Ian Fleming warped the public perception of intelligence operations for decades, but John le Carré slowly disabused us of the delusion that it was all martinis, jetpacks, and readily available pre-feminist blondes. (Time’s up, Mr. Bond.)
But some myths remain.
This general misunderstanding of the very nature of intelligence operations has never been more important than at this moment, when the nation of Russia stands as the first major global power to have been taken over by its own intelligence service, and the United States is the vanquished foe in what might be the worst intelligence defeat in the history of the modern world…..with a direct line from the former to the latter.
The news this past week spoke directly to those twinned phenomena.
BOMBSHELL DU JOUR
What constitutes a bombshell? Here’s one that most people would say qualifies: the New York Times’ report last Saturday that, as early as May of 2017, the FBI had enough credible evidence to investigate whether the President of the United States is a Russian secret agent.
As I have written before, that is a get-you-thrown-out-of-the-Writers-Guild insane scenario.
But this past week we saw a headline in the paper edition of the Times that read “FBI Investigated If Trump Worked for the Russians,” followed by the President of the United States declining to issue a direct denial of that allegation (good God, man, just lie; it’s not like you’re under oath, or averse to dishonesty), and then—with Trump under pressure to speak plainly—another headline that read “Trump Denies Working for Russia, Calls Past FBI Leaders ‘Known Scoundrels,’”
Truly, that is the stuff of bad airport spy novels.
But in a way, there is nothing new here.
For more than eighteen months we have known that President* Donald J. Trump was suspected, to a greater or lesser degree, of personally conspiring with a hostile foreign power to win the presidency. We have learned beyond the shadow of a doubt that members of his campaign did so, to include his own son and his campaign manager, and that Trump himself participated in lies and coverups to conceal that conspiracy. (For that matter, the US intelligence community has been investigating some players in the Trump orbit, like Carter Page, for their suspicious Russian connections as far back as 2014.)
That alone is a historic scandal that should be presidency-ending.
What we didn’t know, however, was that the FBI—in its role as America’s chief counterintelligence organization—suspected Trump not just of playing footsie with Moscow to win the presidency, but of active and ongoing service to the Kremlin.
This is not a charge entered into lightly, especially when it implicates the highest officeholder in the land. As various CI veterans-turned-TV pundits have reported, an investigation like that is not initiated, nor continued, without substantial, credible evidence. But Trump’s firing of Jim Comey, his subsequent—bizarre—admission to Lester Holt on national television that he did it to squash the Russia probe, and his jawdropping comment to Russian ambassador Dmitri Lavrov and foreign minister Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office that the pressure was now off as a result (shortly after he handed them top secret compartmented US counterterrorism intelligence on a silver platter) all prompted the FBI’s action. And evidently Robert Mueller’s team, which quickly inherited the investigation, has been pursuing that line of inquiry from jump street.
So in another way, the Times’ report does change everything, at least in terms of how we view this crisis going forward. Not merely that Donald Trump broke some rules—however serious—and conspired with the Russians during his presidential campaign, but that Moscow has leverage over him such that he is even now, unwittingly or otherwise, an active asset under the control of our chief international adversary.
The difference is little more than a tiny tweak in perspective, but that tweak has triggered a moment of collective national satori. As John Heilemann noted, it was one of those revelations that, in retrospect, was forehead-smackingly obvious. If there was collusion (as it is commonly, if imprecisely, known), why would it end with the election? The Russians wanted Trump in office for a reason, and if they helped put him there, they surely expected a return on their investment.
THEIR MAN IN WASHINGTON
To play devil’s advocate, it is possible that the Russians expected no quid pro quo, that they only wanted Trump in power because they thought he was a fool whom they could easily manipulate, or because he was preferable to a brilliant, experienced foreign policy professional like Hillary Clinton who had already demonstrated how hard she would be on them, or simply as a fuck-you to her.
Indeed, all those things are probably true…..except for the word “only.”
We know for a fact that Trump engaged in behavior that gave Moscow leverage over him, including sketchy real estate sales to oligarchs that fit the textbook pattern for money-laundering, and entanglements with Deutsche Bank, the Bank of Cyprus, and other notorious drycleaning partners of the Kremlin. Surely there is even more we have not yet learned. The topper thus far was the revelation of the Trump Tower Moscow project, which included a proposed $50 million dollar “gift” (read: bribe) to Putin personally, a deal that Trump was secretly trying to negotiate even as he was running for president, and while repeatedly howling in biblical outrage that he had no dealings with Russia or Russians whatsoever—as in nada, zilch, zero, bupkes.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Trump’s refusal to disclose these connections (what’s on those tax returns anyway?) and his desperation to hide them lays him wide open to blackmail by the Kremlin. This is the very heart of how intelligence agencies recruit and exploit assets: by finding useful people with big problems and extorting them over the dark secrets that they are frantic to keep hidden.
In that regard, Trump fits the dictionary definition of a target for a hostile intelligence service….which is to say, a shmuck who can be exploited for one or more of his many manifest vulnerabilities. Indeed, many experts suggest Moscow targeted and developed Donald over many decades, stretching back to the 1980s. Which means he began as a target of Soviet intelligence, for those of you nostalgic for the Cold War.
THE OBSTRUCTION IS THE COLLUSION
The obstruction IS the collusion.
To wit: by attempting to block the US IC’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump is working against not only the US intelligence and law enforcement communities, but indeed against the interests of the United States itself, all to protect a foreign power that has compromising information on him, and prevent discovery of the full extent of their operations against the US.
It means that Trump is not merely a cornered huckster desperately scrambling to protect himself from impeachment and criminal prosecution for various misdeeds, but is a vassal of a foreign adversary and a man actively working to advance its agenda at the expense of that of the United States’.
Per above, this is merely a different way of looking at facts we already knew, but nevertheless a mindblowing one. Yes, it’s old news that everything Trump does is to protect himself. Except that in order to protect himself, Trump has to protect Russia, because Russia has him the by the balls.
Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted that this perspective on Trump’s relationship with Russia raises a question of semantics that might in some small way illuminate his constant mantra of “no collusion!” Tribe wrote:
You don’t need to ‘collude’ with a foreign government if you’re already an AGENT or an ASSET of a foreign government, doing its bidding. A puppet doesn’t ‘collude’ with its puppetmaster.
Not that Trump would ever hesitate to lie or feel the need to parse his words or shy away from bald-faced lies. So Trump is like Pinocchio in more ways that one.
The rancid icing on this poisoned cake came in the form of two other near-simultaneous revelations last week.
One was the inadvertent revelation by Paul Manafort’s lawyers that while their client was Trump’s campaign manager he was passing confidential polling data to assets connected to Russian intelligence. (Note to Paul: get new lawyers.)
But was it inadvertent? (Like last November when an Assistant US Attorney “inadvertently” revealed that Julian Assange has been charged under a sealed indictment?) The former military intelligence officer in me always wonders, though to what end they would want to leak that I have no idea.
Regardless, the only possible purpose for that transfer would be to aid the Kremlin effort to elect Donald Trump…..and the only possible purpose of that effort would be because the Kremlin figured to gain by having Trump in the White House.
The other was the shocking report that Trump has gone to herculean lengths to conceal the content of his private meetings with Putin, to include seizing the interpreter’s notes. The Washington Post reports:
(T)here is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.
In one case—in Helsinki—Trump even met with Putin for two-and-half hours with no US government interpreter at all, only the official Russian one.
Think about that for a moment.
To say that this behavior is fishy is like saying Hannibal Lector has unusual taste in cuisine. Donald Trump of all people should want to avoid the impression that he and Putin are hiding something…..unless he really is a Russian stooge, in which case he’s merely the clumsiest one ever.
It was after that Helsinki meeting, of course, that Trump stood side by side with Putin and gave one of the most despicable public performances by an American president ever, siding with his Russian handler—er, I mean counterpart—over his own intelligence community on the question of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election. In that same press conference, in answer to a reporter’s question, a justifiably emboldened Putin bluntly admitted that he had worked to help Trump win the presidency.
THEIR MAN IN WASHINGTON
So is Trump actively working on behalf of Moscow?
…..(T)he overall picture is indistinguishable from what a Manchurian president would do if they wanted to press Russia’s interests as far as possible while still retaining enough deniability to maintain their hold on power.
And that’s based just on what we know….Robert Mueller knows much, much more and it will all eventually come out.
Donald Trump is not a Manchurian candidate. Unlike the character “Raymond Shaw” in the 1962 film, Donald Trump has not been captured, tortured and in the process “brainwashed” by a foreign government. Instead, President Donald Trump has repeatedly chosen (emphasis added) to advance the interests and goals of Russia and Vladimir Putin over those of the United States and the American people.
The litany of Trump’s eyebrow-raising pro-Russia behavior is too long to list here, but a few lowlights jump out. For example, his strange, otherwise unexplainable habit of repeating talking points that could only come from the Kremlin, like the weirdly specific demonization of the microscopic nation of Montenegro, or his recent justification of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Rachel Maddow and others have pointed out that these are not ideas that Trump would pick up from Fox & Friends or any of his other usual news sources, and they’re certainly not things he thought of himself. So how did they get into his brain and out of his mouth? (Asking for a friend.)
Trump’s impulsive withdrawal of US troops from Syria over the objections of all his national security advisors was another very troubling move and gift to Putin. In its wake came another report (Christ, was this the biggest news week in American history?) that Trump has more than once raised the issue of pulling the US out of NATO, only to be talked out of it by his horrified military and foreign policy advisors.
The most benign take on this impulse is that it is part of Trump’s general kneejerk isolationism, which is heartstopping enough. (It already benefitted Russia aplenty that Trump repeatedly badmouthed and insulted our NATO partners.) A far more sinister interpretation is that it was in the overt service of Moscow, which for seventy years couldn’t imagine anything better than the alliance’s collapse, impossible as that seemed. As the New York Times reported:
A move to withdraw from the alliance, in place since 1949, “would be one of the most damaging things that any president could do to U.S. interests,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, an under secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It would destroy 70-plus years of painstaking work across multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic, to create perhaps the most powerful and advantageous alliance in history,” Ms. Flournoy said in an interview. “And it would be the wildest success that Vladimir Putin could dream of.”
Res ipsa loquitur.
So let’s shift over to the Russian view on all this for a moment.
Intelligence operations have two components: collection and analysis. The former is sexier, whether it’s secret agents or high tech electronic surveillance, but the latter is where a usable product for the customer is formed, even though it mostly takes place behind desks in windowless rooms. The two phases are of course symbiotic. Poor collection renders analysis irrelevant: garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes. Similarly, the best collection in the world is useless if dummies are interpreting it.
Strictly speaking, it’s imprecise even to say “intelligence collection.” Intelligence is not collected. Intel assets collect information—raw data that is then analyzed and turned into the thing we call “intelligence” for use by the combatant commander. At the tactical level, that intel can be as basic as which rock the enemy machine gun is behind and whether he is going to attack from the hilltop or the treeline. At the national level, it concerns strategic capabilities and long term geopolitical goals.
As the Soviet Union’s premier intelligence agency, the KGB was responsible for many things, but above all, for predicting what the USSR’s enemies were going to do and what the future would look like, so the country’s leadership could craft its counter-strategy in response. (I’ll use the term “KGB”—Комите́т Госуда́рственной Безопа́сности, or Committee for State Security—to encompass the entire alphabet soup of Soviet intelligence.)
In that role, it had become clear to the KGB by the late ‘80s that the Soviet system had reached event horizon, and that not only Communist rule in the USSR but indeed the entire Warsaw Pact would soon fall. The KGB therefore began planning for its top priority and prime directive: ensuring its own survival in the post-Soviet world.
Thus, in the end the infamously ruthless KGB was not loyal to the Soviet Union at all. The KGB was loyal only to the KGB.
The Soviet intelligence community began laying the groundwork for how it would remain intact and empowered as the USSR collapsed and whatever would take its place emerged. In the process, it morphed into the post-1991 successors that we now know—the FSB, SVR, et al—acronyms that have slowly acquired the same chilling effect as that of their ancestor. In retrospect, it also seems clear that the KGB sought to put its own man in power as head of that state, in whatever form it eventually took.
Accordingly, it is no coincidence that, following the brief but intense tumult of the “Wild East” years, Vladimir Putin emerged as the nearly unchecked ruler of a freshly autocratic Russia. If there is one thing the average American knows about Putin, it’s that he was a career KGB officer. (Also, that he does a mean rendition of “Blueberry Hill.”) When Putin assumed power as president of Russia in 2000, he reportedly stood before a podium and joked to the assembled crowd, “Mission accomplished.” But maybe it wasn’t a joke at all.
Since you don’t get to be a KGB lieutenant colonel by being a shrinking violet, Putin’s cunning, competence, and ruthlessness were to be assumed, and his behavior as head of the Russian state for the past 19 years certainly bears that diagnosis out. Since Putin became its leader, the Russian government has behaved exactly the way you would imagine from a violent, highly aggressive intelligence agency with a nation-state attached. From Litvinenko to Politkovskaya to Khodorkovsky to Nemstsov to Browder and Magnitsky to Berezovsky to Skripal to dozens of other journalists and dissidents too numerous to mention, Russia has gone around the world brazenly attacking and even murdering Putin’s opponents, both at home and on foreign soil, with absolute flagrancy.
This is what happens when your spies take over your government.
Fittingly, it was Russia that gave the world its first modern intelligence service, the Cheka, not to mention a rich history of poisoning and other forms of political assassination that goes back to the tsars. So it is only natural that it should be the first modern espiocracy.
And with the installation of Donald Trump as President of the United States, they may well have pulled off the greatest coup in the history of the spy game.
Felix Dzerzhinsky would be proud.
A RAT’S ONLY A RAT IF HE TELLS THE TRUTH
There was of course another giant—but abortive—story last week, the BuzzFeed report that Michael Cohen had told the special counsel that Donald Trump personally ordered him to lie to Congress to cover up the Moscow Tower negotiations, and that Mueller’s team has other sources corroborating this claim.
That story rightly set off fireworks, as it would not only be an undeniably impeachable offense (even by the admission of Trump’s own nominee for Attorney General, a man otherwise predisposed to excuse and defend an imperial presidency), but yet another example of Trump protecting Russia’s interests and his own simultaneously. It would be obstruction-as-collusion in action.
But by Friday night the usually tomb-silent special counsel’s office issued an unprecedented statement that the BuzzFeed story was inaccurate, causing glee in the otherwise besieged White House and rare words of praise from Trump for Team Mueller, along with recriminations and self-flagellation in the press and a whole new round of questions.
Since it can safely be presumed that there have been numerous previous news stories that were inaccurate about what Mueller does or doesn’t know, why did the SCO’s spokesman Peter Carr—who usually has the easiest public affairs job in Washington, saying “no comment” to everything—feel the need to set the record straight on this one?
We don’t yet know.
BuzzFeed may yet be vindicated. The special counsel may have very specific reasons for denying that report, and it may have do with very specific legal language rather its overall gist. Or not. For the moment we are left to ponder, and marvel at the only time the sphinx has yet spoken.
In any case, tune in when Cohen takes the stand before the House Oversight Committee on February 7. (Thanks, midterms!) If I were an advertiser, I would skip the Super Bowl and run my primo commercials then.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Which brings us back to how this nightmare will play out.
We already understood that we were looking at the greatest political scandal in American history. Now, with the revelation of a counterintelligence investigation dating back to the suspicious firing of James Comey, the scale and scope and depth of that scandal have expanded exponentially.
So far a lot of attention has been focused on legal issues, such as whether or not a sitting President can be indicted under the Constitution and what DOJ policy says on the matter. But what if Mueller’s findings aren’t primarily criminal in nature at all, but centered on this counterintelligence matter? What if those findings suggest with a high degree of certainty that Donald Trump is an active Russian agent consciously advancing the cause of the Russian Federation over that of the United States, and therefore an unprecedented threat to US national security?
I can hear Fox Nation chortling (nervously) about “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but in light of the laundry list of evidence, some of which is noted above—not to mention new information that the SCO is likely to reveal—the question, astonishing as it is, must be asked and taken seriously. We are approaching the point where Occam’s razor favors that interpretation—Trump as Russian asset—more so than Trump as simple conspirator.
If that is the upshot of the coming Mueller report, as Carl Bernstein for one has hinted, then the long debate over whether the special counsel’s conclusions will have any impact will be over.
I am not saying that the Republican Party will suddenly discover its missing spine and do the right thing. I doubt it will. But I do think that it will be impossible for the GOP to plausibly dismiss Russiagate as a witchhunt, mere partisanship, or trivial “process” crimes.
If they do, I have to believe that we would be looking at a massive public outcry and possibly near-revolution in the streets. We certainly should be.