The president is an information security disaster, but CNN wrongly blamed him for the CIA removing its best Russian spy
On Monday, a CNN report set off a storm. It said the CIA pulled it’s most valuable asset out of Russia “driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence.” In a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov highly classified Israeli intelligence about an asset within ISIS, which got the CIA to reevaluate risk and “exfiltrate” the spy from Russia.
The report set off partisan accusations and conspiracy theorizing. Maybe Trump’s a Russian asset after all?
But reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, released shortly after CNN’s announcement, threw cold water on the accusation. The CIA first offered to extract the spy before Trump took office. According to both papers, it came after October 2016, when top U.S intelligence officials’ publicly blamed the Russian government for hacking and releasing Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails. That led to heightened scrutiny, putting the asset at risk.
These reports set off a different set of partisan accusations and conspiracy theorizing. Some denounced the media, trying to elevate one CNN story into an indictment of the industry, conveniently ignoring that major media outlets challenged CNN within a few hours.
Others blamed Obama. In the Federalist, Lew Jan Olowski denounced the former president and “indiscreet intelligence officials” who “spoiled a bona fide top-level intelligence source operating inside an adversary foreign government just to damage their own American president and government.” However, the public disclosures came months before Trump got elected.
Though the article avoids saying it directly, Olowski’s arguing that the government should have kept Russia’s crimes hidden from the public. It’s an argument that ultimately rests on the claim that law enforcement and counterintelligence professionals tasked with protecting America from foreign intelligence operations should’ve done nothing in response to a foreign intelligence operation.
As the Mueller Report details, Russia conducted an extensive, multi-year operation costing millions of dollars and involving hundreds of people. 25 of them are under indictment in federal court for money laundering, identity theft, bank fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and other crimes.
When law enforcement and counterintelligence officers saw enough of that for reasonable suspicion, how could they not investigate further? That’s the whole point of their job.
Russia’s intelligence operation was directly authorized and monitored by Putin himself. We know that thanks to the exfiltrated spy.
The United States, European democracies — pretty much anyone besides Russia — owe him a debt of gratitude. Because of him, we know more about Russia’s operation, and need to rely less on guesswork.
Still, no one knows how 2016 would’ve gone without WikiLeaks releasing stolen Democratic emails and the Internet Research Agency conducting a multi-million dollar influence campaign. Maybe Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” tape would’ve dominated the news and Hillary would’ve won. Maybe Trump uses something else to attack her and distract the media, and rides the same cultural forces to victory. Maybe he wins more convincingly, as fewer national security Republicans stay home or vote third party without the Russia cloud hanging over the GOP nominee.
No one knows if Russia changed the outcome, but in the intelligence world, most see the operation as a success. For those involved, the thing they were trying to make happen actually happened, so they’re probably taking credit (even if they can’t prove they made a difference). Many people in the world, both inside and outside the United States, give Russia credit as well.
Perhaps you think Russian intelligence doesn’t deserve credit, that people who give them credit are wrong, misguided, delusional. But no matter the reason, many people do give them credit, which provides a type of power intelligence agencies covet.
Russian intel’s global reputation leveled up after 2016, and this exfiltration story is the biggest blow to it since. The CIA had someone in the Russian government for decades, he rose up the ranks, gave America valuable information, and safely fled to the United States — and Putin’s people didn’t see it, at least not in time to stop it. Now the world knows.
But there’s another aspect of Russia’s reputation: punishing anyone who crosses them. In 2006, Russian operatives killed former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London with radiation poisoning. In 2018, Russia tried but failed to kill another British spy, former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, in the U.K. with a nerve agent.
The exfiltrated spy represents a bigger, more embarrassing intelligence failure than Litvinenko or Skripal. Presumably, Russia would like to find him.
Reporters trying to track down the spy, or spreading information about his location, are doing Russian intelligence’s work for them. There’s no journalistic value in hunting down his new identity. It’s doxing — potentially risking his life, and likely upending it by forcing the government to move him.
It’s not Obama’s fault the CIA had to pull the spy. Obama told the public about Russian electoral interference, but it would’ve become public anyway. If anything, he downplayed the size of Russia’s operation. But it’s not really Trump’s fault either, at least not to the extent CNN insinuated.
Spying for foreign intelligence agencies is dangerous work, especially spying on Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. What put him in danger was telling the U.S. about Russia’s 2016 operations.
If Hillary won, he would’ve been in danger too. The American public already knew about Russia’s electoral interference, if not the full extent. The U.S. intelligence community had already accused the Russian government. Counterintelligence and law enforcement officers had been on the case for months. It wasn’t going away.
But Trump won, increasing scrutiny on Russia. That’s a risky environment for a spy, and in late 2016, U.S. intelligence proposed bringing him to America. According to the New York Times, the spy “refused, cited family concerns.”
But then he agreed in May 2017 and the CIA got him out. It’s possible Trump disclosing Israeli intelligence to Sergey Lavrov prompted the CIA to push for exfiltration and the spy to accept. Maybe he thought Russian counterintelligence was closing in. Or maybe it took that long to get his family ready. We don’t know.
But we do know Trump is an information security disaster. In addition to giving Israeli intelligence to Russia, the president discussed a North Korea missile launch in front of guests at Mar-a-Lago. He carries around and uses an unsecured smart phone. He empowered Jared Kushner, overruling security clearance background checks. He tweeted out a surveillance photo of Iran that came from a classified satellite, revealing details about its capabilities. I could go on.
After almost three years, it’s clearly not that he’s an inexperienced outsider. The reasoning for secure communications has surely been explained to him.
He doesn’t care.
CNN insinuated Trump was the main reason the CIA pulled the spy — which has significantly reduced intelligence coverage of Russia — and many commentators ran with it. But the public hasn’t seen any evidence.
It looks like CNN is relying on assessments from intelligence sources, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect some of these sources may dislike Trump (perhaps with good reason), and decided to leak the incident two years later to make the president look bad. CNN made a mistake, issuing accusations without supportive evidence.
Reporters and editors should be careful with scoops, especially when it comes to juicy stories about politicians they don’t like.
First and wrong is much worse than second and right.