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Exclusive: After Quitting Last Year, Senior U.S. Intelligence Official Now Talks

Sue Gordon in 2017 as deputy national intelligence director.
Sue Gordon in 2017 as deputy national intelligence director.

A year ago this past Saturday, Sue Gordon — the second highest official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — abruptly quit an ever-ascending career spanning nearly four decades in U.S. spy agencies.

"Mr. President," Gordon informed President Trump at the time in a handwritten note, "I offer this letter as an act of respect & patriotism, not preference. You should have your team. Godspeed, Sue."

The note accompanied Gordon's letter of resignation as the agency's principal deputy director, a job she had held the previous two years. It came just days after Dan Coats, a former Republican senator, had tendered his own resignationas the director of national intelligence following repeated differences with Trump over the U.S. intelligence community's assessments of North Korea, Iran and Russia.

Trump had earlier told reporters that Gordon, whose position had her first in line to become acting director of national intelligence, was a candidate to hold that job until a permanent replacement for Coats was found.

"I like Sue Gordon," Trump said. "Certainly she will be considered."

Gordon, ever the seasoned intelligence analyst, had heard otherwise — that Trump, in fact, thought she was disloyal and should not take over as the nation's top intelligence officer, even in an acting capacity.

One year later, telling her story

Gordon has said little publicly about that episode since leaving behind a career that had her briefing all the U.S. presidents since Jimmy Carter, save one — George H.W. Bush, himself a former CIA director.

But in a wide-ranging conversation with NPR's Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep — the first in-depth account of her time in the Trump administration and her first radio interview since resigning — Gordon calls Trump's conclusion that she was not suited for the top spy job "wrong."

"That was a difficult moment and one that I admit that I don't totally understand," Gordon recalls, speaking from her home in Vienna, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb. "But when the man who appointed you to your position suggests that he no longer wants you in it, and if you're the third child of a naval officer, you give him a cheery 'Aye, Aye' and you offer your resignation."

"It was a 40-year love affair," Gordon says, describing it as "devastating" to walk away from a career that had taken her to the highest echelon of the intelligence community. "When I accepted a political appointment, I knew that I was no longer a civil servant, but I served at the pleasure."

Gordon was a junior at Duke University studying for a degree in zoology, agonizing over whether to pursue law school or a doctorate in biomechanics, when she decided simply to get a job.

"Being the kid of a naval officer, public service was in my heart," she recalls. "And when the CIA came to interview on campus, I took the interview and it went from there."

With her degree in functional morphology zoology completed, the CIA's Office of Scientific and Weapons Research hired Gordon in 1980 to analyze Soviet biological warfare.

"I think I never did what I was hired to do," she says, "but the foundation, both in hard-core math and engineering, applied to living systems turned out to be a pretty cool combination for intelligence."

At the time, Gordon recalls, there were no more than 10 female professionals in an office with a staff of about 100.

"I would say probably the most abundant [female CIA employees] were in the support disciplines and the least abundant were in operations, and science and technology," Gordon says. "And so I was at the intersection of those."

It was a combination of hard-core engineering with uncertain intelligence, and it appealed to Gordon.

"You are looking at things at a distance — you are seeing some observables, but you're trying to discern what's happening from incomplete information," she says of her formative spy work. "And so it kind of just resonated with my curiosity, my kind of scientific bent and the love of trying to figure out what's going on, without bias."

Briefing 5 of the last 6 presidents

By the late Reagan administration, Gordon had begun briefing the president. Paradoxically, she recalls it initially being easier than it became later on.

"When you're a junior [officer]," she says, "you are just representing what you know, and you know what you know better than anybody else."

"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," Gordon adds. "And the decisions are incredibly consequential. And many times decisions turn on your analysis, and you know that there is always uncertainty in intelligence."

Gordon also found that each president she briefed differed in how he absorbed information.

"President Obama just read voraciously, took in our information, and so we wrote abundantly for him," Gordon says of Trump's predecessor, calling him "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," she says. "We now had a president who wanted to act almost immediately."

While Gordon recalls all five presidents she briefed periodically finding certain intelligence inconvenient, she says Russian interference in the 2016 election and ensuing investigations into that activity were "a particularly contentious topic" for Trump.

"Did the president want us to be able to say things differently from what we said? Yes," she recollects. "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."

Still, Gordon does not attribute Coats' departure specifically to his differences with Trump over Russian election meddling, which the former director of national intelligence declared had clearly been assessed by the intelligence community. Instead, she says, it was an accumulation of events that precipitated Coats' departure.

"It became clear that he and the president weren't on the same page — not specifically over intelligence, but about how to conduct the role of the director of national intelligence," Gordon notes. "I don't sense that it was over any particular event, but rather the aggregation of feeling that the role [of DNI] wasn't being performed exactly as [Trump] preferred."

Recent document may reflect more compliant spy directorate

An assessment made public last week by the DNI on election interference appears to show that the agency whose top officials a year ago were Gordon and Coats as more closely in step with a president who has repeatedly rejected claims of Russian meddling.

That document cites China, Russia and Iran as foreign states whose efforts at U.S. election interference are of particular concern to the intelligence community. The first country listed is China. Gordon thinks it should have been the Russians.

"I'd probably put them first on the list just because of who I know them to be, what I know their interest to be and their capabilities, and the demonstrations that we've seen," she says of the Kremlin's operatives.

"Russia is a complete intelligence service with a lot of interests, and they have demonstrated both influence operations and attempts at interference, even though, thank goodness, we've been very successful, and I think we're even more prepared for those things than in the past."

That said, Gordon insists she's loath to ascribe any intentions by the Trump administration to obscure what's been found and concluded by intelligence analysts.

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

A fine line for intelligence agencies

The danger Gordon sees is a loss of faith in the underpinnings of democracy.

"I think there's a fine line that we have to be mindful of, and it's not whether we put China first or Russia first in a listing," she says. "What worries me is 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 — I think that is the most damaging circumstance for America."

All of which makes keeping the public apprised of attempts at foreign interference a delicate matter.

"From the intelligence perspective, we always tried to be very careful not to do our adversaries' work for us," Gordon warns. "In other words, not overblow or overreport things so that everyone thought, 'Oh, well, gosh, you can't trust anything.' And I think we have been, by and large, successful."

Intelligence, Gordon adds, should not be dismissed as simply opinions of analysts that can be ignored.

"Intelligence is never what those people think," the former spy says. "Intelligence is what those people have assessed based on data they collect, albeit sometimes it's sparse data, and then put together in a way that people can understand the foundation for that judgment."

Gordon is currently a consultant to Microsoft Corp., "trying to take the wisdom that I acquired and now share it with companies and citizens so that they might make the kinds of decisions that I think will be necessary to keep us all happy and prosperous — and if I do it right, I'll have more time to spend with my grandchildren than I did in the first 40 years."

But Gordon expresses no regrets about the decades she spent trying "to keep America safe."

"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," Gordon says slowly, "and if they saw what I was doing, would they be proud."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.