October 21, 2021

De-Sipher-ing Russia

Cortland spy returns home after 28-year CIA career

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortland High School alumnus John Sipher talks about his career in the clandestine services Tuesday on the SUNY Cortland campus. Sipher had a 28-year career with the CIA, including working in Russia. He spoke about Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Picture this: A car drives across the vast Russian terrain, trailed by another vehicle.

The leading car slows around a curve enough to let a passenger slip out unnoticed, before speeding up and popping a fake passenger out of a secret compartment so it appears to the following car that two people still occupy the car.

Or this: Two men go into a party, one trailed by the KGB. The one not trailed reappears some time later and is of no interest to the spies so isn’t followed.

That man is actually the trailed man in disguise, carrying out his mission — getting top secret intelligence from someone on the ground to the U.S. government.

These aren’t scenes from a James Bond movie, they are the experiences of Cortland High School graduate John Sipher, who was a CIA field operative for 28 years in Russia, Asia and the Balkans before retiring and becoming a political commentator. Sipher now owns a private consultancy called SMERSH, which is also the name of a fictional Soviet counterintelligence agency featured in James Bond novels.

Sipher recounted these stories Tuesday at Sperry Center at SUNY Cortland to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 students, professors and residents. He also provided an account of Russia’s history that he says explains why it operates as it does today, including its interference in the 2016 United States elections.

Sipher grew up in Cortland, his father was a history professor at SUNY Cortland and he was surrounded by conversations about world history, he said after his lecture. That fostered a desire to travel and explore.

Russia, he said, is not interested in being an ally of the United States, especially not while Vladimir Putin is the leader.

Putin, a former KGB officer born in Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — in 1952, is intent on keeping power and control, which means keeping enemies at bay, Sipher said.

The Russian interference in the 2016 elections is part of that, he said. National intelligence officials determined Putin ordered an interference campaign to sow discord among American voters and undermine faith in the democratic process.

Fake accounts and incendiary posts appeared on social media to turn Americans against one another, said Sipher, creating chaos and dissent.

“It is an asymmetric means by a weaker power to take on a stronger power,” he said. “The actions of the weaker power create fractures and cause problems with the much stronger power.”

The strategy isn’t new to the Russians, Sipher said, and it’s not going away. America has been distracted from viewing Russia as a threat since it has focused more on terrorism, especially after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

To stop following the Russian agenda of creating chaos and discord using social media, Sipher thinks people must be more aware of social media.

“Just basic social media hygiene, they will have to start teaching that in school,” he said after the lecture. Everything from only accepting news from trusted media outlets to not accepting invitations on social media from people you don’t know.

Sipher also wants to raise awareness about the activities of Russians in America.

“Understand the threat, rather than being shocked by the threat,” he said. “That’s part of why I talk to people.”

“People are scared to say Russia colluded with the election, but it’s nice to hear somebody be blunt about that,” said sophomore biomedical science major Allison Bridge.

“There was a lot I didn’t know and it’s nice hearing about it from a primary source. … It’s nice hearing from someone knowledgeable, not having to worry — is this misinformation?’ “

Sophomore Shaneya Simmelkjaer was surprised to hear how much influence Russia has in American politics.

As she typed away on her Smartphone, Simmelkjaer said she views social media differently than before.

“It made me question a lot of things,” she said. “You never know who’s watching and now you really don’t know who’s watching. I don’t know what I’ll be posting on social media.”