Originally published in the blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis, on 10th September 2019. Republished with permission. Link.
A flood of news in the last 24 hours regarding Russiagate. I am referring specifically to reports that the CIA ex-filtrated Oleg Smolenkov, a mid-level Russian Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who reportedly hooked himself on the coat-tails of Yuri Ushakov, who was Ambassador to the US from 1999 through 2008. He was recruited by the CIA (i.e., asked to collect information and pass it to the U.S. Government via his or her case officer) at sometime during this period. Smolenkov is being portrayed as a supposedly “sensitive” source. But if you read either the Washington Post or New York Times accounts of this event there is not a lot of meat on this hamburger.
Regardless of the quality of his reporting, Smolenkov is the kind of recruited source that looks good on paper and helps a CIA case officer get promoted but adds little to actual U.S. intelligence on Russia. If you understood the CIA culture you would immediately recognize that a case officer (CIA terminology for the operations officer tasked with identifying and recruiting human sources) gets rewarded by recruiting persons who ostensibly will have access to information the CIA has identified as a priority target. In this case, we’re talking about possible access to Vladimir Putin.
If you take time to read both articles you will quickly see that the real purpose of this “information operation” is to paint Donald Trump as a security threat that must be stopped. This is conveniently timed to assist Jerry Nadler’s mission impossible to secure Trump’s impeachment. But I think there is another dynamic at play–these competing explanations for what prompted the exfiltration of this CIA asset say more about the incompetence of Barack Obama and his intel chiefs. John Brennan and Jim Clapper in particular.
A former intelligence officer and friend summarized the various press accounts as the follows and offered his own insights in a note I received this morning:
[Smolenkov] follows Ushakov back to Moscow, where he is a mid-level paper pusher doing administrative support for Ushakov. The CIA gets copies of Putin’s itineraries that Smolenkov photographs. He is a big hit, but ultimately produces nothing of vital importance because all truly sensitive information is hand carried by principles, and never seen by administrative staff. Moreover Ushakov advises on international relations, and would not be privy to anything dealing with intelligence. Ushakov, as a long-serving Ambassador to the US, would be asked by Putin to opine on US politics. Smolenkov has access to Ushakov’s post-meeting verbal comments, which he turns over to the CIA.The initial reports of the Steele Dossier appeared in June 2016. This coincided with John Brennan ordering Moscow Station to turn up the heat on Smolenkov to gain access to what Putin is thinking. But Smolenkov has no real direct access. Instead, he starts fabricating and/or exaggerating his access to convince his CIA handler that he is on the job and worth every penny he is being paid by US taxpayers.
The information Smolenkov creates is passed to his CIA handler via the secure communications channel set up when he was signed up as a spy. But these reports are not handled in the normal way that sensitive human intelligence is treated at CIA Headquarters. Instead, the material is accepted at face value and not vetted to confirm its accuracy. My intel friend, citing a knowledgeable source, indicates that Smolenkov was not polygraphed.
This raised red flags in the CIA Counterintelligence staff, especially when Brennan starts briefing the President using the information provided by Smolenkov. Brennan responds by locking most of the CIA’s Russian experts out of the loop. Later, Brennan does the same thing with the National Intelligence Council, locking out the National Intelligence Officers who would normally oversee the production of a National Intelligence Assessment. In short, Brennan cooked the books using Smolenkov’s intelligence, which had it been subjected to normal checks and balances would never have passed muster. It’s Brennan’s leaks to the press that eventually prompt the CIA to pull the plug on Smolenkov.
There is public evidence that Brennan not only cooked the books but that the leaks of this supposedly “sensitive” intelligence occurred when he was Director and lying Jim Clapper was Director of National Intelligence. If Oleg Smolenkov was really such a terrific source of intel, then where are the reports? It is one thing to keep such reports close hold when the source is still in place. But he has been out of danger for more than two years. Those reports should have been shared with the Senate and House Intelligence committees. If there was actual solid intelligence in those reports that corroborated the Steele Dossier, then that information would have been leaked and widely circulated. This is Sherlock Holmes dog that did not bark.
Then we have the odd fact that this guy’s name is all over the press and he is buying real estate in true name. What the hell!! If the CIA genuinely believed that Mr. Smolenkov was in danger he would not be walking around doing real estate deals in true name. In fact, the sources for both the Washington Post and NY Times pieces push the propaganda that Smolenkov is a sure fire target for a Russian retaliatory hit. Really? Then why publish his name and confirm his location.
That leaves me with the alternative explanation–Smolenkov is a propaganda prop and is being trotted out by Brennan to try to provide public pressure to prevent the disclosure of intelligence that will show that the CIA and the NSA were coordinating and operating with British intelligence to entrap and smear Donald Trump and members of his campaign.
I want you to take a close look at the two pieces on this exfiltration (i.e., Washington Post and NY Times) and note the significant differences
REASON FOR THE EXFILTRATION:
Let’s start with the Washington Post:
The exfiltration took place sometime after an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, when President Trump revealed highly classified counterterrorism information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, said the current and former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
What was the information that Trump revealed? He was discussing intel that Israel passed regarding ISIS in Syria. (See the Washington Post story here.) Why would he talk to the Russians about that? Because every day, at least once a day, U.S. and Russian military authorities are sharing intelligence with one another in a phone call that originates from the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center (aka CAOC) at the Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar. Trump’s conversation not only was appropriate but fully within his right to do so as Commander-in-Chief.
What the hell does this have to do with a sensitive source in Moscow? NOTHING!! Red Herring.
The NY Times account is more detailed and damning of Obama instead of Trump:
But when intelligence officials revealed the severity of Russia’s election interference with unusual detail later that year, the news media picked up on details about the C.I.A.’s Kremlin sources.
C.I.A. officials worried about safety made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia. The situation grew more tense when the informant at first refused, citing family concerns — prompting consternation at C.I.A. headquarters and sowing doubts among some American counterintelligence officials about the informant’s trustworthiness. But the C.I.A. pressed again months later after more media inquiries. This time, the informant agreed. . . .
The decision to extract the informant was driven “in part” because of concerns that Mr. Trump and his administration had mishandled delicate intelligence, CNN reported. But former intelligence officials said there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source, and other current American officials insisted that media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone was the impetus for the extraction. . . .
But the government had indicated that the source existed long before Mr. Trump took office, first in formally accusing Russia of interference in October 2016 and then when intelligence officials declassified parts of their assessment about the interference campaign for public release in January 2017. News agencies, including NBC, began reporting around that time about Mr. Putin’s involvement in the election sabotage and on the C.I.A.’s possible sources for the assessment.
Trump played no role whatsoever in releasing information that allegedly compromised this so-called “golden boy” of Russian intelligence. The NY Times account makes it very clear that the release of information while Obama was President, not Trump, is what put the source in danger. Who leaked that information?
WHAT DID THE SOURCE KNOW AND WHAT DID HE TELL US?
But how valuable was this source really? What did he provide that was so enlightening? On this point the New York Times and Washington Post are more in sync.
First the NY Times:
The Moscow informant was instrumental to the C.I.A.’s most explosive conclusion about Russia’s interference campaign: that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered and orchestrated it himself. As the American government’s best insight into the thinking of and orders from Mr. Putin, the source was also key to the C.I.A.’s assessment that he affirmatively favored Donald J. Trump’s election and personally ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
The Washington Post provides a more fulsome account:
U.S. officials had been concerned that Russian sources could be at risk of exposure as early as the fall of 2016, when the Obama administration first confirmed that Russia had stolen and publicly disclosed emails from the Democratic National Committee and the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
In October 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a joint statement that intelligence agencies were “confident that the Russian Government directed” the hacking campaign. . . .
In January 2017, the Obama administration published a detailed assessment that unambiguously laid the blame on the Kremlin, concluding that “Putin ordered an influence campaign” and that Russia’s goal was to undermine faith in the U.S. democratic process and harm Clinton’s chances of winning.
“That’s a pretty remarkable intelligence community product — much more specific than what you normally see,” one U.S. official said. “It’s very expected that potential U.S. intelligence assets in Russia would be under a higher level of scrutiny by their own intelligence services.”
Sounds official. But there is no actual forensic or documentary evidence (by that I mean actual corroborating intelligence reports) to back up these claims by our oxymoronically christened intelligence community.
Vladimir Putin ordered the hack? Where is the report? It is either in a piece of intercepted electronics communication and/or in a report derived from information provided by Mr. Smolenkov. Where is it? Why has that not been shared in public? Don’t have to worry about exposing the source now. He is already in the open. What did he report? Answer–no direct evidence.
Then there is the lie that the Russians hacked the DNC. They did not. Bill Binney, a former Technical Director of the NSA, and I have written on this subject previously (see here) and there is no truth to this claim. Let me put it simply–if the DNC had been hacked by the Russians using spearphising (this is claimed in the Robert Mueller report) then the NSA would have collected those messages and would be able to show they were transferred to the Russians. That did not happen.
This kind of chaotic leaking about an old intel op is symptomatic of panic. CIA is already officially denying key parts of the story. My money is on John Brennan and Jim Clapper as the likely impetus for these reports. They are hoping to paint Trump as a national security threat and distract from the upcoming revelations from the DOJ Inspector General report on the FISA warrants and, more threatening, the decisions that Prosecutor John Durham will take in deciding to indict those who attempted to launch a coup against Donald Trump, a legitimately elected President of the United States.