For nearly a decade, U.S. spies reportedly had a mole inside the Kremlin feeding them inside information on high-level decision-making by one of America’s most powerful foreign adversaries. The intelligence included everything from President Vladimir Putin’s personal involvement in a campaign to help Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency to photographs of documents on the Russian leader’s desk.
But as scrutiny of Russia’s 2016 election interference campaign intensified, U.S. officials worried their source would be exposed. So they arranged for him to escape Russia – an “exfiltration” in the jargon of spies – and begin a new life in a quiet Washington exurb.
The extraordinary tale, first reported this week by CNN and The New York Times, demonstrated the depth of the United States’s penetration of Mr. Putin’s government, even as the mole’s extraction from the Kremlin raised fears of a blind spot in American intelligence ahead of the 2020 presidential vote.
And it revived questions about Mr. Trump’s sharing of foreign intelligence with Russian officials, which CNN reported helped prompt the decision to pull the source from Moscow.
Neither the Times nor CNN named the alleged mole, but Russian media on Tuesday identified him as Oleg Smolenkov, a former Kremlin official who vanished with his wife and three children in June, 2017, during a holiday in Montenegro.
Mr. Smolenkov reportedly worked for Yury Ushakov, Russia’s ambassador to Washington from 1999 to 2008. When Mr. Ushakov returned to Moscow as a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Putin, Mr. Smolenkov came with him.
The Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency recruited the mole decades ago when he was a mid-level official. He ultimately rose to a position in the Kremlin that included direct access to Mr. Putin. The mole was even able to take pictures of the Russian President’s papers and pass them to his U.S. handlers, CNN said.
Among the most important information the source passed on to Washington was intelligence about Mr. Putin’s hands-on role in Russia’s attempts to tip the 2016 election to Mr. Trump. Russian spies stole embarrassing documents from Democratic Party officials and released them through WikiLeaks, while an army of trolls in St. Petersburg spread pro-Trump propaganda on Facebook.
But after U.S. intelligence officials revealed Mr. Putin’s role in late 2016, the mole’s handlers feared he would soon be found out by the Russians, the Times said. So they planned an operation to get him out of the country. At first, the source was reluctant to leave, the paper reported, but he ultimately agreed in the spring on 2017.
CNN reported that U.S. officials wanted to pull the mole at least in part because Mr. Trump shared classified Israeli intelligence with Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, Russian Foreign Minister and then-U.S. ambassador, at an Oval Office meeting in May, 2017. The CIA denied this detail of the story.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Tuesday that Mr. Smolenkov had worked for Mr. Putin’s government, but played down his importance. Mr. Peskov said Mr. Smolenkov did not have access to Mr. Putin and was fired in 2016 or 2017. “It is true, Smolenkov used to work in the presidential administration, but a few years ago he was dismissed through an internal instruction,” Mr. Peskov told reporters.
Property records in the name of Mr. Smolenkov and his wife showed that the couple bought a six-bedroom house last year in an exurban area of Virginia, near the U.S. capital.
Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell called for an investigation to determine whether Mr. Trump’s sharing of classified information with Russians prompted the decision to pull the mole out.
Mark Simakovsky, a former U.S. Defence and State Department official who worked on the Russia file, said it is an “exceptional case” for American intelligence to have had a source in the office of a foreign leader.
“To have seen a source rise to that level would have been incredibly valuable – almost in the crown jewels of Russia-focused intelligence,” Mr. Simakovsky, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said in an interview. “His exfiltration would have been one of the most damaging blows to U.S. intelligence efforts in Russia in years, if not decades. It will undoubtedly hinder the CIA’s efforts to understand Russian action and intentions in the upcoming election.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Tuesday that reporting on the story was dangerous. “The reporting is so egregious as to create enormous risk to the United States of America," he said at a White House briefing, without specifying what about the story was incorrect.
In the world of spy-vs.-spy, the sort of extraction that reportedly spirited the CIA’s source to the U.S. is considered a crowning achievement.
One example was Canada’s rescue of Russian double agent Yevgeni Brik in 1992. Mr. Brik had secretly fed information to Canadian officials for several years in the 1950s when he was posted to Ottawa. But he was found out by his Soviet superiors and disappeared into the gulag system.
When the Canadian government re-established contact with Mr. Brik decades later, they crafted a secret plan to assign him a fake identity and convey him out of Russia. The operation was a success and Mr. Brik spent the rest of his life in Canada.
“He had been promised that Canada would accept him back when he left for Russia 40 years earlier. This operation was to honour that promise,” said Donald Mahar, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service counterintelligence officer who helped find Mr. Brik and accompanied him during his escape. “These operations are very expensive and require strict attention to detail. … Failure could lead to imprisonment, or even death.”
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