Russia probes spotlight ‘deniable’ Kremlin intelligence tactic
For Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, it was a professor he met on a trip to Italy. For Carter Page, a bank official in New York. And for Donald Trump Jr., a lawyer and a lobbyist peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton.
While early revelations about the Trump campaign and Russia focused on the role of Kremlin officials like former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, federal probes have recently homed in on several unofficial intermediaries suspected of doing some of the Kremlin’s most important, and potentially incriminating, dirty work.
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“Of course, they’ve asked about that,” said a source familiar with the questions being posed to Trump associates by federal investigators. The source said investigators are “trying to gather every single bit of information they can” about any contacts Trump campaign aides and advisers had with seemingly independent actors who turned out to be peddling a Kremlin agenda.
Current and former U.S. officials say the Trump-Russia case is spotlighting the way Russia’s intelligence services rely on a worldwide network of shadowy figures — some undercover agents, others paid accomplices in fields like academia, activism and even journalism — to infiltrate and influence western politics and government.
In Papadopoulos’ case, court records show that the young Trump foreign policy adviser had extensive contacts with a London-based Maltese professor whose academic credentials appear mysteriously thin. The professor, identified in media reports as Joseph Mifsud, in turn introduced Papadopoulos to the Russian ambassador in London and a woman he told the Trump aide was the niece of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their goal was to set up meetings to talk about improving U.S.-Russia ties in a Trump presidency.
It was the professor who told Papadopoulos that the Kremlin had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, and after what he said was a meeting in Moscow with Russian officials, that the Kremlin had “thousands” of Clinton emails, according to court documents unsealed this week.
“[T]he Russian government and its intelligence and security services frequently make use of non-governmental intermediaries to achieve their foreign intelligence objectives,” FBI Special Agent Robert Gibbs said in a sworn affidavit in Papadopoulos’ plea agreement, in which the energy consultant pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents in exchange for his cooperation in the ongoing probe. “This structure serves in part to hide the overt involvement of the Russian government and provides deniability about the involvement of the government and its intelligence and security services.”
“I am aware that the Russian government has used individuals associated with academia and think tanks in such a capacity,” Gibbs wrote, in a clear reference to Mifsud. “As a result, the investigation has included the extent to which such intermediaries had contact with individuals associated with the Campaign,” including Papadopoulos.
Mifsud acknowledged to reporters this week that he was the professor in question, but denied any wrongdoing.
The U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment of Russian election meddling also cited the role of “third-party intermediaries,” calling them part of past covert Kremlin influence campaigns that are “designed to be deniable.”
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said Russia has long used such intermediaries to obtain information from unsuspecting targets and to “signal” people to see whether they are open to collusion and susceptible to blackmail. In some cases, they can also set up those people so that they can be blackmailed, he said.
Unknown but significant numbers of Russian agents are believed to be working in the U.S. and abroad to target and test Americans — including academics, journalists, think tank experts and activists, said Mowatt-Larssen, now director of Intelligence and Defense Projects for the Harvard Kennedy School.
“There’s a whole subculture; the illegals, the nongovernmental people,” he added. “They loved recruiting academics.”
The nation’s top spooks and G-men have known since the dawn of the Cold War about Russia’s extensive use of cutouts, and work hard to identify them.
And while some are actual agents of the Soviet Union’s formidable KBG and successor organizations like Russia’s FSB, GRU and SVR, many others really are who they say they are. They just don’t disclose that they are helping — or in some cases being coerced into helping — Russian agents.
Experts say that an international array think tanks, policy institutes and activist organizations, many focusing on “Eurasian affairs,” likely include people who serve as Kremlin intermediaries. Others work solo or in small teams to stay under the radar in target-rich environments like Washington and London.
The Kremlin is also suspected of masking agents as journalists. In June, a man claiming to be a reporter with the French newspaper Le Monde tried to murder a prominent anti-Russian Ukrainian couple during a phony interview in Kiev. Ukrainian officials have also accused a German man named Mirko Mebius of posing as a journalist in their country to collect intelligence for pro-Russian separatist forces in the country.
But many others have burrowed deep into the fabric of the United States and other countries where Americans travel and work
A decade-long counterespionage effort known as “Operation Ghost Stories” ended in July 2010 with the arrest of 10 suspected Russian spies who had been posing as ordinary citizens in the U.S. The sleeper agents were deployed in what U.S. authorities described as Russia’s “Illegals Program,” because they used nonofficial “deep cover” to spend years or even decades cultivating relationships with anyone who might have insight into U.S. politics, policy and intelligence. (Their story inspired the FX television series “The Americans.”)
One of the Russians, financial services adviser Lidiya Guriyeva — who lived in Montclair, New Jersey under the name Cynthia Murphy — was allegedly trying to build a relationship with Alan Patricof, a venture capitalist who co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.