STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What remains unknown about Russia's role in the U.S. election? A special counsel's report confirmed a lot about hacking and social media manipulation. The report did not say much about Russian agents working inside the United States. Retired CIA operative John Sipher is convinced there were such agents. He makes his case in The Atlantic.
JOHN SIPHER: We have decades of experience of how the Russians operate. We understand from our own sources and years of uncovering these things that these, what they call active measures - this form of art by which, we look at happened in 2016, which is, you know, deception, subversion, disinformation, trolls, cyberattacks. In their doctrine, we've learned that they underpin all of this with human spies. They don't undertake such active political warfare without understanding the other side and having people in place who can help aim and facilitate their actions. The inability to figure out who they are yet doesn't mean that they don't exist. And they also know that oftentimes it takes a long time to figure out who those people are.
INSKEEP: Help me understand. When did the FBI begin its counterintelligence investigation?
SIPHER: My understanding is in the summer 2016 is when they started, specifically, this counterintelligence...
INSKEEP: That leads to another question then. Having begun a counterintelligence investigation, does the FBI have to meet some standard to continue investigating people, particularly Americans on American soil?
SIPHER: To investigate Americans, specifically, yes. They would have to have some predicate to be looking into it. They would have to have some intelligence information or some troubling pattern that they would take to a FISA judge to continue to look at Americans.
INSKEEP: You said FISA judge. Of course, that's the judge who is supposed to rule on whether surveillance, electronic surveillance, is legal or not, is allowed or not. We know that there were FISA warrants for people like Carter Page, connected with the Trump campaign. I guess we don't know if there are further FISA warrants against other Americans at this time.
SIPHER: That's right. And I don't know, either.
INSKEEP: But you seem to believe that it's likely that there would be.
SIPHER: From having worked, for example, with the FBI in counterespionage investigations, the FBI would not take the fact that a criminal case has been closed to assume that they need to close a counterintelligence case. Because there's so many unanswered questions, and because they understand that the Russians are quite aggressive and will not stop sort of pressing and pushing into our system.
INSKEEP: Can the Bureau continue investigating Russian interference at a time when the president of the United States - who is, strictly speaking, their boss - has dismissed the entire possibility, has downplayed or denied it at every opportunity, and he now has an attorney general who is rather dismissive, at least of the collusion part of it?
SIPHER: That's correct. And having a president supportive of the activities of his institutions is critical in these things. However, professional counterintelligence officers will do their job. Their job is to thwart and neutralize attacks by hostile intelligence services. And they will continue that work even if the president doesn't believe that his campaign was part of that. We may find that these spies that I believe exist were not directly tied to the Trump campaign, but nonetheless help this active measures campaign that helped the Trump campaign.
INSKEEP: What are the implications of this for the 2020 presidential election that's already underway?
SIPHER: (Laughter). Well, that's part of the problem here. And that's sort of the unsatisfying part about counterintelligence investigations is, like I said, just wanting to find the truth here doesn't mean that you will find the truth. Usually, it takes a source on our side to give us leads and hints of where to go. And those sources are hard to come by, and sometimes we have them, and sometimes we don't.
INSKEEP: John Sipher, thanks for coming by.
SIPHER: My pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: His story in The Atlantic is called "The Russia Investigation Will Continue." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.