How to Find a Smoking Gun in the Russia Investigation

 In Politics

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.”

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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.

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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[JW1] , 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?”

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