they are there to gather foreign intelligence. They want to gather foreign intelligence. And it just so happens that there is evidence that the President of the United States should in some way be a subject of foreign intelligence collection, which is unprecedented if you think about it.

And so, how do they do their jobs when their boss is now the subject of foreign intelligence collection? And imagine if it’s your boss, I mean most people would run away from that as fast as possible. So that’s what’s happening.

JS: I want to ask you, though, of another publication’s conclusion based on the same general material that you’re talking about. Matthew Rosenberg at the New York Times, this is what he reported — I should say, this story was published after Jim Risen’s exposé came out. It was published the same day, but Jim Risen broke this story.

This is what the Times, your former newspaper, is saying about this, Jim, that: “several American intelligence officials said they made clear that they did not want the Trump material from the Russian, who was suspected of having murky ties to Russian intelligence and to Eastern European cybercriminals. He claimed that the information would link the president and his associates to Russia.”

What Rosenberg, though, concludes in his reporting is that U.S. intelligence officials said they cut off the deal because they were concerned that it was going to entangle them in a Russian disinformation operation.

JR: Well that’s pretty similar to what I reported. I said that they were afraid of getting, that they were not after that material. They were trying to get the Shadow Brokers material, that he offered material and that there was a concern that this was part of a disinformation campaign. I think that’s actually pretty similar to what I wrote.

JS: Well I think, to take it a step further, you though, are asserting based on your reporting that political concerns or ass-covering on the part of people who work under Trump.

JR: Clearly if that is one of the motivations of what’s going on here. I think one of the things that this case shows is that there is a lack of aggressiveness within the U.S. intelligence community to go after this kind of material. If they were really aggressively out there pursuing every lead about Trump and Russia, they would not have handled this case the way they did. And I think that there’s a reason for that, it’s because of a political pressure, political concerns — either overt political pressure or the concern by people in the community that they would face political pressure if they pursued these things. I think that’s obvious and it’s hard to ignore that.

JS: Do you have a sense of what kind of material this Russian intermediary was offering to sell to U.S. intelligence on Donald Trump?

JR: Yeah, I mean I think I said in the story that there were some things that people believed is good material and some that they don’t think is good. None of it’s been totally verified, but there were some FBI reports that I think may be genuine and it’s unclear how the Russians obtained those FBI reports, which would be an interesting counterintelligence issue for somebody to follow.

And then there are some other things that are not verified, like banking records and things like that. It’s a little murky, as all these things always are, and it’s not clear to what degree the material that they had was kind of conclusive about anything about Trump or collusion with Russia.

JS: What do we know about the scuttlebutt surrounding what many people just refer to as the pee tape or a videotape that the Russians may have showing Donald Trump with sex workers in a hotel in Moscow, is there any connection with the discussion on that to the story that you’re reporting?

JR: Well there’s been rumors, as you know, for over a year now about that and nothing’s ever happened, nothing’s ever turned up. I know it’s one of those stories that everyone seems to think it’s true, but no one has ever quite seen it.

I’ve had those experiences previously in my career as a reporter, where everyone says something is true but then when you press them on it they say, “Well, I didn’t actually see it, I just heard about it.” And so, there’s a lot of circular gossip going on and it’s difficult to prove.

JS: Well, also, I mean you could see a scenario where some entity, foreign intelligence agency, or political actors within the United States start that rumor going, and then, as it spreads, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if the tape is real or not because everyone’s talking about it.

JR: Yeah right. Yeah, it’s true. I wish I knew where the rumor began. That would be, it would actually be a good story to kind of do the anatomy of how that rumor began and kind of dissect it.

JS: Jim, you know, you make clear that this is a totally separate channel that U.S. intelligence was communicating on from Chris Steele so-called dossier. But to what effect does that dossier present itself, the Steele materials regarding this, because we are talking about in Chris Steele, someone who was working for a very thinly veiled cutout for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, doing this opposition research and simultaneously had some formal type of relationship with the FBI, maybe he was paid, maybe he wasn’t, maybe it is ongoing, maybe he was fired. What’s the connection?

JR: Well there isn’t any direct connection between this and Steele and the dossier and, you know, Glenn Simpson and GPS Fusion.

But I think you know, in Steele’s defense, I think people have to remember he was a professional intelligence officer. MI6 is a very good service. But people have tried to discredit his work. Frankly, I think the fact that the dossier was made public really before, you know, he had even, I don’t think he wanted it published at that time, you know, probably made it easier for, to discredit him or try to discredit him by the Republicans because he — I don’t think he was ready to go forward with all of his conclusions yet.

So it’s very easy to politicize everything right now and that’s why it’s such an explosive area for anybody to try to get involved with right now.

JS: Well part of the reason I’m bringing this up is because the analysis and the reporting and what you’re hearing from your sources does raise some pretty interesting questions about who ultimately is pulling the strings here. And in the New York Times piece that came out after yours, one detail that I think is sort of interesting in the Times piece is they say: “American spies are not the only ones who have dealt with Russians claiming to have secrets to sell. Cody Shearer, an American political operative with ties to the Democratic Party, has been crisscrossing Eastern Europe for more than six months to secure the purported kompromat from a different Russian.”

And then they say, “Reached by phone late last year, Mr. Shearer would say only that his work was a big deal — you know what it is, and you shouldn’t be asking about it.'”

To me, Cody Shearer, to describe him as “having ties to the Democratic Party” is, you know, it’s like saying that Trump has ties to the White House. I mean — Cody Shearer is a well-known Hillary Clinton operative and if these guys are running around Europe, Cody Shearer and people like him supposedly trying to buy the pee tape and then magically this allegation ends up in a report that they’re paying for, to me it bears a lot more, I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial, but it bears a lot more investigation. What kind of talking has Cody Shearer been doing as he supposedly been crisscrossing Europe in search of kompromat on Donald Trump?

JR: Well, I haven’t been involved with that at all. I don’t know. I was focused on specifically, on this channel and he had nothing to do with this.

But I think it is interesting. I mean, I think that’s one of the issues that’s it’s a problem for the U.S. intelligence community is all of this is such a radioactive, politically, issue right now that I think it’s very difficult for the intelligence community to try to get involved in this in a professional way, which I think is too bad. Because I think there’s a lot of muddying of the waters right now politically that is actually helping Trump because it makes, you know, there’s a lot of efforts by the Republicans to discredit any genuine and legitimate efforts to gather intelligence on Trump and Russia.

And I think there are some legitimate efforts. I think this, you know, even though it was indirect and it was not the purpose of this channel, I think this, what happened here, was a much more professional approach to try to parse out what was going on then than any of the other activities that have taken place.

JS: I think a lot of people who have been in the journalism game and investigative reporting will find a little nugget in your piece that’s just sort of said in passing that I immediately zeroed in on because I find it so fascinating.

You, Jim, met with the Russian intermediary that was claiming that he had these materials to sell to the Americans, correct?

JR: Yes.

JS: What is your sense of that individual and if the material is legit?

JR: Well I don’t know about the material. But I think he is a serious person who has serious connections. I mean, I can’t prove that, other than meeting him and talking to him. I got the sense that this was not some, you know, fly-by-night thing this was legitimate, it was real.

The question that I could never answer — I still don’t know whether it was authorized by the Russian government or just by a group of people within the Russian intelligence community, to me that was one of the real questions.

I know I talked to him about that, and that’s one of the issues. I know what he said but I have my own, I’m still not sure what was really going on other than the fact that I believe that it was a serious channel with real connections to Russian intelligence.

JS: And what happened when you contacted the American intermediary?

JR: He declined to comment about it, and that made it difficult, you know, to report on certain aspects of it. But he didn’t want to talk.

JS: Now one of the most fascinating parts about this is how the NSA’s official Twitter account was used to send signals to the Russians. It’s sort of like the old equivalent of marking a piece, you know, marking a mailbox with chalk or a particular stone in a park where you can do a dead drop. We’re talking high-tech versions of that.

But lay that out for people, the kinds of tweeting activity that the NSA’s official Twitter account had going as part of this operation.

JR: It was the first thing that convinced me that this was a real, legitimate ongoing communications channel between U.S. intelligence and Russian intelligence. And if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Longest Day” about D-Day, where they show these French resistance people listening to BBC, listening for random phrases that the BBC would issue and then they suddenly hear the right one and they say, “OK, that means the invasion’s on tomorrow.”

And that’s what this was like. It was, you know, random phrases, random tweets that are totally benign that suddenly have certain meanings.

What would happen would be the Russians would be told, “This is the text of a tweet that is about to come out.” And then they would be told the exact time and day that that tweet would come out. And then the tweet would appear at that exact moment with that same exact text that they had been given.

It was a message being sent to the Russians that the United States government is still involved and still behind this communications channel. It was a message to the Russian intermediary that he could then provide to other Russians that he was working with to show, “Yes, the Americans are still involved.”

JS: And I just want to share with people a couple of the tweets, because, for anyone that follows the official NSA Twitter account, you see this kind of stuff often. But one of them was, “Samuel Morse patented the telegraph 177 years ago. Did you know you can still send telegrams? Faster than post & pay only if it’s delivered.” And then another one: “The 1st telegraph communications exchange occurred between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan in 1858.” And it goes on and on. And another one of my favorites: “Can you help Kandice the Kangaroo save her baby Joey in this month’s #PuzzlePeriodical?”

JS: I mean Jim, we know that the NSA has its own, you know, advice columnist and gossip columnist for their own internal newspaper, but really? Kandace the kangaroo is now the code for the Russians?

JR: Right. Right. It’s great. I mean, every time one of those came out I laughed. I thought they were really funny. Because they’re so benign and so off-point. [Laughs.] So, it was, it was funny.

JS: And one, one that I actually take a bit of offense that they use this for, was when they talk about Section 702, which is, in short: we’re talking about the warrantless wiretapping capabilities. That tweet was: “Section 702 is a law that can also be a lifesaver. Take a look at how #Section 702 protects troops and helps the nation.”

JR: Right. Right. Yeah, I mean it’s, a sense of irony, I guess.

JS: Well it’s also interesting because Jim, you, of course, before Edward Snowden’s revelations, and we talked about this on the last special episode, you were the reporter that broke the story and that revealed to Americans that there was this capability and that it had been put on the fast-track particularly after 9/11.

JR: That’s the irony here is that they, I guess, they’re a little shameless there about their own history, using it this way.

JS: So what should people take away from the reporting that you’ve done and what you’ve heard from your sources? And what does this say about where we are right now regarding the Trump-Russia investigation, and also political actors within the intelligence community and them taking actions, or inaction, based on political loyalties?

JR: I think that to me the message, as I said earlier, or one of the messages is that the political pressure from Trump and the White House on the intelligence community has made them very afraid of being aggressive in an investigation of Trump. And so, it makes me wonder, I mean it’s quite possible that I don’t know — I’m sure I don’t know everything that the intelligence community is doing to support Mueller’s investigation.

But if it’s like this, it makes me wonder whether or not Mueller can rely on the intelligence community for any kind of aggressive support. And if you think about the Mueller investigation, there is both an American aspect to it and a Russian component.

Certainly, he can find out through just working in Washington about the potential for —that Trump or others close to him were engaged in obstruction of justice to kind of deflect Mueller’s investigation. That’s a Washington story that Mueller can investigate fully here.

But to understand the full extent of possible collusion between Trump and Russia, it strikes me that you need evidence out of Moscow, and/or out of Russia. And to the extent that Mueller will be able to do that without the support of the intelligence community is something that I question. And that’s where I think this is a really interesting story, is to me: How far is the intelligence community willing to go to support Mueller versus how the degree to which they’re afraid of attacks by Trump and the right wing for claiming that they’re part of some mythical deep state?

JS: See, and part of why this story has the potential to be so incendiary, particularly in our current media climate, is if you look at this huge disconnect between the camp of Americans who are watching Fox News and reading all of Trump’s social media and believe that the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA were out to destroy Trump before he was elected and remain so, and then sort of the rest of the country that is looking at this and actually wants to know the facts of the matter, and isn’t making a sweeping statement about these institutions being either good or bad. I think a lot of Americans believe they should be able to trust the FBI and the CIA. I could give them a lot of examples as to why they shouldn’t do that, but I think most people have a semi-reasonable approach to this, which is: Let’s see the facts of this thing, and if there are crimes committed, we want those people prosecuted and held accountable.

So, the question then becomes: How confident are you, Jim, in the sense that you seem to be conveying that this is political at the CIA? I mean are there people within the agency that you’re hearing from or within that community that are saying, “Look, this should be aggressively pursued, but it seems like Pompeo and others don’t want us to even take custody of things that might have serious legal and political ramifications for president Trump.”

JR: Yeah, as I said in the story, I think there’s a rift within the community over that issue, over how, what to do about, particularly in this channel, there was a rift about how aggressively to pursue it. And to me the only, and to the, to some of the people involved with it, I think the only explanation was political. And a fear of getting into the crosshairs of the political community and of Trump.

JS: What’s your sense, Jim, as somebody who’s been in the in this game for quite a while and is deeply sourced, we hear political reports of the White House in chaos and of course we see more resignations are probably going to be coming over issues of abuse or incompetence or failure to get security clearance: Do you get a sense that there is widespread concern in the CIA or in the intelligence community about this administration? Not just that Trump doesn’t want to read very thorough presidential daily briefings, but in general from the way that this administration is conducting itself.

JR: Yes. Absolutely. I think they’re petrified.

JS: Well, flesh that out, because it’s not often people get to hear from someone like you Jim that that is as deeply sourced as you are, which is why, I mean it would be interesting to share with people, give them a sense of what you’re hearing, the kinds of things you’re hearing from intelligence operatives.

JR: Well I think they have — a lot of people have the same views that normal Americans do about Trump: that they think he’s unstable, that he is applying political pressure on major institutions of the government in order to bend them to his will in ways that are sort of authoritarian. And I think that that they fear that that is going to happen in the intelligence community.

And I think Pompeo, if you remember we wrote a story about Pompeo meeting with somebody who claimed that the DNC hack was an inside job by the DNC, and that caused a real concern within the intelligence community over what Pompeo really stands for. Is he their guy or is he Trump’s guy?

So, there are all kinds of concerns I think over what the direction of the intelligence community is going to be under Trump. It’s a very dangerous time, I think a lot of them believe.

JS: Is there any plausible scenario that you can envision that would lead you to conclude that Donald Trump and his senior circle, his closest circle of people, did not actively work with the Russians in an effort to secure the White House in the 2016 elections?

Is there any path that, that you can see where you end up saying, “Huh, they all did obstruction, they seem to be inexplicably lying about their meetings, but I haven’t seen hard evidence that shows that this was actually a criminal conspiracy.” Is that possible in your view?

JR: Yes, sure. I have not seen conclusive evidence of collusion. I think there’s a lot of a lot of evidence of that, but nothing conclusive, and I think that’s, to me that’s the missing link in the Trump story.

I think there’s a lot of evidence of Russian intervention in the in the election. I think there’s a lot of evidence of Trump and his associates seeking to obstruct justice. But I think what’s missing is conclusive evidence of collusion between the Russians and Trump. And I think that’s the big hole in the story right now.

JS: Right and I think that is the key question that is hovering over everything that is happening in Congress and with Robert Mueller right now. And it, I mean from my perspective, it seems totally plausible that Trump will be charged with something, but that it could be obstruction or it could be something related to financial stuff or that, you know, Kushner could be hit with this?

JR: I think, to me the most interesting — here’s the most interesting scenario that I think could play out, is what if you charge him or charge somebody close to him with obstruction of justice, and yet you can’t prove the underlying case of collusion? So what did they obstruct? And that’s the most, I think that would be a fascinating legal scenario that might play out, is you get obstruction without proving the underlying crime.

JS: Right. I mean that’s, that’s what I’m getting at that. I could see them getting Trump, you know, for all sorts of stuff have to do with firing Jim Comey or his interventions having to do with other FBI officials, or contemplating firing Robert Mueller and then lying about it to people. Any of those things could end up in criminal charges against the president without a single shred of evidence that he was in bed at all with Vladimir Putin.

JR: Right, right which is fascinating.

JS: But the reason why that becomes very significant, Jim, is because the Democrats have really gone all-in on the idea that Putin controlled the 2016 election and I’ve been saying for the past year: I think it’s dangerous unless you really know that you’re going to be able to show people indisputable evidence. That’s a really questionable political strategy.

JR: Yeah, in fact, I’m writing, as you know, I’m writing a column, my first column is about starting to look into all aspects of the Trump-Russia story. And to me, as I say, in the column the most interesting question about Trump is: Is he a traitor or not? And we don’t know the answer to that yet.

JS: It’s almost an existential question for Team Trump at the end of the day, and I know everyone will look forward to reading your forthcoming columns, Jim.

Jim Risen, thank you very much for being with us on Intercepted.

JR: Thanks a lot.

JS: Jim Risen is the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. He spent two decades at the New York Times, and he won two Pulitzers. Jim’s the author of four books, including, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.” That’s a chronicle of his battles with the Bush and Obama administrations and their threats to jail him if he didn’t give up his sources.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: And that does it for this special bonus episode. If you’re not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto Sam Sabzehzar is our honorary producer, and we thank you for your generous support.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. She also produced this special episode. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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