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Sue Gordon Discusses Her Decades-Long Intelligence Career, 1 Year After Quitting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the most senior intelligence officials to serve under the Trump administration is telling her story to NPR. Sue Gordon was principal deputy director of national intelligence. She was in line for an even higher post when she was forced out in 2019, ending a career that had lasted nearly four decades. Gordon has made some public comments. But this is by far her fullest account since leaving government. Her story illustrates the pressures that intelligence agencies face in 2020.

SUE GORDON: In my head, with every decision I made for nearly 40 years, I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Iowa, who gave their dollars and their trust to me. And if they saw what I was doing, would they be proud?

INSKEEP: The pinnacle of her decades in government came in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

INSKEEP: It was soon after the president's inauguration. He'd been attacking intelligence agencies that revealed Russia's support for his election. Yet, one day after the inauguration, he made a visit to the CIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I want to just let you know, I am so behind you. And I know, maybe, sometimes you haven't gotten the backing that you've wanted. And you're going to get so much backing. Maybe you're going to say, please, don't give us so much backing.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Trump appointed Dan Coats, a one-time Indiana senator, as his first director of national intelligence. Coats wanted a deputy with long experience. And the president agreed to appoint Sue Gordon. Her ultimate job was to keep the president informed. She'd been occasionally briefing presidents since Ronald Reagan, when she was a junior employee of the CIA.

GORDON: As you get more senior, it gets more terrifying because you understand that the reason you're presenting information to them is so that they can make a decision. And the decisions are incredibly consequential. And many times, decisions turn on your analysis. And you know that there's always uncertainty.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess, your most senior position was during the Trump administration. Were those briefings different than the ones you'd done before?

GORDON: I think there were huge contrasts between President Obama and President Trump in that President Obama just read voraciously, took in our information. And so we wrote abundantly for him. And I would say he's a thinker. President Trump is much more of a doer. And so when he hears information, he wants to know what he can do with it. We now had a president who wanted to act almost immediately.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about John Bolton's memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN BOLTON: Well, this really, in a sense, is a book about how not to be president. The decision-making process was not coherent. It followed...

INSKEEP: He wrote that briefings were not a good way to give the president intelligence information because he'd do most of the talking. He wouldn't listen. Did you ever find a better way?

GORDON: Boy, we worked hard at it. And I would say that my experience is not exactly the same as John's in that there were times when we would do what we'd call an expert briefing where we would have the president's rapt attention, versus an average day where it would be (laughter) more stream of consciousness.

INSKEEP: If briefed about one specific thing, like a meeting with North Korea's leader, he could pay attention. If he was busy with other things...

GORDON: And we were presenting a whole bunch of overnight developments or new assessments. Those were sportier.

INSKEEP: Sportier, she said. In that case, intelligence officials might try to make sure Cabinet secretaries knew so that somebody did.

Did you ever get the impression that the president wanted different information than what you delivered, particularly when it came to Russia or something where he clearly disagreed with intelligence assessments?

GORDON: I think you hit on a notion that because of the Russian interference and then the ensuing investigations that was a particularly contentious topic. Did the president want us to be able to say things differently from what we said? Yes. Is that different from other presidents? No. Was he more aggressive about pressing us on that? Yes. Did he do it more publicly than his predecessors? Yes. But the act of presenting inconvenient information to presidents is not - in my experience, not remarkably different over my tenure.

INSKEEP: Did your boss, Dan Coats, protect you or protect the agencies broadly from that kind of interference?

GORDON: I think Dan was remarkable in that he played intelligence straight down the middle as though he were the career intelligence officer that I am.

INSKEEP: Which meant that Coats would state intelligence findings that the president did not like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN COATS: There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.

INSKEEP: Sue Gordon doesn't think that any one remark by Coats cost him his job but that friction built up over two years.

GORDON: I think over time, and not different from other Cabinet members, it became clear that he and the president weren't on the same page.

INSKEEP: Do you mean to say that he wanted someone who was more of a loyalist in that position who would do what he wanted without being pushed all the time?

GORDON: I don't know that I can tell you exactly what else he was looking for. But it was clear that he wanted something else.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when you heard that the president thought you were disloyal, apparently, and shouldn't take over the agency?

GORDON: That he's wrong (laughter). That was a difficult moment, and one that I admit that I don't totally understand.

INSKEEP: When Coats left, Gordon would ordinarily have taken over as acting director of national intelligence. She was made to understand the president didn't want that. And she resigned.

And you had this moment when it would have been reasonable for you to ascend to the very top of that agency - in effect, to the very top of the intelligence community. What was it like to have that taken away from you?

GORDON: Devastating in the moment. You can tell, Steve. And if we had three hours to talk and talk about the craft of intelligence and the value it has, and that I think that intelligence has a chance to be the hero of any story, that it was something I loved and that I've done. And it was a 40-year love affair. And so in one day, that went away.

INSKEEP: Trump loyalists eventually took the job. The current director, John Ratcliffe, was a Republican congressman who defended the president during his impeachment. Sue Gordon's resignation ended a career that had lasted ever since she met CIA recruiters at Duke University. When she went to the CIA, she was told to study Soviet biological warfare. It was during the Cold War. And she was one of the very few women back then in a scientific field. She later rose to a senior post in an agency that uses satellite imagery. And she worked to gain collaboration from Silicon Valley firms. Today, she consults for Microsoft, among others, and regards internet companies as both vital and vulnerable.

GORDON: When Facebook built their company, they were not thinking that they could be a vehicle by which foreign countries would undermine U.S. elections. Do you think they thought that? No. They were focused on the cool things they could do with it. And now these companies are starting to realize that they can be used and they have to protect.

INSKEEP: Can the various national security agencies, the various intelligence agencies, adequately push back against Russian election interference when the commander in chief has very publicly pushed in the other direction and denied the threat generally?

GORDON: I think the national security apparatus relentlessly does its job every day. The other side of your question, though, is what I'm trying to do in this second epic of my career, which is so many decisions about national security are being made by the private sector and the populace.

INSKEEP: Companies influence national security decisions by how they do business with China. Citizens may buy how they uphold American democratic traditions.

GORDON: The greatest threat to America is that we won't believe in ourselves. And if people don't believe their votes are going to matter, it can be true. I think that is the most damaging circumstance for America.

INSKEEP: Gordon took note last week when her successors at the office of national intelligence issued a report on foreign election interference. The report says Russia is again interfering in the 2020 election. But it added allegations against Iran and China, which are also active, but in differing ways.

GORDON: Do I think that that report muddied the waters? By itself, I can't tell you that it did. But we do have to be very careful about how we talk about this.

INSKEEP: Broadly speaking, you're describing what the president literally does again and again and again. When asked about election interference, he says China does it. Everybody does it. We've done it. It happens all the time. It's happened in past elections. Secretary of State Pompeo has added supportive remarks to that. That is the message of this administration.

GORDON: What I love about intelligence is intelligence is never opinion. It is not. There's a craft to it. There's a craft about do you - what information do you have? Do you have confidence in the information? Do you have confidence in the source? And do you have confidence in your assessment? And if there is one thing that troubles me is when you suggest that you can throw out intelligence if it's just what those people think.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SPINNING THE WHEEL")

INSKEEP: For nearly 40 years, Sue Gordon says, she tried to offer informed judgments about an ever more disorienting world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SPINNING THE WHEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.