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Alex Finley: Russia and the Intelligence Community

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Alex Finley: Russia and the Intelligence Community

Alex Finley is a former officer within the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where she served in West Africa and Europe. She is now a columnist and author who focuses on security and intelligence issues.

In this episode, she discusses authoritarianism, the intelligence community, Russia, and how former Trump officials were susceptible to foreign influence.

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Alex Finley:

I think a number of these people, some of them who are actual elected officials at this point, are taking the side of authoritarianism.

Anytime you sort of back up and say you're pro Putin, you're stating that you're pro authoritarianism, because it really is very clear at this point there's authoritarianism and there's democracy, and it's time to pick a side.

And in saying, “Well, we think Putin is an okay guy,” you're choosing the side of the dictator.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Alex Finley, a former officer within the CIA's directorate of operations where she served in West Africa and Europe. She's now, a columnist and author who focuses on security and intelligence issues.

Alex, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Alex Finley:

Thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

At the very top of your Substack page is a link to a course which subscribers can sign up to, and it's titled Introduction to Foreign Influence Operations. It's got titles like how Russia used hot chicks and guns to woo American conservatives, which is very funny, and I'd love to take the course.

But what you are getting at is deadly serious, and it's not just Russian trolls flooding Twitter and Facebook, which is bad enough. It's also concerted attempts to recruit and compromise high level elected officials. How worried should we be?

Alex Finley:

I think we need to be very worried. I appreciate that you mentioned the course. One of the things I try to accomplish in the course is to take politics out. I fear that in the US particularly, we view everything through a political lens when we're discussing influence operations.

And I think it's important to understand these operations are going on elsewhere as well. Most of what I focus on are our Russian influence operations. We do look at some others in the course.

But just to focus on the Russia stuff, when we talk about it in the US now, again, we really talk about it as political.

So, what I try to do is take that out and show examples that we know of Russia doing very similar operations in the US. Co-opting high level politicians in different political parties across Europe, for example, running influence campaigns in Africa.

And so, I try to get into how that works because also, part of what I think is lacking in understanding of the American public especially, is that these are actually run by Russia's intelligence services.

As you said, it's not just trolls and amplification. This is a set policy by the Kremlin to use their security services to propagate and forward a Russian agenda by co-opting and using high level politicians, activists, journalists, and other influential types within our own societies.

So that what we're faced with is somebody like us who's telling us Russian talking points rather than a Russian standing in front of us telling us, because then it's much more amenable. We're much more ready to sort of take that.

Ken Harbaugh:

It used to be when an American politician realized they were parroting the talking points of a foreign adversary. I mean, I guess there were two types.

There were the ones who were fully compromised, and those are exceedingly rare or were exceedingly rare.

And then there were those who were just being manipulated. They were found out. There was the shame of being discovered to have been parroting the talking points of adversaries. And they fixed it, they correct it.

Now, it seems to be part of the toolkit. Russian talking points seem to be sought out almost by certain elements of our political class.

And I feel like that is, if not entirely new, you have to go back a long ways in American history to find a major political party that is integrating the propaganda of a foreign adversary into their own platforms.

I'm thinking about Matt Gaetz, for example, parroting communist propaganda in interrogating defense officials. I'm thinking about Marjorie Taylor Greene's constant parroting of that, proudly. And there's no shame associated with it feels like.

Alex Finley:

Yeah, I think that that's true. And I agree, it's a very strange thing, particularly since we see it mostly, not only, but mostly with the Republican Party in the United States.

Like during the Cold War, exactly what you said, if you found yourself sort of saying the same thing that the Communist Party and the Soviet Union was saying, that was seen as bad because being an American patriot meant you were anti-communist.

I do think what we're seeing here is much more of a convergence of ideology. We really do have a number of groups now, in the United States who share some of the ideology that Russia and others are pushing.

Again, some of that comes from the left. Most of it is coming from the right.

And one thing also, you had mentioned the people who are actually recruited assets and others who are sort of manipulated or are seen as we call them, useful idiots. And there's a spectrum, a very large spectrum in between.

One of the things to understand, I think, with Russian intelligence is they don't care if you're recruited or not. You're a tool, that's it. They see you as a tool, and we're going to use you in whatever way is useful to us.

And so, I agree, a number of these politicians who are sort of allowing themselves to be used as tools is very worrisome.

One other thing I'll mention here is in the CIA, when we are targeting somebody to recruit or to use them in some way as an asset, we have an acronym that we use. It's MICE, M-I-C-E. And this covers the sort of the vulnerabilities or the motivations of the person that we're targeting.

So, M is for money, I is for ideology, C is for coercion, and E is for ego.

And usually as you're developing somebody to try to get them to do your bidding, as you might say, it's definitely at least one of those, but usually a combination of those personality traits maybe that we use.

Some people will just do whatever for money. Just straight up give money. Others, like I was saying, during the Cold War, it's much more about ideology. Coercion is maybe we blackmail you or we have leverage over you in some way.

And ego is just simply ego stroking. And of course, we know some politicians where that might work very well especially if they also, have the money aspect where they have money deals involving Russia or Russian organized crime, or Russian companies or whatever.

And so, all of those factors come into play. And of course, the more that you are being manipulated and using that, the ideology kind of gets easier. Because now, you're sort of already doing those things and doing that bidding that you may become to believe the ideology for yourself.

Ken Harbaugh:

You had this great article a while back in Politico that laid out the vulnerabilities of some of our senior officials to these kinds of approaches. Can you give us a primer on your risk assessment?

Well, let's start with Flynn, and then I want to work our way up to the big guy. Flynn is objectively incredibly vulnerable to this kind of targeted recruitment. Can you explain why?

Alex Finley:

Yeah. That article, it's called The Recruitables in Politico Magazine.

What I wrote about with Michael Flynn is if you sort of follow his career trajectory, he, at one point became the head of Joint Special Operations Command.

He became very well known for streamlining a number of terrorist operations where we would go, hit a target, come back, assess the intelligence, and immediately go hit another target.

So, JSOC was becoming very efficient during the years that they were under Flynn's command.

He eventually then, of course, got promoted to be the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And I think at that point, sort of the Peter principle set in.

People started talking about whether maybe it was McRaven and McChrystal who deserved more of the credit for some of those counter-terrorism hits. Because Flynn started sort of proving himself in this role as not really capable.

He was seen as not a very effective leader. A lot of people viewed him as not having a great vision for the agency. He had already at that point, a loose relationship, you might say, with truth and reality. So that it was very well known a number of the things that he would talk about. People called them Flynn Facts.

And so, he was already sort of starting to kind of fall out in popularity with people. And then of course, Obama fired him, and it was a quite public firing, of course.

And you can imagine at that point, somebody with that kind of ego, of course, because you cannot be a general and run an agency like that without having some amount of ego and seeing those around you getting a lot of credit, opening up their own consulting firms, making a lot of money at that point.

That you've now, been very publicly humiliatingly fired, that you might feel very vulnerable at that point.

On top of that, Flynn had already developed a relationship with the Russians. He actually was the first US Intel intelligence agency head, I believe, to visit the headquarters of Russian military intelligence. That was while he was head of DIA.

So, they knew him, they had a relationship with him. They had certainly already assessed him. They would've been derelict as their own intelligence agencies not to assess somebody like him, and in his position.

So, when he was vulnerable then after being fired, I believe that was in 2014, that was a great time to approach him. And in fact, they did.

They invited him to a big gala for Russia Today, or RT, which is a state-owned propaganda channel. And they invited him to Moscow. They paid for him to go to Moscow. They paid him something like $45,000 to give a speech there. And they sat him at the table right next to Vladimir Putin.

And this is a wonderful context. It provides a really great environment in which to stroke that ego. “Oh, your president fired you, but you're going to find your ideas are welcome here.”

And so, you build that affinity. Now, that's what I said, so now, you have money and now, you have ego. And then on top of it, now you have that ideology coming in because that ego stroking helps you sort of agree with that affinity and you start saying, “Oh, I kind of like how things are being done over here.”

So, again, that's not to say he's recruited that he's taking taskings necessarily, but again, I think that that affinity probably is there.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's talk about that ideological alignment, because in some ways, that's the scariest piece of it. I would almost rather deal with the cynic who takes the money and the ego stroking and doesn't really believe in what they're doing and undermining their own democracy.

But you are beginning to see this ideological alignment with authoritarianism in the case of people like Flynn and Marjorie Taylor Greene with Christian nationalism. How would you characterize the comparable ideologies?

Alex Finley:

I agree with you. I think a number of these people, some of them who are actual elected officials at this point, are taking the side of authoritarianism.

Anytime you sort of back up and say you're pro Putin, you're stating that you're pro authoritarianism, because it really is very clear at this point there's authoritarianism and there's democracy, and it's time to pick a side.

And in saying, “Well, we think Putin is an okay guy,” you're choosing the side of the dictator against your own democracy.

Ken Harbaugh:

What elements of that ideology are they agreeing on? I mean, we talk about the I in MICE’s ideology but I'm curious about the specifics of where they agree. They're certainly going to agree if money's on the table, if ego stroking is out there, or if they're being blackmailed (what the C stands for).

But why is there that ideological affinity? What do they like so much about Russia?

Alex Finley:

Well, I think a number of the people within the Republican party, or people who are nominally conservative, although I think true conservatives in the United States is not at all what they represent, but they call themselves conservatives. I think, as you mentioned before, they've really latched onto this idea of Christian nationalism.

I'll put that in a certain context again, with Russia. Putin has really cultivated this sort of persona of himself as a Christian nationalist within the Orthodox Church, of course, but he very much uses the Orthodox church, the idea of traditional values, and going back to this sort of conservative heyday.

He uses that as well to promote this idea of him being the leader of this very traditional conservative white empire.

Now, of course, when you actually peel back and look beyond that potential village, there's a lot more that's going on.

Russia actually has a very high level of abortion. It's actually culturally widely accepted, for example. Again, somebody like Putin has children, we think, with several different people, and he is divorced.

But, Ken, you bring that then back into the United States, and it's very similar. The fact that Trump is sort of this titular head of this movement, which is claiming a lot of Christian nationalism when he very clearly does not espouse those views for himself.

So, one of the things to keep in mind as you sort of move towards an authoritarian system is that logic goes out the window. That none of these lines of ideology have to make any sense. They just have to get people fired up and ready to be loyal to the leader.

Ken Harbaugh:

You brought up Trump. In my mind, he checks every one of the boxes that a handler, a case officer would want to see in recruiting an asset. Can you talk about his vulnerability as a mark for targeted recruitment?

Alex Finley:

Sure. So, again, money, clearly, because he just wants to make money. Ideology, I think less so because he'll go whichever way the wind blows based on whoever's telling it to do what.

We've definitely heard issues about the coercion. I mean, I think actually at this point, he's proven that he can't be blackmailed, because it all came out. So, much of it has come out and he has no shame.

So, that keeps going, but it certainly would've been a tactic that Russian intel would've considered using over him.

And then ego, of course that works with him. It strokes him. Yeah, stroking his ego, it works. It gets him to do certain things.

If you look at, for example, the summit in Helsinki when Trump and Putin met privately when nobody else in the room except Putin's translator, and nobody kept notes, and they come out of that meeting, and Putin's got a big grin on his face. And you just got to wonder still what happened in that meeting.

And then Trump goes on to come out and just hammer down a lot of the American agencies and what America is doing. And Putin's got this big grin on his face.

So, as a case officer who who's trying to control an asset, I actually don't think Trump is a great recruit in that sense, because he goes off the rails all the time. He's very hard to keep focused.

But in terms of just reeling him into the point where you can stroke his ego and manipulate him to a certain extent, I think that can be done very well. And my guess is that it has happened.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you saw Trump say what he said at Helsinki after the conversations with Putin saying that he trusted that man more than he trusted his own intelligence agencies. As a member of the IC, how did that make you feel?

Alex Finley:

Pretty terrible. Very terrible. I had left the agency already at that point, but somebody who's given a number of years of service to the country and to see your president sort of put that down. Not even sort of put that down, very much put that down.

Yeah, it's not a great feeling to know that the person in charge does not value what you do.

Ken Harbaugh:

And you do think that he is, whether wittingly or not, or not an asset of Putin, how does that actually look in operation?

Alex Finley:

Well, I think the thing is we know absolutely that Russian intelligence had several approaches to the Trump campaign, to the Trump administration.

Then of course, there's all the overt weights. Using diplomats and Putin himself and all these other things.

So, again, I don't really love using this word asset because, especially from an American standpoint, we tend to think of that as somebody who is recruited and will take task gains.

And because again, generally within the US intelligence community, our focus much more is on collection of intelligence to provide to policy makers.

But that's just not how it works in Russia. That's not at all what they're trying to do. They have a certain amount of collection that they want to do, but we've all heard this now several times, active measures.

They really have latched onto this idea, which started under the Soviet Union, the idea of influencing world events to the benefit of Russia.

And the thing is that doing that is anathema to American values. So, we don't do that. Now, we do covert action, absolutely, but it goes through Congress, it's budgeted, lots of people have to sign off on it. Lots of people are briefed on it regularly.

That's not to say we haven't had some excesses within the US. Of course, we have, but we try to then have transparency and learn from those excesses.

Russia doesn't work that way at all. The idea is we want to try to influence and change everything, create an information environment, et cetera, to push on Russia's behalf.

And Putin can pretty much tell anybody to do anything. Nobody has to sign off on it. And if he gives a very general statement of go destabilize the West everybody just sort of takes that and runs with it and does it in whatever way they see fit.

And this includes, by the way private companies, the oligarchs play a very large role in these destabilization activities, they understand.

We know Petr Aven, who is now a sanctioned oligarch. He spoke to Robert Mueller during the Russian investigation, and said, “We have quarterly meetings with Putin, and during that time, he tells us how to spend money and where to spend it, and a number of other things that we need to be doing. And we, the oligarchs understand that to be taskings that we have to carry out.”

And so, this entire corrupt mafia-like system pushes and pushes to take any influential measure they can to influence and change how we ourselves are living in our own societies.

So, it's a very, very different approach. Which is why then, to go back to your original question, do I see Trump as an asset? He's an asset, but in a way we're all assets. Anybody who retweets a piece of disinformation, anything like that.

It may be totally unknowing, but then there are others who are owned. We know that there are journalists and politicians who are paid to give very specific views and talking points, and to write things.

We've seen indictments with examples of journalists who literally take an article written by a Russian intelligence officer and publish it under their own name.

So, there's a wide spectrum of what an asset is to Russian intelligence, or even to the Russian state.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk about the information environment that Russia is trying to create. It's not as clear cut as Russian talking points, and they want the world to think this particular way about something like the invasion of Ukraine or the downing of the airliner, I believe it was the Malaysian airliner.

Sometimes it is, to borrow a phrase from Steve Bannon, flooding the zone with shit, creating so much conflicting information that the average consumer just throws up their hands and says, “I don't know what to believe.”

Alex Finley:

Absolutely. And I think that's one of the other points that gets lost in our dialogue, because it is much more nuanced and complex than just saying fake news or disinformation or troll factories amplifying disinformation. It's much bigger than that.

So, the big underlying concept I think that needs to be understood in this is that democracy anywhere is a threat to authoritarians everywhere.

And so, somebody like Putin, or Xi in China, or MBS in Saudi Arabia, the idea of democracy existing anywhere isn't great because then you're always going to have this internal audience asking you, “Well, why can't we have that?”

So, part of what you want to do if you are an authoritarian figure like Putin is feed your domestic audience reasons to say, “Look at how terrible that democracy is. You see, it's a very terrible system. You're so lucky to have me.”

So, one of the things that they try to do is destabilize all of it, create that chaos, exactly like you said, throw in so many different narratives, for example, that people reach the point where they say, “I don't know what to believe anymore.”

And by doing that, people then remove themselves from public debate.

So, democracy requires civic debate, it requires rule of law. Rule of law itself requires an understanding and agreement of what the rules are, and understanding and agreement of what truth is.

And so, if you start flooding the zone with shit and throwing in different narratives for different things, if you get to the point where I'm trying to tell you an impeachment, but none of the stories make any logical sense, then the consumers of that just say, “I give up. I don't want to participate.”

And of course, the democracy can't exist if people don't participate. This is exactly what democracy is, is participation by the people.

And so, the whole idea of flooding the zone with shit, which is, again, it's a little bit more nuanced than that, but I think that's pretty much the way that they're doing it, is to make it to the point where this democracy cannot exist because nobody wants to participate anymore.

Ken Harbaugh:

In addition to undermining faith and objective truth, one of the other objectives is undermining faith in American institutions. You just tweeted this out about the FBI's having to stand up an internal unit to address the tenfold increase in threats against FBI agents.

You wrote that declining trust in government institutions is yet another sign of society sliding away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. Seems like that's exactly what Putin and Xi and others would want to see.

Alex Finley:

Well, exactly. Because when that starts happening, when the public, when citizens no longer have trust in their institutions, be the government institutions or media institutions as well, because you don't trust the information that's coming to you.

So, constantly calling the media the enemy of the people, for example, as Stalin did, and Trump, then Hitler did, also helps to decrease that trust within society.

And what that leads to again, is people saying, “Well, I don't trust anybody anymore. I'm not sure how to participate anymore in my democracy.”

And that creates then a vacuum where a single leader can rise up and say, “I can fix it. I'm the only one who can fix it.”

If you look across Latin America, we call it the mano dura, the iron glove, the iron fist. I'm going to come in and I'm going to rule with an iron fist, and I'll fix all of this. And then once it's all fixed, everybody's going to feel better.

But of course, it's not what happens. The whole idea of ruling with the iron fist is now, I'm leader and I'm in charge.

And the problem now, when I'm the leader and I'm in charge, is I can't actually do it alone. I need a group of loyal sycophants around me. But in order to keep them loyal, I got to feed them something. I have to give them something.

So, Putin gives his oligarchs and others tons of money. He lets them loot state coffers and buy state owned companies for absolutely nothing and basically take all the money for themselves.

And so, now, you have a government that isn't answerable to the people. You have a government that is answerable only to the people immediately around him because he needs or she needs those people around him to stay in power himself.

Ken Harbaugh:

How sustainable is that? Because I think we have this naive notion in the US that leaders like that, they don't die peacefully in their beds, but then we look at places like North Korea, which is dynastic.

I mean, we can't hold out hope that the oligarchs are going to rise up in revolt. There are plenty examples of this kind of system sustaining itself for a very long time.

Alex Finley:

Well, so, is your question about the oligarchs in Russia, if that system can be maintained?

Ken Harbaugh:


Alex Finley:

So, I think one of the reasons actually that we've been sanctioning the oligarchs personally this time around, which took a while to do, but we are doing now, in the US, and in Europe, and the UK, is to try to break that system.

So, those around the dictator will stay loyal again, as long as they're getting something useful out of it.

But if you from the outside externally, can make it so that they're not getting that anymore, then they may start to sort of turn on one another because who's going to take over now? And maybe if I can get myself off the sanctions list or I can get back to my yacht in Sardinia or my kid can go back to school in London.

One of the amazing things about this oligarch circle around Putin and Putin himself is Russia is a great place to loot and to make all of my money and steal all of my money, but nobody wants to keep it there because somebody might steal it after all. Look at how much they manage to steal.

So, once they have that money, it all leaves Russia.

And so, first of all, it's not helping anybody in Russia. And then second of all, it comes into our system. They use our system to launder their money, to buy their villas in the south of France, to buy their yachts on the Mediterranean, to buy penthouses in Manhattan.

And so, then in that sense, they're also co-opting us into their own corruption, because now, you have your own economy reliant a bit on this corrupt system.

So, by putting in the sanctions, the idea is, okay, these people who hate to live in Russia, because clearly all they want to do is put their money where it's safe, where there's rule of law, and where the government can't just take it all away from you is in the West.

And so, what you want to do is sanction them and say, “Well, no, you can't do that. You're not going to get your cake and eat it too. If you're going to try to keep your money here in the west, then you've got to follow our rules.”

“And so, we're going to freeze those assets until you decide that you're going to be part of a system where we actually follow these rules.”

And so, the idea is to hopefully push them so that they eventually do cave and turn on each other and maybe it causes a palace coup or something. I don't know.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, in the case of the Russian oligarchs though, their motivation isn't simply acquiring more and more stuff. And we're going to talk about yachts in a second.

I mean, there is a culture of, I would imagine, just abject fear among them. And that is, if anything, an even more powerful motivator than the accumulation of wealth.

Can you speak to Putin's ability to sell fear even among the expat Russian oligarch community?

Alex Finley:

Yeah, of course. That's a fear. I mean, we've seen several examples of either people who stay and are tossed in jail because they refuse to go along with Putin, or those who managed somehow to flee, but then are still targets.

We've definitely seen a number of former intelligence operators who have been poisoned and murdered. You see others private businessmen who have left and who now, say, “I live in fear.” And they have a lot of security around them.

So, absolutely, and that's one of the things of course that a dictator does, is uses fear to keep everybody in line. So, there is also that aspect to it.

One of the interesting things also, I think that we've seen with the oligarchs is how they sort of turn on each other. We've seen some examples through court cases and stuff.

For example, Oleg Deripaska hired the former head of the FBI New York's office for counterintelligence, hired him to help him evade sanctions. That guy, Charles McGonigal, just pleaded guilty recently to helping Deripaska evade sanctions.

But part of what McGonigal was doing on Deripaska’s behalf, was investigating another oligarch with the hopes it seems of presenting that evidence to say, “Well, this oligarch should be under sanctions.”

So, they're all kind of trying to toss each other under the bus. So, there's definitely a competition among them as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

What's the best news resource for understanding what's happening inside Russia? If viewers want to get a better sense of some of what you're talking about, what are your go-to open-source resources?

Alex Finley:

Meduza, which is with a Z, M-E-D-U-Z-A, is one of the few still independent journalism operations in Russia. And they do publish in English. And I would say the other is the Moscow Times, they still turn out some very good things.

And then some of our own journalists are still doing a good job. The Wall Street Journal is having a very difficult time, of course, because one of their journalists is being held, but they've shown that that's not going to stop them from doing the reporting that they want to be doing.

And then there's some others. Proekt, P-R-O-E-K-T, which also publishes sometimes in English, some of their big investigative reports.

They just had one on a number of oligarch companies and how they're being used in the Russian War effort. So, they sometimes do some very big and interesting investigations.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you still tracking Russian yachts?

Alex Finley:

I am. There's not a lot more to track. They've all kind of reached their destination for now. So, mostly now, it's following the court cases and trying to find out what's actually going to happen to these assets now that they have been detained or seized actually by different governments.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you give us a sense of just how opulent these things are? Because I think we can talk sort of in a sanitized way about the proclivity of Russian oligarchs to steal wealth and then take it out of the country.

But these yachts take it to a whole new level, and I would just love a primer on how much these things cost, what they look like.

And were you involved at all in tracking Scheherazade, which I think people have assessed is probably Putin's personal yacht?

Alex Finley:

I didn't have anything to do with finding Scheherazade. But I'll say this, what I love about the yachts is just that they're such a great visual for that opulence and that corruption. They really are just great symbols of that. They're enormous.

So, I live in Barcelona and before the war, before the invasion, a number of them were here. We had Russian yachts down here all the time.

And one of them, for example, Dilbar is the largest of the Russian fleet by volume. It's not the largest by length, not that anybody's measuring, although the oligarchs are. But it was a regular site down here in the port of Barcelona.

And in the space in the port that Dilbar used to take, there are now three super yachts that are docked there. So, that's just how big this thing is.

So, they're enormous, is the first thing. They have helipads, usually more than one helipad.

Many of them have swimming pools on board. Dilbar has the largest swimming pool on a yacht. You're surrounded by water, but I don't know, you need a swimming pool. And that's a 25-meter swimming pool on board that particular yacht.

Many of them have billiard rooms. And the billiard table is set like on a gyroscope so that you can play even while you're at sea or while the ocean is moving underneath you.

Many of them have very high-tech radar systems, bulletproof glass, and sort of a few defense systems that are on their security systems to keep the boat safe.

What else do we have? We have some swimming pools that converted to dance floors.

Some have escape submersibles. If somebody comes on and tries to kidnap you on your yacht, you can escape in your own submersible. I think it only fits one person, and I don’t know what happens to your family or your mistress, but at least you could get away.

So, yeah, these are enormous pieces of equipment. They're very high tech. A number of the Russian ones that we have been looking at and following on the low side is $120 million.

Some of the bigger ones like Dilbar, I mentioned, are closer to — estimates vary, but around 6, 7, $800 million.

Even we've heard Roman Abramovich, he has the longest yacht of the Russian fleet, which is Eclipse. And there's talk again, the numbers haven't been confirmed that after all of the changes and upgrades and everything, that it's worth $1 billion at this point.

But who knows? I mean, the zeros at this point don't really mean anything.

Ken Harbaugh:

It seems such fertile ground for satire which is now, your day job post CIA, the Victor Caro series. Can you talk about the usefulness of satire in educating people? Does it ever backfire? Give us a primer on your protagonist and the world he inhabits.

Alex Finley:

Yeah, I love satire mostly just because I like to laugh. I like joy more than being upset. So, I find laughter is always a great way just to feel good.

But I also find that satire and more entertaining ways of approaching complex problems makes it more accessible to readers.

Victor Caro is a case officer in the CIA, or sorry, it's CYA, which is a play to cover your ass.

The series starts with Victor in the Rubble. Which grew out of my experience when I was at the agency working during the War on Terror and the sort of bureaucratic dysfunction and absurdity of that actual war that just didn't make any sense.

And so, that first book, Victor Caro is chasing after a terrorist, but they both find that they're being stymied sort of by their own organization's administration of bureaucracy.

So, that first book was my catharsis. It was my first attempt at it. And it turns out that a lot of people really liked it. It resonated with a number of people, especially people who were in the military and other people who had worked in different ways within the war on terror.

So, Victor Caro then in the second book, Victor in the Jungle, goes on to South America where a populist dictator takes over and works with narco traffickers, and he has his own adventure there.

And then the third book is Victor in Trouble, which is Victor in Rome thinking he is going to coast his way to retirement and instead comes across a number of Russian influence operations within Europe and against his own country. And his attempts to learn more about how all of that is happening.

Ken Harbaugh:

I look forward to diving into the series. I've got one more question for you related to a current event.

Judge Aileen Cannon just ruled that former President Trump cannot have a skiff at Mar-a-Lago to discuss classified information with his lawyers. The same rules regarding classified information and open discussions of them apply to him as apply to everybody else.

I assume you think that's a fair judgment, but what does it say about where we are that she is getting praised for making what seems to me the most obvious ruling on how to treat classified information?

Alex Finley:

Well, it's really too bad that that locked bathroom at Mar-a-Lago that has one lock on the inside isn't deemed safe enough for our classified secrets.

But yeah, look, of course it's the right decision. We have no evidence that any of this has been declassified other than Trump saying he somehow wished it in his mind.

So, I think they Cannon made the right call there to say until shown otherwise, these are considered classified documents, and as such, they need to be handled properly as classified documents and they can only be viewed in a skiff.

I understand also on an air bubble, a computer, no recording devices. If headphones are going to be worn, they cannot be Wi-Fi or wireless headphones, whatever, that you have to actually plug into that computer.

And so, yeah, this is absolutely proper. Yes, that's how you should be handling classified information, not just sort of wallpapering bathrooms in Mar-a-Lago with it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about the seriousness with which you thought about handled, treated classified documents?

I had a TS/SCI clearance when I was in and in the back of your head, every time you were handling crypto or anything else, you were thinking even subconsciously, “I'll go to jail if I mess this up.”

Alex Finley:

Well, yeah, I'll go to jail if I mess this up. But also, the guy who gave it to me might be killed, or his family and his children might be killed. And that's an enormous responsibility. It weighs heavily on handling officers who have to deal with that, and they take it extremely seriously.

So, again, a lot of this information just lands on people's desks back in Washington, but I'm not sure there's always an appreciation of what happens out in the field to get that information.

Especially now that I'm out and I talk much more with people, I think there's not at all a good understanding of how operations work and the risks that go into that.

So, yeah, it's not a great feeling to see high level politicians, high level elected officials, particularly the president himself mishandling this type of information when you know the risks that everybody put to to go into actually get that information.

Ken Harbaugh:

Did you often feel that those risks were underappreciated before Trump? Is that just an occupational hazard of risking your life to equip our decision makers with the best information possible? Or did it reach a whole new level with the former president?

Alex Finley:

I think there's always been, not a misunderstanding, but just a lack of understanding about how operations work even before Trump.

But there certainly was much more reverence both on Capitol Hill and at the White House before Trump's administration, because even once Trump started sort of mishandling information or being in loose goosey with it and deciding to share it the Oval Office with the Russians or whatever else, that sort of gives permission right to others to do the same.

And then we saw examples of Capitol Hill people starting to do it. The Devin Nunes episode where he tried … I can't even keep them all straight anymore. But he definitely tried to use a piece of intelligence at one point to repaint what story was.

We've seen it from other Trump intel people where they will present a piece of intelligence truncated in a very specific context, which totally doesn't show the full context and absolutely shows the 180 degrees of what the truth is.

And so, we've seen over the past number of years a number of attempts, not just attempts who they've actually done it using intelligence for political purposes. And it's disheartening, it's more than disheartening. It's absolutely terrible. It's grotesque.

And we tried to learn this lesson back in 2003. Half of the policy was set and Dick Cheney went ahead and used intelligence to back up his policy rather than using intelligence to lead him to an empirical understanding of what was happening and to reach a policy decision from that.

And instead, we see people using intelligence, not even at this point to promote their own sort of foreign policies or even domestic policies, but just simply for political reasons to keep themselves in power. And like I said, it's pretty grotesque.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that's a really important observation, this idea that intelligence is supposed to precede policy and help our decision makers make the best policy they can as opposed to intelligence being gathered after the policy's been determined to help reinforce it. And that's exactly opposite of how it should work.

I'd love to, and by you describing what a skiff is for the uninitiated. I spent more hours than I could have possibly cared for inside skiffs. And it's not a bathroom, it's not even a secure room. I mean, it is a special point in space that is really carefully thought out. And you can't just create one overnight.

And it is a testament to how seriously we should be taking the protection of that classified information.

What were the skiffs like that you worked in?

Alex Finley:

Well, I can't go into detail on that, but I will say, generally speaking, a skiff is very much made to isolate and protect anything that's inside.

So, I don't know, sort of the technical specifications of something like that. But you're closing off a very isolated space. It can't be listened into. If somebody is trying to listen in using special technology to do so, that can't happen.

You cannot bring any recording devices in, as we said before. You have air gap computers that are in there so it's not connected to any external network kind of a thing.

The idea is just to create a bubble, that's it, an actual bubble inside, which is basically a sterile environment to view this intelligence so that nobody else can get it and it won't be compromised.

I don't know actually how this works, but my understanding is that US Secret Service, for example, they have a tent that they can set up.

It travels with them so that when the president needs to read classified information while they're traveling, they can set up a tent, which allows the president to then access that type of information.

But again, the technical specifications behind that kind of thing is beyond what I knew from my job.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. We'll put a link to the Victor Caro series in the show notes. It's been great having you.

Alex Finley:

Great. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Ken Harbaugh:

To learn more about Alex and her satirical Victor Caro series, visit

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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