The following is a transcript of an interview with U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Republican of Ohio, that aired on “Face the Nation” on June 25, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio. He joins us from Dayton. Good morning to you.
REP. MIKE TURNER: Morning, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand top congressional leaders, yourself included, have been briefed multiple times in recent days by the administration in regard to the risk posed by the Wagner group. Last year, U.S. intelligence had ‘extraordinary detail,’ those are the words, the head of US intelligence, about Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine. I wonder how you would describe the intelligence the U.S. had about this march on Moscow?
REP. TURNER: Sure. Well, if the Intelligence Committee was very much aware of it. The conflict between Prigozhin and Putin was inevitable, and even from public sources, which you’ve seen Prigozhin, for months, has put out videos critical of the Russian government critical of Putin. Putin has allowed this and as the Secretary said, those videos themselves even included, criticizing Putin is very premise of the war, that it was not started by NATO, that there were not Nazis in Ukraine. And then entering into Moscow- entering into Russia itself and taking their convoy to Moscow, that really shows to the basic issue of whether or not Putin controls his military. For any government to have stability, they have to control their military, obviously Prigozhin, in order to make it that distance, has to have accomplices, you know, where was the Air Force? Where was the Russian Air Force and preventing this? That’s going to be an issue that- that Putin is gonna have to deal with both internationally and domestically, is, his government as an authoritarian government depends on its assertion of power, force, in order to be able to contain- to continue to wield power, and that certainly is going to be an issue
MARGARET BRENNAN: Was Vladimir Putin himself aware of the potential of this uprising?
REP. TURNER: Well, I can’t go into what our intelligence was. But I can tell you this, these videos that he was allowing Prigozhin, to put- put out, were public, they were distributed around the world. Putin certainly was aware of them because he was allowing them, the content of them, where they not only criticized Putin and the Russian government, and called for the removal of the Minister of Defense. Ultimately, as you know, this weekend Prigozhin’s statement was the removal of the President himself. So Vladimir Putin certainly had lots of public notice that Prigozhin was- was a- was a critic and was threatening the government and now ultimately took this military action into Russia itself.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But that raises the question of whether this was a strategic move by Prigozhin or just sort of a gamble and an opportunity he seized, do we have any insight?
REP. TURNER: You know, he’s a military guy. Remember, this is like a 12-hour trip from Ukraine to Moscow, and he got within two hours of Moscow. Now being a military guy, he understands the logistics and really the- the assistance that he’s going to need to do that. This is not a weekend trip he’s taking, taking his convoy- his military convoy up to Moscow. There’s a number of accomplices, including as we saw, some of the Russian people on the border with Ukraine who clearly support the Wagner group, in contrast to their support for the Russian government. This is something that would have had to been planned for a significant amount of time to be executed in the manner in which it was,
MARGARET BRENNAN: There was a report last month that Prigozhin had offered in January to help Ukraine attack the Russian military by sharing information on troop positions that he had. Is this in any way helpful? What has just occurred to ending the war in Ukraine, like where is Prigozhin’s interest?
REP. TURNER: Right, so this really does hurt- hurt Putin, and not only just politically and in his leadership in Russia and his presidency, but in his efforts to continue the war in Ukraine. You know, I think obviously, in the beginning, there’s going to be a- an initial increase of activity from Russia against Ukraine, but because he went- Putin himself went on a national TV to respond to Prigozhin and Prigozhin said that your government has lied to you, this is not a war that NATO started, there are no Nazis in Ukraine. Taking down the very premise makes it much more difficult for Putin to continue to turn to the Russian people and say we should continue to send people to die in this war that for which Prigozhin himself has said to the Russian people, the premise is a lie.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There was a lot that Secretary Blinken said he could not answer during our interview. Is that because U.S. intelligence does not know, or because it’s classified?
REP. TURNER: Well, you know, I can’t answer that either. But you can- you can assume certainly that we have been very focused on Russia and Ukraine. And this is an area where Ukraine’s successes has been a result in part because of the successes of the intelligence community. So we’ve been very, very focused on this. I think that as we- as we go forward, this is going to be even more critical as it fit- as we face the threats, both for Ukraine and for the United States, is what’s going to happen to Putin and Russia next?
MARGARET BRENNAN: Chairman, please stay with us. We have to take a break. We’ll be right back in one minute with more of our conversation.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And we’re back with House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner. I want to talk a bit about China here as well, sir. But let me just button up, how would you define the relationship between China and Vladimir Putin right now?
REP. TURNER: Right. So President Xi has got to be very concerned right now, because as you know, he went to Moscow, stood next to Putin and said, you know, we’re together- he and Vladimir Putin are bringing about change that hasn’t happened for 100 years. And of course, that is the march of authoritarianism against democracy that we won in World War Two that they’re now rising up against. But now he’s standing next to a guy who can’t even control his- his own- his own military. Remember, Putin, in his national address said that these individuals are going to have inevitable punishment. And then in the end, Prigozhin gets a vacation in- in Belarus and his troops are now going to sign contracts, that sounds more like paperwork, than a KGB agent, doing inevitable punishment. Xi, in seeing that with Putin, has got to understand that- that Putin’s stature in the world has diminished- that diminishes President Xi, and certainly as Putin looks weakened, certainly not being able to control his- his military and being a strong nuclear power, President Xi has to be worried about the stability of Russia itself.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll be watching that. You know, last Friday, the- this past Friday, sorry, I’m back from Beijing and my timeframe’s all screwed up here. But the Director of National Intelligence released this declassified summary of the findings in regard to links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the COVID pandemic. It says several researchers at that Institute were ill in 2019, with symptoms consistent with, but not diagnostic of COVID? Why is it so inconclusive still?
REP. TURNER: Well, and this is the problem, really what- what the Director of National Intelligence has done, Director Haines. We passed a law saying to declassify the information that you have about the COVID and Wuhan lab’s activities. What they did is they basically went and did a paper on what they believe about the intelligence they’ve looked at. I’ll give an example of this, we’ve asked to open the curtain and release the intelligence, and they went behind the curtain, read this stuff and came out and said, ‘Well, this is what we think about it.’ This is not sufficient and certainly this is going to be set up between a battle between Congress and the Director of National Intelligence to make certain that- that the law that was passed unanimously, both the Senate and the House and signed by the President is complied with, but also the American public get the answers they deserve.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So there was a classified annex to this, though that was not released, I would assume that you have read that? Is that–
REP. TURNER: No, actually, we just got this late, late Friday, so I haven’t had access to it in a classified setting, but even releasing a classified annex goes against what the law says. The law says declassify, not give us more classified information. I mean, my committee has already seen a significant amount of this intelligence, giving my committee more intelligence doesn’t give it to the American public, and that’s what the declassification law was about.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The- the report says that, you know, it details two agencies say it was a lab accident, CIA can’t determine, the National Intelligence Council and four other agencies say most likely caused by natural exposure. Do you believe that there actually is a definitive conclusion that the government’s not releasing?
REP. TURNER: So I have seen, for example, the classified annex to the report that President Biden requested the intelligence community gave. What you just read were more conclusions by the intelligence community. In the report that was given to the President, the 90 day or so report, they have- they have information in that report that contradicts, I believe, the impressions that are given in these statements by the intelligence committee. We want the intelligence released, not their opinion about the intelligence. If we wanted their opinion, we would have asked for it. We passed a law saying, declassify it, it’s the law of the land. Release this to the American public and see it- experts out there in the community, besides the intelligence community need to take a look at this and help us understand what really happened that resulted in millions of people dying.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Congressman, thank you for your time today. We’ll be right back.