The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Fiona Hill: Fortitude
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I am Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating person from the world of public service. My guest this week is Fiona Hill, a highly respected expert on Russia and Eurasia, and a former senior director on the National Security Council under President Trump. Fiona was born and raised in Bishop Auckland in County Durham in the industrial northeast of England. She comes from a long line of coal miners: uncles, cousins—families like hers that constantly struggled with poverty. Fiona’s father, Alfred, joined his own brother in the coal miners at the age of fourteen. Her mother, June, who still lives in Bishop Auckland, was a midwife, and although money was tight, Fiona grew up in a loving and supportive family that strongly embraced her desire to go to college and, ultimately, to immigrate to the United States, a country that her father loved and admired, and always hoped one day, might be his own home. Guided by a series of dedicated mentors and teachers, Fiona graduated from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, and then earned her PhD at Harvard. Along that journey, she studied Russian history and culture and became fluent in its language. In 2002, Fiona became a naturalized citizen of the United States, a country that gave her opportunities that she would not have enjoyed in the UK, where she believes, her working class accent and upbringing would have held her back. Fiona served at the highest levels within the U.S. government—on both the National Intelligence Council under presidents Bush and Obama, and ultimately, on the National Security Council under President Trump. Fiona is a brilliant scholar, and her personal story is inspirational and compelling. Fiona Hill, welcome to The Oath.
Fiona Hill: Thank you so much, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Well, thank you for spending some time with us. It's a real honor to have you on the show. You grew up in northeast England. Tell us a little bit about that and your family as well.
Hill: Yes, Chuck. I grew up in a small town called Bishop Auckland, which is in a region called County Durham in the northeast of England. It started off life as a rural market town, but during the Industrial Revolution, and in the 19th century, the town grew because of an influx of workers coming into coal mines and Ironworks and there was a place to make wagons close by for the railways. And then, over time, the town fell on its luck, like many places, many small industrial towns in these sort of rural urban communities like you see across the United States. All of the industries really started to close down in the 1950s and 1960s. So, by the time I came along, I was born in 1965, the time was in pretty major decline, and most of the time that I was growing up there was marked by high unemployment, a lot of the retail outlets, all the stores closing down in the main street--I mean, the kind of things that we've seen in recent decades in the United States. I think anybody coming from these old industrial centers across the Midwest or in the Northeast of the U.S. would find the town quite familiar--a place that it was very proud of industrial history, and some actually fairly well-known people even in the United States who came from that region, but then very much down on its luck when I was growing up there.
Rosenberg: And your father was a coal miner, as were many of your uncles and cousins. Many of the men in your extended family worked in the coal mines.
Hill: That's right. My great grandfather was the first one to work in the mines and then all of his children and you know, all the extended family from then on, so I'm the first generation who wasn't.
Rosenberg: And how about your mom? What did she do?
Hill: My mom was a midwife. She left school at 16 and went straight to nursing school and trained as a midwife and very much enjoyed that job. Whenever I talk to her about her career and the profession of being a midwife, she's extremely happy with this. She said it was the best thing that she ever did, so she's actually one of those, kind of, great stories of somebody who found extreme satisfaction in the job that they're doing. She just loved delivering babies. And although she wasn't able to continue being a midwife for the whole of her career, particularly when she had my, my sister and I and money was very tight, and there was no one to basically look after us when we were small, so she had to leave work for long periods.
Rosenberg: And your mom still lives in the town in which you grew up, doesn't she?
Hill: She does. She still lives in the same house that I grew up in.
Rosenberg: And how about your sister?
Hill: My sister actually lives in Spain. She is a schoolteacher there as a teacher for an institution that teaches English as a as a second language.
Rosenberg: Fiona, I read that when the coal mines in your part of England closed, your father had thought about coming to the United States, either to Pennsylvania or West Virginia, to bring his family there to continue that work, but he never made that move.
Hill: No, he did not. And this was, you know, the early mid 60s and there was still recruiting for skilled miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I think he actually pursued a place somewhere in the Lehigh Valley, but unfortunately my grandmother, his mother, was in pretty poor health, and he wouldn't have been able to take her with him. And she essentially said to him: “We’ll die without you,” there wasn't an option if he needed to take care of his parents. So, I often think well, how ironic that would have been to the light of being growing up in a very similar small town, somewhere in the Lehigh Valley of the Poconos most likely, if it had taken a different turn. So, you know, what my dad ended up doing, I mean, after the mines closed, and there wasn't another opportunity in the region--because it wasn't really an option to move at all--he found a job like pretty much every other ex-miner in the National Health Service, he became a porter, an orderly, and in this case, one of the largest employers in the area was our local hospital in Bishop Auckland and he became a part of that and he said, every porter, with only one exception, was an ex-miner.
Rosenberg: It's interesting to me, Fiona, that both of your parents, your mother, initially, and your father, ultimately, did work in which they helped other people.
Hill: Yeah, I mean, they were very proud of that. My father was especially proud of the fact that back in the day, miners, there was a lot of prestige attached to that profession, that people knew what they did, they saw how important that work was, especially during World War II, when the miners were literally fueling the war effort--they were essential workers, a lot of pride, civic pride in the local communities, very strong identity in the job. My dad always thought of himself as a coal miner, even though, ultimately, he ended up working much longer as a hospital porter. And although being a porter is a bit harder to explain, what do you do--people think it just push people around the hospital--that's really not the full extent of it. I mean, yes, you deliver all the supplies, the meals, you move people to the emergency ward, or you know, to another ward, but you're also part of the fabric of the hospital, and my dad and the guys he worked with were charismatic, big hearted individuals. The patients really liked them. They had a lot of rich networks. And people actually took some pride in that job as well because they know that the hospital couldn't function without them. And although there was a lot of brute strength involved, they were often the people who had to calm people down in an emergency room. If there was somebody was drunk and disorderly, and they will become like the first line of having to kind of deal with the patients often before they got to see the nurses and the doctors. And my dad had quite an array of stories to tell from his time of being a porter on the frontlines in hospital, not just from being a miner on the coalface.
Rosenberg: And Fiona, I know, money was short for your family. And I know you went to work at an early age to help out, but it sounds like it was a good childhood.
Hill: It was a good childhood. I mean, the one thing about growing up in the northeast of England is there's a really strong sense of identity and community. Obviously, people have fallen on a lot of hard times, but there's still a sort of sense of people pulling together to work as a community and to help each other out and lots of extended family ties. I mean, I was pretty much related to I think half the northeast of England. One way or another, you know, my parents came from very large families. One half of my mom's family was Scots who had moved down from the border region of Scotland to work in the shipyards and the factories and things of the northeast of England, to work for some of the big industrialists. They all had a very strong sense of family they kept in touch with each other all the people in the mines and those old communities, they helped each other out when times were tough, but times really were tough. And I mean, I think over the last several decades, we've seen a lot of dislocation there, my hometown has gone through some really rough patches, very high unemployment, a lot of despair, and people feeling that there are not a lot of prospects there because it's been very difficult to attract other industry. But still, you know, whenever I go back to visit there, I do feel a very strong sense of belonging. And you know, I still have friends and family there who have a very, again, a strong sense of pride in being from that region.
Rosenberg: I read a bit about your hometown, and I was struck by the fact that Stan Laurel, the famous half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team, wasn't born in Bishop Auckland, but lived there as a child, and that there's a statue to him in the town square.
Hill: Oh, that's right. This is one of the people that the town’s most proud of. He was born across the Pennine Mountains, they’re not really mountains, of course, but little hills, you know, not all that far away, in, I think it was in Ulverston, but his father was the owner, or the manager of the town's local theater, the Eden Theater, and Stan Laurel spent obviously a lot of time in the town with his father running the theater, and he went to one of the local schools in town before eventually the family moved away. I think his father went off to manager another theater. And that was before-- he emigrated to the United States, and the theater full on pretty hard times. I mean, by the time I was a kid, I think it was a bingo hall, it had briefly been a cinema, and that's where their Stan Laurel statue is today. Yeah, so Stan Laurel was one of the famous people who moved through the town. Another person who people are very proud of is Lewis Carroll, as in the author of Alice in Wonderland. He, again, also didn't live in the town. His father was the rector of a parish church quite close by Croft Auntie's, but he went to school in the town itself, the same school that Stan Laurel went to, sort of quite a few people. Jeremiah Dixon, one of the surveyors of the Mason Dixon line there, obviously Dixon part of it. And you know, I find it ironic that I'm living you know, just south of the Mason Dixon line now, and Jeremiah Dixon was from the town and he's an incredible astronomer and surveyor, and traveled all over the world, including being recruited to do the borderline between Maryland and Pennsylvania and work out a dispute between where the border between the two states went. He also charted the course of Venus was on a whole host of, you know, famous expeditions for astrological and surveying purposes.
Rosenberg: I thought it was so interesting that your father actually dreamed of immigrating to the United States, but couldn't because of his mother, but nevertheless had hoped that somebody in the family would make that move.
Hill: Yeah, he was always talking about the United States, was all kinds of family connections with us, distant relatives who would move. And then, when he was growing up, and it was a bit of a bleak time in the 1930s and 1940s, but one of the small towns his village is on the outskirts of: Crook in County Durham, had pretty good Cinema, and you know, their show, the Saturday matinee, is to produce rates for the local kids to go in. And, you know, my dad would spend every opportunity he possibly could going and seeing these Saturday matinees, or all kinds of Hollywood movies. And he also, when he was doing well down the mines, and there was a whole period in the 1950s, when the mines were booming, and my dad was able to do lots of extra work and made actually a pretty good living. And he saved up all of his money, and he would spend his money on American jazz records, jazz and blues, and he had this fantastic collection, and we were never allowed to touch them as kids, but we were allowed to listen to them with him, not allowed to touch the records, because we put our fingerprints all over them or broke them. He had an array of you know, everything from an old kind of wind up, you know, gramophone, to later on his stereo that he'd saved up to buy, and he was just really steeped in American popular culture. I mean, I spent so much time--when later we didn't have a television for the longest time--but when we did, we would binge watch old you know, Hollywood movies with my dad and he was just so America as just the epitome of everything a country should be. And he loved American history, the civil war he read all about Native American culture. So, you know, the whole family was always a conversation about America and going to America and what America stood for and the role American played in World War I and World War II.
Rosenberg: Did your parents ever get a chance to visit? I assume, at some point while you were living here, they probably did.
Hill: They did. I mean, the first time that they came over, which was really wonderful, was for my graduation from Harvard for my master's degree. And at that point, I wasn't sure I was going to stay. And we basically rented an RV and my boyfriend at the time, and he became my husband, very kindly, volunteered to drive this. And it was really a fabulous trip. I mean, fortunately, my parents were around long enough for them to be able to come back a few more times. I mean, I paid for them to come back each time. It was kind of, you know, there wouldn't have been able to afford to come, but my dad was just thrilled. And we managed to go before he passed away to a lot of the places he's always wanted to see. We drove out to South Dakota to see the Dakota Sioux lands because he'd read, you know so much about Wounded Knee and all the tragedies that have happened there. We went down the Grand Canyon and went to the Navajo territory and along the border between the US and Mexico, and Yuma and all these places. And then we went to Hollywood, because it's not quite kind of what everyone had imagined. I think my dad was a bit disappointed because he had this 1950s Hollywood and his mind and that's just the 1990s Hollywood wasn't quite the same, but he was still just completely thrilled to be there.
Rosenberg: And your then boyfriend, now husband, drove the RV the whole--
Hill: Yes, it's a miracle that we all survived all of this. I mean, just from him having to drive around I think it-- might my family were always a little bit like being in a in one of these British BBC America sitcoms, so I'm--you know, kind of fortunate, we didn't drive them completely mad. Because it was it was a fairly comedic kind of series of misadventures all the way along there. All kinds of very strange things happen and at one point, we got lost on the drive between Yellowstone and the Tetons. But a man in a pickup truck came kind of confused about where we were and what we were doing, and nobody else around and this guy in a pickup truck pulls up and he gets out and it's Harrison Ford. It was like 1991 and we were all kind of like “this man looks very familiar.” And my dad you know, could obviously like--peering and very close to—“I think I've seen him before,” very confused by it-- in a Stetson, and kind of looks, you know, like a guy with a ranch, which I guess you know, he was at the time, and the irony of all this is that before the cinema in my town closed down, we'd all lined up to go see Star Wars was the first film I ever saw on the last film I ever saw in a cinema in my hometown. And it was Harrison Ford directing it, you know, kind of on the right road. I really got lost in the Tetons. Anyway, so that was a kind of a nice, a nice moment for that trip.
Rosenberg: What a wonderful story. You know, I was thinking today actually as I was driving, that because of modern technology and GPS, we don't get lost anymore. And so, the odds of meeting Harrison Ford on a back road, somewhere around Yellowstone Park, I think are vastly diminished.
Hill: I think that's true. It's--which is sad, really, isn't it.
Rosenberg: Before you made it to Harvard, you went to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a fascinating place, as I understand it, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. How did you end up there?
Hill: Yeah, I mean, I was extremely lucky to go to university. I just want to make this clear. I mean, not everybody gets that opportunity. And when I was a kid growing up in the northeast of England, it was highly unlikely that I would be able to go to university. I was—I ended up being the first in my immediate family, although with some distant cousins who had gone to university and kind of blazed a trail, so I mean, I knew it was possible. But from the school I went to, Bishop Barton Comprehensive School, it wasn't an easy step from there, then a lot of women, or girls at that time didn't actually go on with their education. You know, they married and left school. It was secretarial work and you know other, we had to do shorthand and typing and all kinds of courses called Home Economics, which actually has come in very useful because I can do invisible darning and all kinds of things that you'd be surprised and how many useful skills I actually have as a result of that, to be honest. I was only in one of the early groups of people going into this as a new comprehensive school and the teachers were struggling with a curriculum, there was a kind of an awful lot of questions over the time there, whether they'd have the sort of resources to put into people doing A levels to go to university, the advanced level degree, so it was all kind of a bit fraught. But as I got along in the school, my local Member of Parliament at the time, a man named Derek Foster, who later became the chief whip of the Labour Party, very prominent in the Labour Party, he was just elected he took an interest in the school because it was a failing school at that point, it really needed a lot of effort to turn it around it had not fared well with a shift to a comprehensive school. And he came in and talk to myself and a number of the students who have gone on to do A levels and just gave us a pep talk, and basically said that our circumstances didn't have to be any kind of obstacle or barrier, and that we could do what we wanted to do, we could go to college--just because we were the kids of former miners, and a lot of people's fathers were unemployed in these periods, my dad wasn’t employed for periods of time when there was problems in the NHS and things as well--and we could overcome through education, education could be transformative. He was very active in the Salvation Army, and he himself had had a very difficult childhood growing up in Sunderland, this old industrial farm, a shipyard town, and he told us all his personal story and about how he turned his life around after a lot of difficulties. It was really inspiring. And he also promised to keep in touch, and he really did and I had a few teachers who really helped out as well. And so, they gave me a lot of advice about trying to go to college. And again, it wasn't a given, but I was very lucky. Also, at that time, children who were able to pass all of their exams, but they didn't have the means to go to college, were paid for by the Local Education Authority. So, I actually am in a--was in a unique position of basically getting grants to go to university once I wanted to go, once I got through the application process. So, I mean, I feel incredibly fortunate now looking back on this, that I actually had four years of colleges at St. Andrews was all through all this help in this mentorship of people, but also graduated without any debt, which is not something that people can do these days. And education was truly transformative for me. I look back on this, and I feel concerned that that isn't really within everyone's reach. Because for someone who came from really the bottom 1% of society to, you know, move through this transformational educational arc, this was really what put me on track for where I am today, but it's out of the reach for so many people now. And I do think looking back, if I was starting 20 or 30 years later, and I had to go into debt to do this, I wouldn't have gone to university because my parents had no money, and I would have been extremely anxious about not getting a job or not being able to help out with my family.
Rosenberg: It's the two points that you make, Fiona, not just going to university, but coming out, either debt free or relatively debt free, which enables you to do all the other things you ultimately did in your life. I wanted to ask you, I know you ended up at the University of St. Andrews, a wonderful, prestigious school, dates back to 1413, which is extraordinary, particularly for us Americans. But you had applied to Oxford, and went and interviewed there. And you tell an interesting story about what happened during that interview.
Hill: Yeah, that was actually the moment that it really crystallized for me about how much class discrimination really existed within, within Britain at that point. This is the 1980s, and you know, until that point, I had grown up in a sort of a working-class bubble. The whole of the town of Bishop Auckland, I mean, yes, there were people who lived in much better circumstances, or big houses and people were doctors and that kind of professions there, but my school was kind of somewhat mixed income, but we know pretty much everybody in a reasonably same level. There wasn't just sort of that feeling that we were in a kind of a massive underclass. I mean, that opportunity wasn't really there, that was obvious. But it was kind of--everybody was in the same boat. And although you know, the school wasn't doing well, I was, I was doing well at school along with a couple of other people, you know, we were doing really well in terms of some of the standardized exams and things. The school actually wanted to try to make a point, I think, to try to get some attention at the time, and trying to see if someone could apply to Oxford, and I had a teacher--and taken on the supervision of the small group of as they were doing the A levels--talked to me in a couple of the other students and asked if we would be willing to apply. People have a lot of prep for this. And I did it cold, I agreed to do it. The other two said, “No, we're never going to pass. This is stupid. Why would we do this?” And I just thought, well, it's worth trying, right? People are always telling you, you can't do something so you may as well try. I figured, okay, if I don't pass, don't pass. I've got these other—St. Andrews was actually my number one choice--I'd heard a lot about St. Andrews. I had a couple of neighbors I actually been to St. Andrews and I've been reading a lot about it. As you say, it was very attractive, the history, and my mom's family is originally from Scotland and all kinds of really amazing people have gone to St. Andrews over history. And I wanted to study Russian and I could do Russian from scratch at St. Andrews, which I wouldn't have been able to do at Oxford, because Russian wasn't available at my school. And I sat for the exam, it was horrifying. I mean, it's one of these, it's like one of those recurring nightmares that everybody has, you know, when you do a test, and you're not prepared, you don't know anything on the test. Well, that was pretty much what this was like. Because, you know, first of all, it was a test on partly on philosophy. And I didn't even know what philosophy was. I mean, I'll be quite frank, you know, here I am. I'm a kid from a, you know, an old industrial town in northern England. I'd like to open the encyclopedia, but I didn't know that as a whole discipline involved in it with all these famous philosophers. You know, I'd read a little bit, and I remember the question was about some famous philosopher’s theory of this or that and I thought, I have no idea, but I kind of, at least read what the general sense of the question was. So, I attempted to kind of make my own version of what I thought this might be about. And there were a couple of questions that I just had to kind of wing it. Needless to say, I failed, but I must have done something sufficiently thorough, okay, a little bit of creativity here. And I got invited to do what was called a “matriculation process.” So, in other words, you could go to either an in-person interview where they would talk to you about this. And there was one college there that specialized in applicants from non-grammar schools and not private schools, that were obviously well placed. They were trying to kind of increase the diversity of the student body. So, I got invited down for an interview there, never been to Oxford before. I you know, took lots of trains and buses and was a bit of a just an odyssey and a challenge just to get there. And my mum had made my outfit for me. So, you can just imagine there was--a lot of my clothes were made by my mother or they came from thrift stores there was a hand me down from an older cousin--and my mom and grandma thought I looked very smart, but I probably looked like--probably best not to dwell on what I might have looked like. I did feel very self-conscious anywhere. And remember, it's like the 80s, so we all had a kind of a slightly kind of dubious look in the back in the 80s. And when I got there, to the interview, there was just a whole group of girls who were clearly not from my background. And I did actually recognize one of the girls from a county sponsored exchange that I'd gone to, to begin in Germany. And she was from one of the local grammar schools. And she was very surprised to see me there. And I was just as surprised to see her too. And I started chatting with her thinking, “Oh, this is nice. I know someone.” And the other girls who were listening to us were kind of giving me a strange kind of look. And then, one of them said, very loudly, “I can't understand a word you're saying.” And I thought, “Oh, this is a bit strange.” And she kept saying, “What are you saying?” And then the other girl who was from my local area, but spoke, let's just say with, with just, a sort of posh voice, you know, more refined accent and I had said, “Oh, don't worry, I'll translate.” And I was like, “Oh, god, this is awful.” And then they were clearly making fun of what I was wearing. And it was one of these humiliating experiences when I realize that I just didn't fit in. I was a working-class kid, kind of from a poor background. And even though this was supposed to be an opportunity for people of different circumstances, it wasn't like that at all. And as I got up when they call my name to go in for the interview, one of the girls stuck our leg out, I tripped over it, smashed my nose off the door, and basically had a nosebleed. And I'm scrambling around trying to find the handkerchief that my grandma always stuck up my sleeve for emergencies, so I could hold my nose. And when I got into the study of the professor who was doing into interviews, he heard all of us through the door. So, he sort of sat me down, he actually gave me a handkerchief as well as my nose was bleeding quite a lot at this particular point. Now that's feeling, you know, mortified by all of this. And we had a long conversation and he's very honest and very frank, and I'm really grateful to him. I have no idea who he was. It's one of those moments where you, kind of blank out kind of out of humiliation most of the surrounding events, but he did actually look at my, my applications. I was going to look for, for university really talking honestly about what I wanted to do. And at that point, it was less of an interview and more of a kind of counseling session. And it was really saying like, I don't think this is the place for you, if you really want to do Russian, you can't do it here. You'll have to do politics, philosophy, and economics. In first PPE at Oxford, you might not enjoy that. It sounds like you really want to do this, and based on what you faced outside, you know, I hate to say it, but this is kind of more like what this is going to be like, it's going to be a tough adjustment, not to say that you won’t, but you've got some time, you've got these other places on your form here. You want to study Russian, you would really be able to do that there. And you know, you might find yourself happier. So, I actually feel very grateful to be honest, in retrospect, that this kind of happened. But it was a jolt. It was a real revelation about how discriminatory things really were--the Caste System in Britain, how entrenched it was. There was, you know, the first really big encounter, but I kept encountering it all the time after that. But, you know, this professor really did me a favor. He actually kind of gave me some advice about going up and visiting St. Andrews, going and talking to people, which I did after that. And you know, I'm very glad about the trajectory that I took. I've, I've no regrets about it.
Rosenberg: To my untrained American ear, I just want you to know that your accent sounds to me to be both as sophisticated and charming, Fiona.
Hill: Well, thanks. I mean, accents are a funny thing, aren’t they, because over time, obviously, my accent has changed so much and I use much more American vocabulary than I did. But accent was just like it is in the United States, but in the UK as well, it was a real marker, was definitely a kind of a class delineation, a long accent, and all the way along the way people kept saying to me, “you really should take elocution lessons, you should change your accent.” I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to be myself. And so, I became quite more determined to just to prove that I could do all these things that people were telling me I couldn't, without changing. Now, I feel here in the U.S., everyone has some kind of accent, so I actually feel quite comfortable here in that context.
Rosenberg: Were you happy at St. Andrews?
Hill: I loved it. It's, I mean, it's a really beautiful place. I felt extremely lucky to be there. It's one of the ancient universities, just a real privilege to be able to study at a place like that.
Rosenberg: And you learn to speak Russian while attending.
Hill: I did, I started it from scratch. And also, they were very good at career advice, which is another thing that I think is very important to bear in mind for how education can be transformative for poor kids. It's only transformative if you also have good mentorship along the way, because a lot of poor kids when they get to college, really struggle which I did, particularly with money. I mean, my parents had--I mean, they had no savings at all, they'd put all of their effort into buying a house because my father had been homeless for a period in the 1930s, during the height of the depression when his father was out of work for seven years. And so, my father, the one thing he wanted was to have a house and so no matter what, he wants to pay for that house, and you know, he had an unbelievably long 40 plus year mortgage through what was a building society, one of these sort of community banks, it's more of a kind of like a mutual fund. We have them in the US as well, and no matter what, he wanted to pay the mortgage. And we often didn’t have the electricity switched on, we didn't have a phone, we didn't have a car, we didn't have a TV, that we had the bare bones existence within the house for long periods of time to make sure that my dad, mom and dad could pay the mortgage, even at the toughest possible times. And so, when I went to college to university, it wasn't covered by the grant that I had for my Local Education Authority, I mean, I basically had to take on jobs. And in the first couple of years, and when I was studying Russian, I started to be really worried that I wouldn't get a job with Russian. But this was 1984, ’85, 8’6. Gorbachev was coming into play, but it was really before Perestroika and Gorbachev and Reagan, I'd wanted to study Russian because of the SS 20 Pershing missile crisis and the war scare of 1983, trying to figure out how we'd gone from being wartime allies with the Soviet Union, to enemies, and perhaps on the brink of a full blown nuclear confrontation within a relatively short period of time. At least you know, three decades, and at the beginning, it seemed like a great choice--but as I got into this, and I know this is a real period of upheaval in Britain in the 1980s, of closing down of major industry, very high unemployment, social upheaval with the reforms under Margaret Thatcher--and I started to think you know, how is a poor kid from County Durham going to find a job with Russia, this is ridiculous, I should be maybe doing something else. I've got to be able to have a job after this. And so, I went along to the St. Andrews counseling and Career Services. And they put me in touch with an alarm. And this alarm turned out to be George Robertson, who later became the defense minister in the UK, and also the NATO Secretary General at this point. He wasn't he was in love with some boundaries. And I wrote him a letter. I mean, an old-fashioned letter. This is before computers, and we didn't really have typewriters. We did a lot of our papers in that time in longhand form. So, I wrote “Dear Mr. Robertson, I wonder if you can give me some advice.” And he very kindly wrote back and we had a couple of exchanges of letters, and he told me to stick with it and I was sure I would a job. And then, if I ever had a problem I could write to him. And he gave me some suggestions of other people to talk to. And so, all the way along the line, there was these mentoring opportunities, I might have dropped out, other people did, there was only a handful really, of working class kids at the University at that time, and they were all struggling. And you know, kind of really worried about how we were going to end make ends meet. We all had multiple jobs, and how we were going to finish this up and in the holidays, you know, we couldn't go and do internships, we had to just have paid work.
Rosenberg: But another way is you were lucky. For instance, George Robertson wrote back to you, maybe at a time when if you didn't have some guidance or direction, you might have given up on the whole project.
Hill: That's right. And I do feel very lucky about that. I mean, I think that's kind of part of the story of most people’s success. There's luck, there's hard work, but there's also you know, the time that other people take to help people. I mean, that's something that I feel very strongly about it’s really what drew me towards public service is giving back. There's no way that I would ever have done any of the things that I've done in my career, or even being able to go to university without the help of everyone from my local MP who really took his public service very seriously, inspirational teachers, some extended family members who had done well, neighbors, and you pay it forward, everything that's helped you along the way, and you pay it back, you kind of, when you've been given assistance, you have to do the same.
Rosenberg: You can do something for those who come after you the way they did for you.
Rosenberg: While you were at St. Andrews, you encountered another professor who counseled you about the availability of graduate student scholarships, which led you ultimately to Harvard.
Hill: Yes, that's right, that professor is actually Bob Legvold, who's a professor emeritus from Columbia, and I met with him on another of these chance encounters when I had a scholarship to study for a year in the Soviet Union. So, this is 1987, 1988. And my professor at St. Andrews encouraged me to do this year abroad, it was run by an affiliate of the British Council, I mean very similar to the programs that are available here for United States students as well who were studying languages that sort of seem to do a study abroad for a semester or for a year. And this was the only yearlong program and it was an exchange program. It was a really fearful period, because again, it's a bit of luck because it's, you know, we went out there in September 1987, just before the INF Treaty was signed, in the middle of all a Gorbachev Reagan cemetery, the peak of Perestroika, it was an amazing time to be there. And toward the end of that period was the famous Gorbachev Reagan Summit in Moscow, where Reagan and Nancy came to Moscow, they did their walkabout Red Square. Ronald Reagan gave his famous address at Moscow State University, and all of the major U.S. TV stations came to do their news programs from Moscow, and they were looking for anybody who could speak English, really. So, every English speaking student applied to, and got, frankly, even if we have quirky accents like mine, to be stringers for all of the different programs, and I was assigned to NBC News and I did all kinds of strange things from spraying Tom Brokaw’s hair to stop it from blowing around at the top of the Rossiya Hotel overlooking the—well, the Rossiya Hotel’s not there anymore--but this is a famous spot because it just overlooks the Kremlin, to be filmed from as he was doing the nightly news and it was pretty windy and I was there with my kind of hairspray the whole time and also liaising in Russian with the camera crews because they took up all these Russian camera crews as well. Got to take camera crews around Red Square during the famous book about to Moscow State University in some of these human-interest stories covering Russian kids playing baseball and it was a lot of fun. It was also pretty intense. We were there just the entire time he had to go and go and sleep on the floor the receiver and I was at one point asked to go and make some coffee for Maria Shriver in one of the rooms, and you know, being from the UK at that time, coffee was pretty disgusting, fair in the north of England, and University, I don't think I've ever made anything more than Nescafe. I had never been confronted before by drip coffee, and I stood mesmerized by this device in front of me thought, “What am I doing with this?” And I was standing there trying to figure out how it work, pressing buttons, and when do you put the water is ridiculous. I'd be much happier if it asked me to make a cup of tea or something. And then this professor came in and I bought this point, I'm making a mess and said to me, what are you doing? Can I help? And I explained I was a stupid idiot, a British student who'd never been confronted by a coffee maker before and I wasn't really sure where everything went. Because as soon as he showed me I felt like even a bigger idiot because it was so obvious but hadn't been. And it is a you know, is having this brief conversation with me. He asked me what am I doing? Where am I from? What am I thinking of doing in the future? And so, I didn't really know and this was so exciting being here, and I'd never been to America. This was so fascinating. All of these insights. I'd had an uncle who had immigrated and I had some distant relatives, but he always wanted to go and he said, “Well, you must, there are scholarships.” And so, of course, I brightened up and I suppose How do I, how do I find out about them, and he told me to go first to the British Embassy, to talk to the cultural attaché there, and then to check the cultural section of the US Embassy. And when I asked the cultural attaché at the British Embassy, who was kind of supervising our program, it turned out he had had a scholarship to Harvard, the same scholarship that I ended up on, doing the same master's program at the then, Russian Research Center. And he said he would help me apply. So again, it's one of these chance encounters. And again, somebody else who is willing to help you out.
Rosenberg: And you spent a number of years at Harvard getting both a master's degree and a PhD, and concentrating your studies on history and on Eurasia and Russia, and on through the geopolitical climate of that part of the world. Did you like your time there?
Hill: I did. It was an amazing time to be there, Chuck. Again, I mean, timing is often everything in life, as we all know. And I arrived in the fall of 1989, and few weeks in the Berlin Wall came down. So, this was--just everything. thing was happening in real time. I feel like I mean, all of us, we're always living history at all times. I mean, history is the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we tell it to ourselves, about all the things that have happened, and some periods seem a little slow. Other times, it seems to be accelerated. I went to university, first at St. Andrews in 1984, and then again, pretty critical time with a war scare, where we look like we might end up in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. I go to St. Andrews in 1989, having just been in the Soviet Union in ’87 and ‘88, where Gorbachev and Reagan seem to settle the arms race, and then in 1989, it's the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the old Eastern Bloc. So, my studies, first of my master's degree, span from the end of the Berlin Wall, to just before the fall of the Soviet Union. And it's really that process of actually getting a master's degree in Soviet studies, which is obsolete by, you know, in a matter of months, that makes you then decide to study history. I got a job, actually, on campus, I mean, again, I always had to find jobs. But fortunately, this was possible with my student visa, with Professor Graham Allison at the Kennedy School, who was in the process of working on technical assistance projects with Soviet counterparts, the so called “grand bargain,” where he in a group of economists were trying to figure out how to help the Soviet Union, then later, Russia, with its transformation and talking about a kind of Marshall Plan for the Soviet Union that might help it put it on a different trajectory. So, I get this kind of job, first of all, just translating for them based on the time that I'd spent in Soviet Union, Russia, really perfecting my Russian language skills. And it's kind of through that, that I decided to then also do a PhD at Harvard in history, but I keep on working for Graham Allison during this period, because I frankly, couldn't afford not to. There was fewer grants available. Once I got to the U.S., I was a foreign student, but I was no longer eligible to apply for grants back in the UK not being a US citizen. There were limited opportunities, so I did a lot of this work at the Kennedy School at the same time that I then studied to do the PhD
Rosenberg: In the small world department, Fiona, Graham Allison was also one of my professors when I was at Harvard, although I can assure you, he couldn't pick me out of the lineup today, but would claim, I'm sure, properly so, to be very proud of you and all of your accomplishments since you were there.
Hill: Well, he was another great mentor to have. I mean, he was a really tough boss, kind of kept your feet to the fire. And when I was sort of floundering around, also thinking about pulling out of the Ph. D. program, because again, I was kind of worried about how I was going to find the funding to finish this off, I couldn't really afford to not work, I had no resources and at different points, I was actually living on friend's sofas because I couldn't afford rent. And then, I was a tutor in one of the undergraduate houses, you know, because again, that was sort of paid employment as well in terms of you were given housing in return for mentoring other students and kind of helping them out. I was kind of cobbling together that kind of funding to get me through the grad school and every time I hit an obstacle, you know, Graham would give me a push. And in fact, at the very end of my PhD, when I was worried about finishing, Graham said he would give me a three-month leave. And he would check up on me every single day to make sure that I was writing. He would actually send people around, he wrote to me, to me, it's a great thing he did--he arranged me to have an office in one of the libraries, and every day he'd send someone around at five o'clock to make sure I wasn't procrastinating. Sometimes I got busted playing hearts because you're having this mental breakdown and I got very good at paying hearts on the computer, but I was terrified, if I didn't get my requisite writing done that Graham would kind of basically have me over hot coals. And of course, there was also the incentive because I had to finish because I financially couldn't afford not to. He really did me a lot of favors, and you need that tough love. You know, you need to have somebody on your case all the time to get through things.
Rosenberg: Well, the people that have sent to spy on you, it obviously worked because in 1998, you earned your PhD from Harvard, you became Dr. Fiona Hill, and I gather you decided to stay in the United States. In fact, a few short years later, you became a US citizen. And I wanted to ask you about that. How did you make that decision?
Hill: Well, a lot of it had to do with the opportunities that the U.S. gave me. I'm really impressed by how Harvard really sought out to have a diverse student body. But you know, they, in the case of Harvard's recruitment of me to the scholarship program, they were very cognizant the fact that I came from a poor socio-economic background and made every effort, when I saw when I was there, and I was there for quite some time, to reach out to all kinds of different students, to actually just reach out to tell people that scholarships are available, and to really try to scope, mix up the student body and there was a lot of support there, too. There were different periods where, you know, Harvard didn't do such a great job, but they've always tried to kind of reform that to give students what they need to, to finish. I mean, there was a period when I was there in the 90s, when that wasn't the case, but they did address that after a series of problems in the, the graduate school, and now they have the funding available. I'm actually on the graduate school Alumni Association now too, because I want to help give that back. Because they always help people find funding as well. So, I mean, part of that was kind of really, I thought to myself, gosh, these guys are giving me so much opportunity here. And I've really become committed to the United States and to, you know, states foreign policy. I also married my earlier boyfriend, we had a very long relationship before we did get married. Clearly, that created a different perspective. He wasn't too thrilled on the idea of moving to the UK for a variety of different reasons. I really felt that I could do something really productive in the United States to give back. And then, the real impetus to want to serve the US government came with 911 like everybody else, I was deeply affected by that. I knew people who died, family of close friends. I had a friend who went through absolutely horrors on the phone with me, just started a new job in New York on that day and I was on the phone with him and everything was happening and they managed to escape from I mean, it was very deeply traumatic for everyone. And I feel very traumatic as well, because I'd only just really started working at Brookings then and was kind of in real time watching everything and seeing the smoke coming up from the Pentagon and knowing people in the Pentagon and I just had a dreadful experience while there's a deep trauma for the country. Growing up in the UK during the troubles with Ireland and bombing attacks and very complex situation, obviously, and so really, that was, for me, a turning point where I wanted to serve the government and becoming a citizen was very important. I wanted to do something. I know a lot of people served into the military. I mean, I guess that wasn't really an option for me, but I wanted to do something, find a way that I could serve.
Rosenberg: Where and when were you naturalized?
Hill: I actually was naturalized in Baltimore, 2002. I already moved down to the DC area at that point. And so, I was a resident in Maryland, and my, and my naturalization was in one of the big county, kind of municipal buildings in Baltimore, wasn't particularly attractive site, but it was very moving, with 100 other people, you know, also going through the same naturalization ceremony.
Rosenberg: Do you remember taking the oath of citizenship?
Hill: I do, very clearly. And also, doing the preparation for the exam, a civics exam. That was also, I mean, although it's relatively straightforward, multiple choice, it's an important rite of passage, you know, reading the constitution and reading about many of the parts of history of the United states that I hadn't really delved into. I mean, I knew quite a lot beforehand. As I said, my father was really, really interested in US history, we had a lot of books around that my dad had picked up at various library sales when they were decommissioning, or we used to cycle around to old estate sales and pick up books and stick them in a backpack and bring them back and things like that. My dad had a really eclectic collection of kind of books on the US Civil War and the US and World War II and Native America. History and the history of the West, it was kind of--I've read all kinds of different things. But there were lots of big gaps out of my new education having not grown up here, but I think that was a very important rite of passage. I even had to take the English test. I was offended at first, I thought, “but it's my native language.”
Rosenberg: How did you do?
Hill: I did okay, yeah. I mean, the funny thing is, though, that the person who was administering it said to me, “but you have an accent,” and I said, “Yes, but it's actually a sort of English accent. It's a northeast of English accent.” The lady was administering the test was Polish. And I said, “I guess we both have accents then.” I had to read out a little passage, which essentially started off at the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France. I can't remember the rest of the passage, but I remember the opening line.
Rosenberg: Now, Fiona, you did get a chance to serve in the US government, I believe, for the first time at the National Intelligence Council, under President George Bush and later, under President Barack Obama. Tell us a little bit about that. What the National Intelligence Council is and what you did there?
Hill: Well, the National Intelligence Council is the coordinating body for all of the analysis that is produced by the intelligence agencies in the United States. It's, in some respects, also a bit of a kind of an in house think tank. It produces all of the national intelligence assessments and some of the long-range forecasting reports that the US government does, like global trends, and it also convenes workshops for government agencies, bringing in outside experts and does briefings for principals for senior officials. The National Intelligence Council has been in existence for quite a long time, but it was folded into the Director of National Intelligence and the reforms that came after 9/11. And, you know, to try to really increase the coordination among the agencies after the 9/11 report came out and then, you know, especially also, after the mistakes that were made in the lead up to the war in Iraq, about Iraq weapons of mass destruction, there was a kind of a desire to sort of shake up the intelligence community even further on the analytical parts of this. And to try to actually bring more people in from the outside like myself who were nonpartisan experts, but who would bring a sort of a fresh perspective to the National Intelligence Council. So, as I got joined there, I succeeded. Another, actually originally British Professor, Angela Stent, professor at Georgetown, who had done a two-year leave of absence from Georgetown to do this, and was also going to kind of brought in as the National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia as part of this kind of shake up. And I succeeded her and came in on loan from the Brookings Institution for a maximum of a four-year period, but actually did three and a half years there, which took me from the end of the presidency of George W. Bush, to essentially the first year of Barack Obama's presidency.
Rosenberg: The whole idea behind the analysis that you do and your colleagues did at the National Intelligence Council is to provide the president and national security decision makers with nonpartisan, unvarnished intelligence and analysis. This has nothing to do with politics. Is that a fair statement?
Hill: That's absolutely correct, yes.
Rosenberg: Why is that so important?
Hill: Well it is extremely important because what we'd experienced both after 9/11, and then after 2003, with the decision to in the United States to invade Iraq, was that a lot of our perceptions, judgments and conclusions had been distorted by either a lack of coordination during 9/11 and sometimes misreading of some of the analysis because people you know, were not able to put it into a context and overall context, they might have had some data points of warning signs, some blinking red in many cases about an impending attack, but they didn't have the overall context. There's lots of fights between the different agencies, turf battles, essentially, about information and this was intended to overcome those obstacles and to get closer and tighter coordination and information sharing. And then on the other hand, in the case of Iraq, there was kind of more of distortion of the analysis to fit the policy of, you know, basically, we were, we were running towards a collision with the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein. People were seeing more of what they wanted to see in the analysis. And they weren't basically being told that what they were wanting to see in the analysis was not there, or that there was alternative information. And so, there was, you know, the kind of the fears of this had been, the analysis has been politicized, that it had been shaped to fit a prevailing policy, and that we were kind of cherry picking the information. So, the whole goal of the reform of the National Intelligence Council, this took part in, was to remove tried to remove the biases and the politicization this information so that people getting just the unvarnished information to draw conclusions from. You may want to have a particular policy outcome, but it may be based on completely erroneous information, and so, The National Intelligence Council, the analysts, have to stay above the fray, and opt to be part of the political discourse to provide that information, then it's up to the policymakers to make those decisions. But we shouldn't be having the distorted analysis. People have to be able to have the facts that they can make judgments.
Rosenberg: And was that your experience that the analysts in fact state above the fray and provided a political, unvarnished intelligence to policymakers?
Hill: It certainly was in the time that I was there, absolutely. And there was an awful lot of effort made to work with people to have seminars and work training events, to get people to understand where bias comes from. And all of us had to do this, also ethics and, you know, many other training programs to try to address all of the problems that have been seen. After, you know, we did a full inquiry of what have gone wrong, both in the lead up to the 9/11 attacks, and then in the lead up to the decision to go into Iraq. And it was a constant period, but, by the way too, Chuck, you know, constant questioning of the analysis, we always have to kind of go back and look at it all again. And I had to take part in many hearings, you know, Congress and a lot of scrutiny by policymakers about wanting to sort of delve into how our, this analysis come about into the conclusions. So, we had to be able to sort of defend what we've done.
Rosenberg: Fiona, you went back to the Brookings Institution for eight or nine years, but in 2017, when Donald Trump became president, you were drawn back into government service this time, not as part of the National Intelligence Council, but as part of the National Security Council, a different thing. What is the National Security Council? And what was your role there?
Hill: Well, the National Security Council is the policy coordinating body for the US executive branch. In many respects, the role that I played was not that dissimilar from the role that I played at the National Intelligence Council, which is coordinating and synthesizing and pulling together all of the analysis and you know, providing briefings for principals in the government from the president down, and basically getting all the agencies together to give you their best conclusions. In this case, it's playing the role for the policy, so the role as a coordinator of all of the policy input going upwards to the President and the National Security Council, obviously a national security adviser, who is the main filter of that information, but it's bringing in all of the input for different policies from across all of the government. The intelligence community provides some of that input, they usually provide the analysis, the analytical framework for the policy discussions, and then the National Security Council is pulling all of this together for policy documents that go on then, to, to brief the president. And in this case, instead of just focused on Russia and Eurasia, the former Soviet Union, I also had all of Europe, which included Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, and parts of Eurasia, not Central Asia, that had gone that had gone to South Asia, to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I also had NATO and the European Union. So, the institutional parts of Europe as well, we had the Vatican, for example, and some of the other groupings that fall into this. And our job was to coordinate anything that came into the purview of that larger region. And to also work very closely with other parts of the National Security Council that were focused on more functional operational issues: cyber security, energy, security, counterterrorism, intelligence, and then, to obviously work with other regional directorates on Asia, covering China, for example, and North Korea and Middle East. You know, obviously, there was a lot going on in the timeframe that I was there that required a lot of cross coordination across the National Security Council, not just coordination with the various agencies, state department, Defense Department, FBI, you know, you could go down the whole list of all of the different agencies.
Rosenberg: The National Intelligence Council is part of the intelligence community, and reports to the Director of National Intelligence, and National Security Council is part of the Executive Office of the President. But I imagine, and I hope you'll tell me one way or the other, whether I'm right, that you still are in a nonpartisan role, meaning, your analysis, your intelligence, and your recommendations are delivered to policymakers in a nonpartisan fashion.
Hill: That's certainly the intent of the National Security Council. I mean, the National Security Council is, is set up separately from the staff of the Whitehouse, reside in the West Wing, and many people who come on to the National Security Council, particularly the director level, detailees from the various agencies. So, in the Directorate that I presided over there, as the senior director, I had another fellow Senior Director for the first year or so that I was there, we had detailees from the State Department, from the Pentagon, some from the intelligence agencies, from the Department of Treasury, for example, and other directorates that might be people from the Coast Guard, Commerce Department, Department of Energy, all over the different parts of the US government. And the vice president stuff is also kind of generally located in the kind of the National Security Council buildings as well, and he has a separate, smaller staff doing similar things. I was actually technically a political appointee, but I was appointed on the basis of my professional expertise. And there are a number of other, you know, similar people who are appointees, some people had been on the campaign, some people had come out of the permanent apparatus of the Republican Party, or they'd come from over on Capitol Hill from the staffs of congressmen or senators, for example.
Rosenberg: It's a different mixture of people from a different mix of backgrounds. Nevertheless, as you said, the intent was to provide nonpartisan advice to policymakers.
Hill: Yeah, I think the advice has to be informed by the policy and obviously by the politics of the President. And no matter who that is, I mean, National Security Council staff work for the President. And their role is to give the president the best possible policy advice. And it's then up to the president and his most senior staff, the National Security Adviser, or the cabinet members, to then devise that policy, and then it's for the National Security Council staff to then oversee, and to help coordinate the implementation of the policy decisions that they make. But I think that most of the people who were in the National Security Council see their role as providing the best possible advice based on a combination of the intelligence assessments and analysis that they're getting from the intelligence community filtered either through the National Intelligence Council or the CIA or other agencies, you know, directly. And then, from the policy advice from the in a relatively senior level up to the assistant secretaries from the various departments and agencies, who are working on this 24/7 on the various issues, and that then gets filtered up to the deputy secretaries. And then from some to the secretaries and then to the President. And so, the National Security Council also helps to provide all of the materials for the deputies’ meetings, and then for the cabinet level meetings, where decisions are made, as well as to the president themselves through the National Security Adviser. So, I mean, it's, you know, a little bit of a complex system, but actually thinking of when it works, well, it works very well.
Rosenberg: I understand you had a broader portfolio on the National Security Council then, when you served on the National Intelligence Council. That said, I was going to ask you to focus on something you know very well: Russia. And just to explain, and not in a partisan way at all, what happened in 2016? What Russia did with respect to our elections, and why it remains a threat to the United States?
Hill: Well, in 2016, Russia saw an opportunity to both attempt to interfere and to influence our elections. And I use those two terms deliberately, because interference is really the kind of act of trying to physically tamper in some way with the electoral systems. And, you know, we know that the Russians certainly attempted that. But we don't have any evidence to suggest that they were able to actually alter the vote count in any way or the actual voting. I think they were trying to mess with us as much as anything else, as well as to probe and to see what they could actually do. Influences, something kind of different here, we could call it hacking the minds, but it's something that the Russians and the Soviet Union and even Czarist Russia and other countries have done for centuries is trying to sort of influence the opinions and other countries, and I mean, centuries, you know, back in the day, the 18th century, rumors was spread, pamphlets were produced. If we look at American history, there was certainly an awful lot of activity around the time of American revolution of people sending around pamphlets and trying to influence the opinion of key people trying to discredit key officials, and all suddenly lots of terrible things written about George Washington and, you know, attempts to discredit the revolutionaries by the British government. And this is something that's—we’ve been living with, for a very long time. In the Soviet period, the Soviet government and their intelligence service became the masters at basically disinformation, deception, and you know, what was called “active measures.” There's actually an excellent new book that has just been produced by Thomas Rid, a German scholar who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins, which gives you a kind of a at least a history of the last century of active measures, and disinformation and brings the story up to 2016 and explains about why the Russians might have decided to launch some of these activities. I mean, in part, I wrote a book while I was at Harvard with a co-author, on Putin, and explored the way in which Putin's own perceptions of the United States were formed by being a KGB agent. I mean, he is somebody who was trained in active measures and deception and disinformation. And he's been convinced, right, his whole career, he joined the KGB in the 1970s, the peak of a Cold War, that the United States has been trying to subvert politics in the Soviet Union, which indeed we were doing during the Cold War. And then later in Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when in actual fact, we were rolling back all of our activities, we moved on, you know, by the end of the Cold War, we didn't see ourselves in a geopolitical struggle with Russia. And we certainly weren't doing half the things that the Russians thought we were. But Putin is of a mindset that the United States is the main adversary and the United States never really got out of the business of trying to subvert or undermine the Russian system. And when he faces protests, when he seeks reelection as president again in 2011/2012, he's convinced that the United States was behind these protests, because the kind of paranoia of the Soviet system, which of course, wasn't baseless, back in the day during the Cold War is a belief that everything is orchestrated by external enemies and that the United States had played a role in whipping up these protests like they had done in the past. And Putin is of the mind that just because he hasn't been unable to unearth US plots doesn't mean that they don't exist just that his guys haven't tried hard enough to find them. And so, putting this becomes convinced in this time period that we've been out to get him that we don't want him to return as president and certainly true that there was, you know, a lot of backlash in the West and elsewhere when he returns to becoming president often stepped away for a period of time. And a lot of preference expressed for the continuation of the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev had been seen as a warm, fuzzy kind of version of Putin. And this was the period of the reset under the Obama administration, and hope for putting the Russian relationships on a different trajectory. So sometime after returning to Office 2012/2013, Putin makes a decision to see if he can get payback against the United States and his intelligence services, and so along this continuum, they see an opportunity given the mounting polarization in US politics, to do something similar to what they've done in other countries in terms of trying to interfere and influence in elections in the neighborhood in Eastern Europe, as they've done in the past, and in the former Soviet republics, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. In the United States, our politics have become, over time, so partisan, so polarized, we are of basically drawing on a lot of the divisions and inconsistencies and inequalities in US political system. And the rise of social media gives them an opportunity to do things that they've never really been able to do before. So, you know, what we see is that the Russians launching in parallel to this attempt to interfere in some way, and the actual electoral systems are massive, and what I mean massive, is because of the amplification effect of social media influence operation, doing many of the same things they ever did during the Soviet period and pointing out racial disparities, gender and identity wars, that they did all of this in the past, but really, you know, kind of coming up with fake us personas, sending out information that's created by us political action committees opposition research, or by our own conspiracy theories, amplifying this, and sending it out using Russia today, RT, Sputnik radio, but a whole host of our own social media platforms to really try to influence US public opinion in ways of either discouraging people about the legitimacy of the electoral system, discouraging them for voting, and to delegitimize the whole election process leading up to the presidential election. I mean, my view and the view of many of my colleagues I work with in the intelligence community, over the years, is they wanted to actually discredit the whole system. Because part of this is kind of paying back for all the questions about the legitimacy of Putin's returning to the presidency, for all the protests, and for all of the Russian public opinion that kind of showed that they were themselves questioning the legitimacy of the outcome of their own presidential election. Putin wanted to take the sting out of US election observance and all of the pronouncements of the US government's makes on the legitimacy of elections in Russia and elsewhere, internationally.
Rosenberg: And, Fiona, every reason to think because they succeeded in 2016, that they will do this again and again, and again, something we have to be mindful of, as we go forward.
Hill: Well, what they did succeed in is sewing in chaos and doubt. And actually getting a lot of Americans to question the legitimacy of the outcome. I mean, my belief is that this, whoever became president in 2016, would have been faced by the same questions of legitimacy, whether the outcome was valid, one way or another. And that's really kind of what the whole exercise was about. Now, you know, the Russians did experience a lot of penalties for this, the Congress sanctions, you know, we caught them out on a lot of activities, it'll be much more difficult for them to do some of the same things that they did in 2016. We saw in 2018, in the midterm elections, that it was harder for them to, certainly on the system side of the interference side. But in terms of now, the influence, you know, there are a lot of things have been set in motion, that have deep roots in our own political divisions. The Russians actually don't really have to do too much to divide us against ourselves. And what we have to remember about these disinformation operations: this is the politicization, the weaponization of misinformation, you know, that's kind of again set out to sew doubt and discord, and, you know, kind of create chaos and to kind of really get Americans fighting among themselves. Now, we're doing a lot of this to ourselves, too. I mean, in actual fact, adversaries like Russia don't really have to do so much. The tragedy of this is in fact that we were all seeking to put the relationship with Russia on a different trajectory. A lot of what the Russians have been doing has been on autopilot and muscle memory from the Soviet period. And power produced by the fact that their intelligence service has been used to the United States has been the main adversary. They don't want to get themselves into a clash with China, the rising power, and who is the intelligence services going to be targeting if it's not the United States. It is not the same demand for their services if they're not seeing China as a major threat, in a way they want to see a continued threat from the United States. And again, the tragedy is we are not engaged in any kind of geopolitical struggle with Russia. And in fact, the long trajectory, going back to the Reagan administration when I was in the Soviet Union in 1987, through every single successive government, Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now to President Trump, has been a threat of trying to improve the relationship with Russia. This is why this was such a jolt in 2016. The Obama administration tried to reset, George W. Bush had famously locked into Putin’s soul. We had a whole effort on the part of the US presidents to try to put this on a different trajectory. So, what happened in 2016 is also a tragedy. I mean, it comes out of Russia's perception of being pushed around, you know, many decisions that the United States made to intervene in Iraq and elsewhere. There's a long and complex story behind this. But 2016 is also a tragedy, because there is no need for us to be in this crazy confrontation with the Russians at this particular juncture. This is not the Cold War, still going through the Cold War motions, but without the fundamental basis of the confrontation, even though we still clearly have the capability to annihilate each other, through our nuclear arsenals.
Rosenberg: Is a reset possible?
Hill: Well, not at this particular juncture, no. I mean, if we see restraint on the part of the Russians that you know, no efforts to kind of make the situation any worse than it already is. Here in the US again, the polarization is produced by our own politics. And you know, the only do--our own divisions in our society, the Russians through us accelerant or fuel onto this fire in 2016. And clearly, they played a major role in all of the debates about the legitimacy of the presidency and of the outcome in 2016. And that's obviously what they intended to do. We can, ourselves, have a serious rational discussion about where we want the relationship with Russia to, but we have to stop using Russia as part of our domestic politics. I mean, Russia, and you know, kind of dealing with the outcome of 2016, has become as much of our domestic politics has become an element of foreign policy. And we haven't been able to have a rational discussion about what kind of arms control arrangements do we want to have with Russia in a much more complex, multipolar nuclear world where we have to factor in China and North Korea and Iran and a whole bunch of other nuclear powers or want to be nuclear powers. We need to have a discussion about where we see Russia fitting in as inevitably a neighbor of Europe and where it fits into European security and future economic, global relations. You know, how will Russia's relationship with China and others play out over time, the whole relationship with Russia was changed. And we had to have to have a serious conversation about that, but we can't do that when we're ripping each other apart still about what happened in 2016.
Rosenberg: Fiona, you're out of government now, back at the Brookings Institution, I guess I have two final questions for you: do you miss government service? And would you consider serving again?
Hill: I came out of this experience of trying to deal with Russia, but also in the context of our overall relationships with Europe, realizing that actually, we need to get our own domestic house in order, and that perhaps the role that I was playing in the executive branch to the National Security Council, was not perhaps the most productive role I could play at this juncture. When I went in, I'd set myself a two-year timeframe in which to work because I mean, I knew how toxic the domestic political environment was and being a nonpartisan nonpolitical person. I mean, I do believe you can be very politically engaged without being partisan, but the current environment is very different to get that across. And you know, if I continued within the executive branch, I was more likely to become more of the problem rather than the solution. Because as we get into the presidential campaign, things are becoming much more partisan even than they were before, which was, you know, a bit of a high bar already, and certainly, very politicized, even if not political, and I want to be able to keep speaking not just the truth to power, but to get out there and talk to much broader audiences about what's happening, just the facts, information. And to be honest, I felt like I needed to do that. And I could do that better by returning to Brookings, so that this is not the time, you know, to be in the government. I mean, I really feel at this point that we need to have a national conversation about where we are. And Brookings Institution of the think tanks, lots of entities can do this, there's clearly--you know, your podcast, Chuck, and many others who are out there trying to have conversations with America at large. There are 30 million Americans, we all have agency. And you know, I worry sometimes that the way that we look at politics, it's almost like a video game. That you know, the people that we select for political office, be that as governors or congressmen or senators or presidents or like back as avatars, we forget that we have a role to play, all of us. We can do something in our community, we can do something at the local government level, at the state level, we can serve our fellow citizens by volunteering, and we can also have multiple discussions with everybody. I mean, Brookings has a public outward facing role to play. I have a lot of great colleagues there who are doing amazing research and all the different issues that are troubling the United States today on economic issues, social issues, political issues, and foreign policy. Well, we can explain to people without the politics involved, without the parties on politics involved, what the issues are and how we deal with them. I mean, these are high stakes issues, and we need to have the best possible information available to make decisions and everybody has to be part of that discussion. There are people across America whose family members are serving the country. And after 9/11, I wanted to serve in some way as well. When I worked in the National Security Council, I worked with amazing group of people, men and women, who had volunteered to serve after 9/11. I served with many people, our Purple Hearts, who had been injured in Afghanistan and in Iraq and people who were earlier gone to the Balkans and peacekeeping missions, just amazing men and women from all kinds of backgrounds in the United States, many from backgrounds like my own, and that, for me, is what really makes America great. And what we know kind of is the service spirit in America, people from all parts of a country. The, you know, the public servants I work with are not some kind of exclusive cast of people. There's not some kind of class element in this. They're from all over the United States. And it was a really rich experience. It was the best professional experience I've ever had serving with them, you know, in the National Security Council as well as before in the National Intelligence Council. I think you know, people across America need to know that, that we all have urgency. We all have ability to do something we our ability to give something back to the country. We're all in this together. It's the United States of America, we shouldn't be divided against each other. And that's what I learned. And that's why I, you know, I want to come back now and be in a more public role. It doesn't rule out service at some point again, but not now.
Rosenberg: But then to your point of view, Fiona, that there are so many ways to serve. The way I asked the question, I think I had asked it, imprudently and in a narrow way, but you're quite right. You can serve in your community, you can serve in your place of worship, you can serve in your school, you can serve just by doing what do you do, being at a place like Brookings and talking and thinking about issues that are important to all of us as Americans. I, I should also add, that as Americans, we are incredibly fortunate that someone like you, from the northeast of England and a humble background, found your way to St. Andrews and to Harvard into the United States and became a citizen of this great country. We're very lucky to have you
Hill: Well, I'm very lucky to be here, Chuck, and I keep thinking, what would I have ended up doing if my dad had emigrated to the to the Lehigh Valley. So, I also thought, you know, to come here as well, but from a very different route. I mean, I came along as an adult, but I might have come, like many people come, as a child, with my, with my parents or being born here, you know, a very different trajectory. But I'm very fortunate to be here. And I'd like to give back and find ways of getting other people to give back as well. I mean, we can all do this. Communities can pull together, even at the worst of times, people pull together in small towns in America. It's why people stay there and they live in them. You know, my American family, small towns in South Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, you know, they're all over this country, Colorado. I have a very large extended family and they all do something you know, they all volunteer through their churches. My mom, back in the northeast of England, though she can't now because she's 85 and has to shelter in place at home, she's spent, you know, all of the years since my, my dad passed away volunteering at our local community church, where she's also a member of the congregation. That's also the local Crisis Center. You know the UK, as well as kind of a fusion of, you know, faith based philanthropy, you know, like there is many cases here in the US and this church has also functions as the crisis community center have 600 people who are dependent they're in a small town on food packages, the food bank is there, you know, the kind of the thrift store for giving people clothing and furniture and things after helping them get back on their feet again, and I see that all the way across the United States and many of my extended family are involved in in a similar activities here as well. It's a very important part of American and we need to build on that. It's not just at the top. In fact, it's less likely at the top that things are going to be resolved. It's really the community level upwards. And we need the right framework in which to fix things, but we can fix things for ourselves. One person, congressperson, Senator, Governor, President is not going to do that for us. We all have to be part of this.
Rosenberg: I think that's an important point. In fact, the way in which most Americans interact with government is at the local and community levels, not at the federal level, we spend a lot of time and a lot of energy talking about the federal government and federal politics. But really, it's the school board, it's the police department, it's the county council, with whom we regularly interact. And that's where the solution most likely lies, to your point.
Hill: Yeah. And, you know, I think that this is going to be a time, not just because of the election, but for the next, you know, several years, of deep reflection and reassessment here. We have so much to do still on race relations and all kinds of forms of discrimination and inequality. There are so many people, you know, really hurting, you know, economically here in America, and we can only deal with this if we all pull in together.
Rosenberg: Well, I maintain what I said earlier, Fiona, we're better and richer because you decided to come be a part of this great experiment in the United states. Thank you for that, and for your service, and also for spending some time with us on The Oath podcast
Hill: Thank you very much Chuck, thank you for being able to talk to you and tell a bit of my story and everyday very thankful to be here. I really am.
Rosenberg: Well, it's a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it.
Hill: Thanks, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Thanks to Fiona Hill for being my guest on The Oath. From the Industrial Northeast of England, to Harvard and the United States, Fiona has had a remarkable journey. A naturalized American citizen, she served at the highest levels in the US government, on both the National Intelligence Council, under presidents Bush and Obama, and ultimately, on the National Security Council under President Trump. Fiona is deeply respected for her expertise on Russia and Eurasia, and widely admired for her honesty, courage, intellect, and fortitude. We have a link to Fiona’s testimony from the 2019 House impeachment hearings in our show notes. Fiona is also the author or co-author of three books about Russia and Vladimir Putin, which we have also listed in our show notes. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a five-star rating on whatever app you use to listen and ask your friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, and every major listening app as well as msnbc.com/theoath. If you’re listening on a smartphone, tap or swipe over the cover art of the podcast. You’ll find our episodes notes including some details you might have missed. If you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at email@example.com that’s all one word: firstname.lastname@example.org And though I cannot personally respond to every email, please know that I read each one of them, and that I appreciate it. The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. They are a wonderful team and I am fortunate to work with them. Olivia Cruiser provided excellent production support, as always, our associate producer is Allison Bailey. And Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.