Analysis & Opinions - Just Security

The Making of a Russian Spy: A Roadmap for the FBI to Resolve Russia Gate

| June 19, 2017

This article was republished by Newsweek under the headline "Have the Russians Compromised Trump?"

James Comey’s testimony has established that either President Donald Trump or the former FBI Director is lying, given the clear discrepancies in their versions of the conversations that transpired during their meetings together. This leaves us with the questions: Who is lying? And why?

While it is not possible to draw a conclusion one way or the other based on Comey’s written and oral testimony before Congress, what has become clear is that President Trump has drawn the mistrust of the former FBI Director, retired Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, and former CIA Director John Brennan. Such a trifecta of contempt for the president that is being expressed from this nation’s highest custodians of our secrets should concern us all as citizens.

More importantly, why would they lie?  They are well-respected as being objective observers of events, as befits their office.  They are known as being independent straight shooters, whatever one thinks of their decision-making styles and performances while in government. They are men to be respected as public servants, not dismissed as being “a nut job” to the Russians, in the Oval Office, no less.

It’s certainly reasonable to question the motives of one of these three senior intelligence and law enforcement officials, all of whom know more about the facts of Russian intelligence and cyber machinations than anyone in the government.  But all three?  Together, they have strong credentials as long serving public servants, or at least they did before the administration and its supporters began attacking their credibility and integrity.  For these three men, as for Paul Revere, the alarm bells rang when they called out the truth.

This broader prism through which to view Comey’s gut-wrenching concerns about the president’s intentions is only one factor in determining who is lying and who would have reason to lie. Comey’s testimony takes us back to the importance of conducting an independent, unobstructed and thorough FBI investigation into the targets of Russian intelligence activity.

As new facts emerge concerning the Russian intelligence “active measures” (influence) campaign — such as the alleged NSA document on Russian attempts to hack into polling stations — the U.S. intelligence community leadership’s early public statements that the intent of the Russian operation was to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential campaign in Trump’s favor has been validated.

Through deliberate leaking of classified or nonpublic information, it is clear that the intensity and scale of Russian intelligence activity was far more pervasive than previously known, at least publicly. The Russians were not merely content to influence the campaign.  Using cyber and human (espionage) means, they sought to discredit Hillary Clinton and thereby bolster Trump’s chances of winning. If they had been successful, the Russians would have reportedly penetrated polling stations to alter the vote count. Today, no one should seriously doubt Russian intentions at the highest levels, even if this was previously unclear.

Comey’s testimony concerning his interactions with the president take us back to the Russia investigation and “the cloud” it created, which provoked the president, by his own admission, to fire Comey.  Trump’s action in firing the man who was in charge of clearing him of wrongdoing seems inexplicable, unless he had concerns that he wouldn’t be exonerated by the FBI.

Ongoing revelations largely pertain to the cyber-related portion of the larger Russian operation to elect Trump.  In terms of deciphering its broader modus operandi, it is important to understand that Russian intelligence places a premium on conducting espionage: They first identify vulnerabilities in people, and then compromise them in an effort to recruit them as agents of Russian intelligence. This “human factor” of systematically exploiting human frailties and weaknesses drives Russian planning in terms of how they strive to achieve their objectives.

In this light of the classical Russian intelligence “Chekist” mindset (which Vladimir Putin shares), the contents of former British secret agent Christopher Steele’s dossier are eerily consistent with what is now known, in terms of the basic timeline of events, on how the Russians in all likelihood went about targeting individuals associated with the U.S. presidential election. It is thus reasonable to presume that every target – human and cyber – to whom the Russians had access in the run-up to the election would have been approached in some manner and exploited to the greatest extent possible.

Surely, FBI investigators presume Russian intelligence would not have overlooked the travel of Trump associates to Russia. The Russian “special services” meticulously track all Americans when they visit Russia.  It’s an art form. All means of surveillance and compromise are made available to the Federal Security Service (FSB): You want money. We have money. You want a woman. We have women. You have an ego. We’ll massage it. Try this. Try that. Until something works.

The point is something usually does work. The trick is to find someone’s genuine vulnerability – a secret – and tap into it.  This is not to suggest that Trump associates were compromised and recruited by Russian intelligence during their visits to Russia. But based on the long history of Russian espionage in action against the “glavniy protvnik” (“main enemy”—a.k.a. the United States) Trump associates would have been approached by Russian intelligence – whether or not they knew or now know they were targets is a different matter.

What would the Russians be hoping to achieve in targeting the man they were trying to elect, or in compromising his associates?  What should the public and close observers know about standard Russian intelligence practices so they understand clues and the potential threat?

Following standard Russian intelligence practice, Moscow might have set three broad goals and tactics for its intelligence operations for and against Trump and his associates:

  1. Establish a witting or unwitting collusion (a conspiracy) between members of the Trump campaign acting on behalf of Trump’s candidacy and Russian officials acting on the basis of intelligence-tasking— passing intelligence information to the Trump campaign for the purpose of discrediting Hillary Clinton and thereby influencing the US election.  For Russian intelligence, it would not matter for purposes of compromising Trump, whether the collusion was witting or unwitting.  It is only important that the recipient of any insider information understood the sensitive, derogatory nature of the information and that it was being provided by the Russian government for the purpose of influencing the campaign in Trump’s favor.
  2. Compromise Trump associates, thereby making them witting or unwitting agents of Russian intelligence, by passing clandestinely collected information from a foreign official. The act of compromising an individual entails establishing either an explicit or tacit understanding that the Russian government is using him or her in a cooperative or collaborative, secret relationship in order to compromise the integrity of the U.S. election process and thereby damage U.S. national security interests. The essence of compromise lies in working with a hostile intelligence service on a basis which is incompatible with broader U.S. national security interests.
  3. Establish a clandestine relationship between Trump associates and Russian intelligence, whether or not candidate or president Trump was involved or aware of any such activity. It’s hard to imagine that any American subjects of the FBI investigation into Russia-gate would not have been aware of the gravity of their interaction with Russian officials, notwithstanding whether the Russians with whom they were in contact identified themselves as Russian intelligence officers. Trump associates are certainly not naive; they had sufficient experience living or working in Russia to be aware of the nature of FSB approaches in attempting to recruit western businessmen and government officials as agents of Russian intelligence.

What is the standard that all Americans should be expected to follow in their interactions with foreign powers?  It is not as hard to discern as one might think to do the right thing.  It is a moral question of one’s intentions – not a test of one’s knowledge of right and wrong.

If any Russian national passed derogatory information concerning an American citizen, it would clearly be a test as to whether he/she would report this approach as a recruitment “pitch” to a U.S. government official.  A willingness to accept intelligence information without reporting it to one’s own government would represent a compromising act that would expose a vulnerability of one’s willingness to cooperate as a foreign agent of Russia.

It is in its simplest terms a loyalty test.

Whether an intelligence relationship was made explicit or not, Russian intelligence would consider the target to be “pod kontrelem” (“under control”) from the moment the target entered into a clandestine (secret) relationship for mutual benefit.  Any quid pro quo, such as receiving money, favors, further exchange of privileged information, might be explicit, or left unstated, whatever is best in order to continue the relationship and maintain plausible deniability.

Colloquially, if not in the legal sense, this compromise of one’s loyalty is called treason.

Any past or existing business deals that violate sanctions and other legal constraints would be another area that the FSB could have sought to find creative ways to exploit vulnerabilities among Trump associates in order to compromise them.  Whether such an approach relies on exploiting simple corruption or greed, or involves a more sophisticated operation, would depend on the wants and vulnerabilities of their specific target and objectives.

The most critical objective for Russian intelligence to engage Trump campaign staffers would not be to consummate business deals, but to use business deals as the basis for developing a target for recruitment purposes. For instance, the Rosneft connection that was revealed in the Steele dossier, if true, is a classic example of using the prospect of pursuing business deals as a means of setting up, and ultimately compromising the target, in this case, Trump’s associates.

Whether or not Trump or his campaign staff reached any agreement on a quid pro quo for sanctions relief in exchange for shares of the Rosneft privatization deal, it would suffice for Russian purposes to establish that their target is willing to break U.S. law. For example, this classic Russian tactic might explain recent reports that Mueller’s investigation and the FBI have turned to examine Jared Kushner’s business dealings as well as those of Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn. And remember a Russian strategy is to offer lucrative but illicit deals that many people would have a hard time resisting so as to co-opt, compromise, and recruit that person.

Then there’s the possibility that the Russians would attempt to exploit any cover-up launched by Trump in order to protect his associates, and his presidency. In terms of Putin’s calculations, this represent the Watergate variant in reaping Russian intelligence activity for maximum gain.  For in the end, they are not for Trump, or against him.

Their goal is to weaken the United States, to strengthen their own hand.

If it is not proven that the president was made aware of any discussions his associates might have had with the Russians to compromise Clinton’s campaign and/or negotiate potential sanctions-busting business dealings, Trump himself might be compromised if he was made aware of this activity after the fact. In that case, the president is vulnerable on charges that he is now using the office of the president to knowingly conceal such actions or obstruct and interfere in these investigations.

If Trump was made aware of potentially illegal activity and is attempting to cover it up, whether this is by firing Comey or trying to influence senior officials to end the investigation, it will destroy his credibility as president, even if it cannot be proven that he ordered or was aware of his associates’ dealings with Russia. Suppressing evidence with that awareness of wrongdoing on the part of those who were carrying out his orders would place Trump’s presidency in an untenable position.

No matter who wins in the competition between Republicans and Democrats, or between Trump and his supporters and opponents, Russia wins by sowing dissension among all parties.  Russian intelligence does not have to be clairvoyant by calling the winner in US domestic politics. They only need to weaken the United States to advance Russia’s national security interests.

To that end, Vladimir Putin has wisely placed the highest priority on acquiring human assets – spies and moles at high levels of the U.S. establishment.  Why would Russia not place spies at all levels of the US government and intelligence establishment, as the opportunity presents itself? In this light, the kinds of tactics used to compromise people as described in Christopher Steele’s dossier, and Russian efforts to encircle Trump over the past decade, depended not on Russia’s cyber hacking capability, but on Moscow’s ability to recruit well-placed spies using classical espionage means.

Potentially having no clue as to the true nature of Russian intelligence and its persistent presence, Trump may be an unsuspecting victim, incapable of even sensing the danger Russian penetrations of the U.S. establishment likely pose to his businesses, and now to his political interests.  The Russians play the espionage “Wilderness of Mirrors” better than anyone, because they have been at it more passionately and for longer than we Americans.  America’s test is whether the FBI and CIA are a match for the Russians in determining the extent of Russian penetration not only of President Trump and his operations, but of the US government itself.

All of this mattered not a wit before the election because no one, including the Russians, expected Trump to win.  A thorough, independent, and objective FBI investigation into Russiagate matters more than ever not only for Donald Trump, but for our nation.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Mowatt-Larssen, Rolf.“The Making of a Russian Spy: A Roadmap for the FBI to Resolve Russia Gate.” Just Security, June 19, 2017.

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