WASHINGTON — Forget what Vladimir Putin says — the case that Russia directly coordinated with the Trump campaign to affect the outcome of the 2016 election has grown an order of magnitude stronger since last November. From Jared Kushner’s efforts to establish a covert communication channel with the Kremlin immune from U.S. monitoring, to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the headlines all tell the same story: Numerous campaign and administration officials want to conceal their extensive connections to Russia.
Despite the growing mountain of circumstantial evidence, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees investigating Russian interference recently announced they will end their work by February 2018, with no unified findings on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Mueller is a prosecutor pursuing criminal charges against individuals, not a rapporteur tasked with uncovering a grand conspiracy. It appears that, absent a John Dean-like figure testifying to direct involvement in collusion, some in Congress will continue the refrain, “There’s no smoking gun.”
But obtaining testimony from Trump campaign officials is only half of the picture. There are other individuals deep within the Russian intelligence services and in President Putin’s inner circle who would definitively know the answers to questions of collusion. So how can we find these individuals and discover the smoking gun, should one exist? The answer involves an examination of dark days in the history of the FBI and CIA’s struggle against the Soviet Union, and raises important questions about these agencies’ ability to operate free from political pressure from the Trump White House.
The Manafort indictment shows Mueller’s investigation is doing all it can to gain cooperation from U.S. persons.
On August 18, 1986, a payphone rang in a shopping center in Springfield, Virginia. The man answering was Alexander Fefelov, a KGB technical officer assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. The caller was one of the KGB’s most valuable assets in the U.S. government. The KGB referred to him as “B” because they did not know his true identity, though he had been in contact with them since October 1985. For reasons unclear, Fefelov made a fateful decision to record the call that day.
Eight years later, the FBI arrested CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who confessed to selling secrets to the Russians beginning in 1985. Ames’ treason resulted in the deaths of numerous Russians who had cooperated with the U.S. However, both agencies quickly realized that Ames alone could not have been responsible for all of the compromises.
Desperate to find evidence that would identify the remaining mole, both the FBI and CIA agreed to a crude tactic called “cold pitching.” It involved identifying former and current Russian intelligence officers around the world and offering them $1 million to talk. Dozens of Russians were approached and declined to cooperate, but the effort finally paid off when FBI agent Mike Rochford lured a Russian officer to the United States under the guise of a business deal. After two weeks of trying, Rochford convinced the man to help find the mole in exchange for money and resettlement in the United States.
As it turned out, the Russian had access to the entire file on B, and CIA officers quickly devised a plan to smuggle it out of Russia. However, the man missed his planned rendezvous with the CIA. Rochford feared the worst, but the man surfaced in a third country, having successfully exfiltrated himself and the file out of Moscow. The file included every communication B had sent to the Russians. It contained maps of “dead drop” sites, locations where money and documents were exchanged between B and the KGB. There was no name, but for the first time, the FBI had direct, non-circumstantial evidence that a second traitor existed.
After consulting with the Russian turncoat, Rochford was instructed to open a specific envelope. Though the KGB never knew B’s name, the envelope nevertheless contained a smoking gun: Fefelov’s 1986 recording. Two FBI employees played the tape and recognized the voice of their colleague, Robert Hanssen. FBI officials were stunned. For months, they had investigated an innocent CIA officer, never suspecting the mole was within their own ranks. They began a three-month period of physical and electronic surveillance of Hanssen, methodically building an ironclad case against him. In February 2001, FBI agents observed him placing classified documents under a footbridge in Foxstone Park in Vienna, Virginia. They arrested him on the spot. Hanssen infamously commented, “What took you so long?”
The effort to find a smoking gun on Hanssen consumed 14 years and significant resources. Could a similar effort be successful today? The Manafort indictment shows Mueller’s investigation is doing all it can to gain cooperation from U.S. persons. The CIA must similarly work to entice Russians with information to come forward, exactly as it has done in the past. Such an effort would be exceedingly difficult, as the circle of Russians with knowledge is certainly small and likely not allowed to travel abroad. Success would require support from senior CIA leadership.
It is difficult to imagine CIA director and Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo approving operational activity of this nature that could ultimately implicate his boss. On the contrary, he seems intent on undermining the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russian interference, as evidenced by his recent meeting with a conspiracy theorist who claims Russia didn’t hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails. It is less difficult to imagine President Trump’s infuriated response to learning of the existence of such operations. But most importantly, what Russian source could actually trust that the full weight of the U.S. government is committed to his or her safety?
CIA Director Mike Pompeo | Win McNamee/Getty Images
This last point is worth dwelling on. Last year, shortly after the U.S. intelligence community released its findings, a high-ranking Russian cyber intelligence officer was arrested and accused of cooperating with the CIA. Whether the accusation was true not, Putin made clear the consequences of even being suspected of talking to the CIA about election hacking. And Russian officials undoubtedly got the message.
With Pompeo’s objectivity compromised, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees play an increasingly vital oversight role to ensure our intelligence agencies are operating effectively. While it is not the role of oversight to directly propose or approve operational activity, the committees must ensure that Pompeo doesn’t stand in the way of any CIA operations, like the one that caught Hanssen, that are intended to pursue individuals with intelligence on Russia’s compromise of our election. Additionally, they must ask pointed questions about the agency’s preparedness to deal with an unexpected Russian defector who approaches the CIA with information. What would be the chain of custody for such information? How would the CIA assess the trustworthiness of the source? How would the resulting intelligence be disseminated to Congress? Would the president be briefed? The committees might even consider asking Pompeo to recuse himself from such operational decisions, due to his obvious conflicts.
These questions require answers. Our country was attacked, and there is strong circumstantial evidence that Russia had help within the United States. Neither committee should conclude its investigation until they know that no effort has been spared to find a smoking gun, or can confidently conclude that there isn’t one to find.
Joel Willett served five years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, including a year on the National Security Council at the White House. Prior to the CIA, he served in the U.S. Army and lived and worked in Moscow. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago and is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.