OPINION: Scott Ritter probes Oleg Smolenkov’s role as a CIA asset and the use of his data by the director of the CIA to cast doubt over the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News
Reports that the CIA conducted an emergency exfiltration of a long-time human intelligence source who was highly placed within the Russian Presidential Administration sent shock waves throughout Washington, D.C. The source was said to be responsible for the reporting used by the former director of the CIA, John Brennan, in making the case that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered Russian intelligence services to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election for the purpose of tipping the scales in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. According to CNN’s Jim Sciutto, the decision to exfiltrate the source was driven in part by concerns within the CIA over President Trump’s cavalier approach toward handling classified information, including his willingness to share highly classified intelligence with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a controversial visit to the White House in May 2017.
On closer scrutiny, however, this aspect of the story falls apart, as does just about everything CNN, The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets have reported. There was a Russian spy whose information was used to push a narrative of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; this much appears to be true. Everything else that has been reported is either a mischaracterization of fact or an outright fabrication designed to hide one of the greatest intelligence failures in U.S. history — the use by a CIA director of intelligence data specifically manipulated to interfere in the election of an American president.
The consequences of this interference has deleteriously impacted U.S. democratic institutions in ways the American people remain ignorant of — in large part because of the complicity of the U.S. media when it comes to reporting this story.
This article attempts to set the record straight by connecting the dots presented by available information and creating a narrative shaped by a combination of derivative analysis and informed speculation. At best, this article brings the reader closer to the truth about Oleg Smolenkov’s role as a CIA asset; at worst, it raises issues and questions that will help in determining the truth.
“And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free,” John 8:32, is etched into the wall of the main lobby of the Old CIA Headquarters Building.
In 2007, Oleg Smolenkov was living the life of a Russian diplomat abroad, serving in the Russian embassy in Washington. At 33 years of age, married with a 1-year old son, Smolenkov was the picture of a young diplomat on the rise. A protégé of Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, Smolenkov worked as a second secretary assigned to the Russian Cultural Center, a combined museum and exhibition hall operated by the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (better known by its common Russian name, Rossotrudnichestvo), an autonomous government agency operating under the auspices of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In addition to hosting Russian artists and musicians, Rossotrudnichestvo oversaw a program where it organized all-expense paid cultural exchanges for young Americans to travel to Russia, where they were accommodated in luxury hotels and met with Russian officials. Smolenkov’s boss, Yegeny Zvedre, would also tour the United States, speaking at public forums where he addressed U.S.-Russian cooperation. As for Smolenkov himself, life was much more mundane — he served as a purchasing agent for Rossotrudnichestvo, managing procurement and contract issues for a store operating out of the Rossotrudnichestvo building, which stood separate from the main embassy compound.
Rossotrudnichestvo had a darker side: the FBI long suspected that it operated as a front to recruit Americans to spy for Russia, and as such every Russian employee was viewed as a potential officer in the Russian intelligence service. This suspicion brought with it a level of scrutiny which revealed much about the character of the individual being surveilled, including information of a potentially compromising nature that could be used by the American intelligence services as the basis of a recruitment effort.
Every Russian diplomat assigned to the United States is screened to ascertain his or her susceptibility for recruitment. The FBI does this from a counterintelligence perspective, looking for Russian spies. The CIA does the same, but with the objective of recruiting a Russian source who can remain in the employ of the Russian government, and thereby provide the CIA with intelligence information commensurate to their standing and access. Turning a senior Russian diplomat is difficult; recruiting a junior Russian diplomat like Oleg Smolenkov less so. Someone like Smolenkov would be viewed not so much by the limited access he provided at the time of recruitment, but rather his potential for promotion and the increased opportunity for more essential access provided by such.
The responsibility within the CIA for recruiting Russian diplomats living in the United States falls to the National Resources Division, or NR, part of the Directorate of Operations, or DO — the clandestine arm of the CIA. In a perfect world, the CIA domestic station in Washington, D.C., would coordinate with the local FBI field office and develop a joint approach for recruiting a Russian diplomat such as Smolenkov. The reality is, however, that the CIA and the FBI have different goals and objectives when it comes to the Russians they recruit. As such, Smolenkov’s recruitment was most likely a CIA-only affair, run by NR but closely monitored by the Russian Operations Group of the Agency’s Central Eurasia Division, who would have responsibility for managing Smolenkov upon his return to Moscow.
The precise motive for Smolenkov to take up the CIA’s offer of recruitment remains unknown. He graduated from one of the premier universities in Russia, the Maurice Thorez Moscow State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages, and he married his English language instructor. Normally a graduate from an elite university such as Maurice Thorez has his or her pick of jobs in the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Defense or the security services. Smolenkov was hired by the Foreign Ministry as a junior linguist, assigned to the Second European Department, which focuses on Great Britain, Scandinavia and the Baltics, before getting assigned to the embassy in Washington.
But his job as foreman of the Rossotrudnichestvo coop was not the kind of job a Maurive Thorez graduate gets; Smolenkov had to have felt slighted. He allegedly turned to drink, and his marriage was on the rocks; his colleagues spoke of a man who believed his salary was too low. The enticements of money and future opportunity — the CIA’s principle recruitment ploys — more than likely were a factor in convincing this dissatisfied diplomat to defect. Did the CIA compromise him by dangling the temptation of contract-based embezzlement? Or did the FBI uncover some sort of personal or financial impropriety that made the Russian diplomat vulnerable to recruitment? Only the CIA and Smolenkov know the precise circumstances behind the Russian’s decision to betray his country. But the fact is, sometime in 2007-2008, Smolenkov was recruited by the CIA.
After Smolenkov accepted the CIA’s offer, there was much work to be done — the new agent had to be polygraphed to ascertain his reliability, trained on covert means of intelligence collection, including covert photography, as well as on how to securely communicate with the CIA in order to transmit information and receive instructions. Smolenkov was also introduced to his “handler,” a CIA case officer who would be responsible for managing the work of Smolenkov, including overseeing the bank account where Smolenkov’s CIA “salary” would be deposited. Various contingencies would be prepared for, including procedures for reestablishing communications should the existing means become unavailable, emergency contact procedures and emergency exfiltration plans in case Smolenkov became compromised.
Took Away His Name, and Gave Him a Code
The recruitment of a diplomat willing to return to Moscow and be run in place is a rare accomplishment, and Smolenkov’s identity would become a closely guarded secret within the ranks of the CIA. Smolenkov’s true identity would be known to only a few select individuals; to everyone else who had access to his reporting, he was simply a codename, comprised of a two-letter digraph representing Russia (this code changed over time), followed by a word chosen at random by a CIA algorithm (for example, Adolf Tolkachev, the so-called “billion dollar spy,” was known by the codename CKSPHERE, with CK being the digraph in use for the Soviet Union at the time of his recruitment.) Because the specific details from the information provided by Smolenkov could compromise him as the source, the Russian Operations Group would “blend” his reporting in with other sources in an effort to disguise it before disseminating it to a wider audience.
Smolenkov followed Ambassador Ushakov when the latter departed the United States for Moscow in the summer of 2008; soon after arriving back in Moscow, Smolenkov and his wife divorced. Ushakov took a position as the deputy chief of the Government Staff of the Russian Federation responsible for international relations and foreign policy support. Part of the Executive Office of the Government of the Russian Federation, Ushakov coordinated the international work of the prime minister, deputy prime ministers and senior officials of the Government Executive Office. Smolenkov took up a position working for Ushakov, and soon found himself moving up the ranks of the Russian Civil Service, being promoted in 2010 to the rank of state advisor to the Russian Federation of the Third Class, a second-tier rank that put him on the cusp of joining the upper levels of the Russian government bureaucracy. He was granted a “second-level” security clearance, which allowed him to handle top secret information.
In 2013 Ushakov received a new assignment, this time to serve in the Presidential Executive Office as the aide for international relations. Smolenkov joined Ushakov as his staff manager. Vladimir Putin was one year into his second stint as president and brought Ushakov, who had advised him on foreign relations while Putin was prime minister, to continue that service. Ushakov maintained an office at the Boyarsky Dvor (Courtyard of the Boyars), on 8 Staraya Square.
The Boyarsky Dvor was physically separate from the Kremlin, meaning neither Ushakov nor Smolenkov had direct access to the Russian president. Nevertheless, Smolenkov’s new job had to have pleased his CIA masters. In the five years Smolenkov worked at the Executive Office of the Government, he was not privy to particularly sensitive information. His communications with CIA would most likely have been administrative in nature, with the CIA more interested in Smolenkov’s growth potential than immediate value of any intelligence he could produce.
Smolenkov’s arrival in the Presidential Administration coincided with a period of operational difficulty for the CIA in Moscow. First, the CIA’s internet-based covert communications system, which used Google’s email platform as the foundation for accessing various web pages where information was exchanged between the agent and his CIA handlers, had been globally compromised. Smolenkov had been trained on this system, and it provided his lifeline to the CIA. The compromise first occurred in Iran, and then spread to China; in both countries, entire networks of CIA agents were rounded up, with many being subsequently executed. China is believed to have shared the information on how to detect the covert communication-linked web pages with Russia; fortunately for Moscow Station, they were able to make the appropriate changes in the system to safeguard the security and identity of its agents. In the meantime, communications between the CIA and Smolenkov were cut off until the CIA could make contact using back-up protocols and re-train Smolenkov on the new communications procedures.
Moscow Station, however, was having trouble carrying out its clandestine tasks. In the fall of 2011, the CIA’s chief of station in Moscow, Steven Hall, had been approached by his counterpart in the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, Russia’s equivalent of the FBI) and warned that the CIA should stop trying to recruit agents from within the FSB ranks; the FSB had detected several of these attempts, which it deemed inappropriate given the ongoing cooperation between the intelligence services of the two countries regarding the war on terrorism.
But Hall had his orders, and after a year-long pause to review its operating procedures, Moscow Station resumed its targeting of FSB officers. Things went real bad real fast. In January 2013, a CIA officer named Benjamin Dillon was arrested by the FSB as he tried to recruit a Russian agent, declared persona non grata, and expelled from Russia. Then in May 2013 the FSB arrested another CIA officer, Ryan Fogle. Fogle was paraded before television cameras together with his spy paraphernalia, and like Dillon before him, expelled from the country. Moreover, the Russians, in condemning the CIA actions, revealed the identity of the CIA’s Moscow chief of station (Hall), who because of the public disclosure was compelled to depart Russia.
A CIA Dream
The loss of Dillon and Fogle was a serious blow to Moscow Station, but one from which the CIA could recover. But the near simultaneous loss of two case officers and the chief of station was a different matter altogether. Hall was one of the few people in the CIA who had been “read in” on the recruitment of Smolenkov, and as such was involved in the overall management of the Russian agent. The loss of Hall at this very sensitive time created a problem for both the CIA and Smolenkov. Smolenkov’s new assignment was a dream come true for the CIA — never before had the agency managed to place a controlled agent into the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation.
But while Smolenkov had been able to provide evidence of access, by way of photographs of presidential documents, the CIA needed to confirm that Smolenkov hadn’t been turned by the Russians and was not being used to pass on disinformation designed to mislead those who used Smolenkov’s reporting. Normally this was done by subjecting the agent to a polygraph examination—a “swirl,” in CIA parlance. This examination could take place at an improvised covert location in Russia, or in a more controlled environment outside of Russia, if Smolenkov was able to exit on work or during vacation. But arranging the examination required close coordination between the CIA and its agent, as well as a healthy degree of trust between the agent and those directing him. With communications down, and the chief of station evicted, Smolenkov was left in a state of limbo while the CIA trained up new case officers capable of operating in Moscow and sought a replacement for Hall.
One of the ironies surrounding the arrest and expulsion of CIA officer Fogle, and the subsequent outing and eviction of Hall, was that Smolenkov was ideally positioned to provide an inside perspective on how the Russian leadership reacted to the incident. Smolenkov’s boss, Ushakov, was tasked with overseeing Russia’s diplomatic response. In a statement given to the Russian media, Ushakov expressed surprise at the timing of the incident. “To put it mildly,” Ushakov said, “it is surprising that this extremely crude, clumsy attempt at recruitment took place in a situation where both President Obama and President Putin have clearly stated the importance of more active cooperation and contacts between the special services of the two countries.”
Ushakov coordinated closely with the head of Putin’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, regarding the content of a letter Putin was planning to send in response to a previous communication from Obama. While the original text focused on missile defense issues, Ushakov and Patrushev inserted language about the Fogle incident. As a senior aide to Ushakov, Smolenkov was ideally positioned to gather intelligence about the Russian response. If he was able to communicate this information to the CIA, it would have provided Obama and his advisers time to prepare a response to the Russian letter. The situation meant that Smolenkov may have been reporting on events related to the expulsion of Hall, one of the CIA officers specifically trained to manage his reporting.
Amid the operational challenges and opportunity provided by Smolenkov’s new position within the Russian Presidential Administration, the CIA underwent a radical reorganization which impacted how human agents, and the intelligence they produced, would be managed. The past practice of having intelligence operations controlled by insular regional divisions, which promoted both a physical and philosophical divide between the collectors and their analytical counterparts in the respective regional division within the Directorate of Intelligence, or DI, was discontinued by Brennan, who had taken over as director of the CIA in May 2013.
To replace what he viewed as an antiquated organizational structure, Brennan created what he called “Mission Centers,” which combined analytical, operational, technical and support expertise under a single roof. For Moscow Station and Smolenkov, this meant that the Russia and Eurasia Division, with its Russian Operations Group, no longer existed. Instead, Moscow Station would take its orders from a new Europe and Eurasia Mission Center headed by an experienced CIA Russia analyst named Peter Clement.
Clement, who had earned a PhD in Russian history from Michigan State University, had a diverse resumé with the CIA which included service as the director for Russia on the National Security Council and as the CIA representative to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Clement served as the director of the Office of Russian and Eurasian Analysis and as the CIA’s Russia issue manager from 1997 to 2003; as the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) briefer for Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003-2004, and from 2005-2013, as the deputy director for intelligence for analytic programs. In 2015 Brennan appointed Clement to serve as the deputy assistant director of CIA for Europe and Eurasia, where he directed the activities of the newly created Europe and Eurasia Mission Center. If one was looking for the perfect candidate to manage the fusion of operational, analytical and technical experience into a singular, mission-focused entity, Peter Clement was it.
As Clement got on with the business of whipping the Europe and Eurasia Mission Center into shape, Smolenkov was busy establishing himself as an intelligence source of some value. Smolenkov’s success was directly linked to the work of his boss, Ushakov. In June 2015, Ushakov was put in charge of establishing a high-level working group in the fuel and energy sector for the purpose of improving bilateral cooperation with Azerbaijan. The reporting Smolenkov would have been able to provide on the work of this group would have been of tremendous assistance to those in the Obama administration working on U.S. energy policy, especially as it related to countering Russian moves in the former Soviet Republics.
Another project of interest was Russia’s sale of advanced Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan in support of their counterterrorism efforts. Coming at a time when U.S.-Pakistani relations were floundering, the Russian sale of advanced helicopters was viewed with concern by both the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Again, Smolenkov’s reporting on this issue would have been well received by critical policymakers in both departments.
But the most critical role played by Ushakov was advising Putin on the uncertain state of relations between the U.S. and Russia in the aftermath of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ushakov’s 10-year tenure as Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. gave him unprecedented insight into U.S. decision making, experience and expertise Putin increasingly relied upon as he formulated and implemented responses to U.S. efforts to contain and punish Russia on the international stage.
While Ushakov’s meetings with Putin were conducted either in private, or in small groups of senior advisers, meaning Smolenkov was not present, Smolenkov was able to collect intelligence on the periphery by photographing itineraries and working papers, as well as overhearing comments made by Ushakov, that collectively would provide U.S. policymakers with important insight into Putin’s thinking.
Managing an important resource like Smolenkov was one of the critical challenges faced by Clement and the Europe and Eurasia Mission Center. Smolenkov’s reporting continued to be handled using special HUMINT procedures designed to protect the source. However, within the Center knowledge of Smolenkov’s work would have been shared with analysts who worked side by side with their operational colleagues deciding how the intelligence could best be used, as well as coming up with follow-up questions for Smolenkov regarding specific issues of interest.
Given the unique insight Smolenkov’s reporting provided into Putin’s thinking, it would be logical that intelligence sourced from Smolenkov would frequently find itself briefed to the president and his inner circle via the PDB process, which was exacting in terms of vetting the accuracy and reliability of any intelligence reporting that made it onto its pages. As a long-time Russia expert with extensive experience in virtually every aspect of how the CIA turned raw reporting into finished intelligence, Clement was ideally suited to making sure his Center handled the Smolenkov product responsibly, and in a manner which maximized its value.
Meanwhile, Moscow Station continued to exhibit operational problems. By 2015 the CIA had managed to rebuild its stable of case officers operating from the U.S. embassy. But the FSB always seemed to be one step ahead. According to the FSB, the Russians were adept at identifying CIA officers working under State Department cover and would subject these individuals to extensive surveillance. As if to prove the Russian’s point, in short order the FSB rounded up the newly assigned case officers, along with the deputy chief of station, declared them persona non grata, and expelled them from Russia. To make matters worse, the FSB released surveillance video of all these officers, who in some cases were joined by their spouses, as they engaged in elaborate ruses to evade Russian surveillance in order to carry out their covert assignments.
Moscow Station’s string of bad luck continued into 2016, when one of its officers, having been detected by the FSB during a meeting, fled via taxi to the U.S. embassy, only to be tackled by a uniformed FSB officer as he tried to enter the compound. In the scuffle that followed, the CIA officer managed to make entry into the embassy building, compelling the FSB guard to release him once jurisdiction was lost. The CIA officer, who suffered a separated shoulder during the incident, left Russia shortly thereafter, together with a female colleague who had also been detected by the FSB while engaged in clandestine activities and subsequently declared persona non grata.
The FSB indicated, at the time these two officers were being expelled, that it had evicted three other CIA officers during the year. In addition to the decimation of its staff, Moscow Station was experiencing an alarming number of its agents being discovered by the FSB and arrested. While the Russians were circumspect about most of these cases, on several occasions they indicated that they had uncovered a spy by intercepting the electronic communications between him and the CIA. This meant that the Russians were aware of, and actively pursuing, the Google-based internet-based system used by the CIA to communicate with its agents in Russia.
Meanwhile, Smolenkov continued to send his reports to his CIA handlers unabated, using the same internet-based system. Under normal circumstances, an exception to compromise would raise red flags within the counterintelligence staff that evaluated an agent’s reporting and activity. But by the summer of 2016, nothing about the work of the CIA, and in particular the Europe and Eurasia Mission Center could be considered “normal” when it came to the Russian target.
Little White Envelope
Sometime in early August 2016, a courier from the CIA arrived at the White House carrying a plain, unmarked white envelope. Inside was an intelligence report from Smolenkov that CIA Director Brennan considered to be so sensitive that he kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restrictive process was too inclusive to adequately protect the source. The intelligence was to be read by four people only — Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. The document was to be returned to the courier once it had been read.
The contents of the report were alarming —Putin had personally ordered the cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential election in favor of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump.
The intelligence report was not a product of Clement’s Europe and Eurasia Mission Center, but rather a special unit of handpicked analysts from the CIA, NSA and FBI who were brought together under great secrecy in late July and reported directly to Brennan. These analysts were made to sign non-disclosure agreements protecting their work from their colleagues.
This new analytical unit focused on three new sensitive sources of information — the Smolenkov report, additional reporting provided by a former MI6 officer named Christopher Steele, and a signals intelligence report provided by a Baltic nation neighboring Russia. The Steele information was of questionable provenance, so much so that FBI Director James Comey could not, or would not, vouch for its credibility. The same held true for the NSA’s assessment of the Baltic SIGINT report. By themselves, the Steele reporting and Baltic SIGINT report were of little intelligence value. But when viewed together, they were used to corroborate the explosive contents of the Smolenkov intelligence. The White House found the Smolenkov report so convincing that in September 2016, during a meeting of the G-20 in China, Obama pulled Putin aside and told him to stop meddling in the U.S. election. Putin was reportedly nonplussed by Obama’s intervention.
It is extraordinarily difficult for a piece of intelligence to be deemed important and reliable enough to be briefed to the president of the United States. The principal forum for such a briefing is the Presidential Daily Brief, which prior to 2004 was a product produced exclusively by the CIA. When the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was signed into law in 2004, the responsibility for the PDB was transferred to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), a newly created entity responsible for oversight and coordination of the entire Intelligence Community, or IC. The PDB is considered to be an IC product, the production of which is coordinated by ODNI’s PDB staff in partnership with the CIA Directorate of Intelligence (DI)’s President’s Analytic Support Staff.
Since he began reporting about his work in the Russian Presidential Administration in 2013, Smolenkov had, on numerous occasions, produced intelligence whose content and relevance was such that it would readily warrant inclusion in the PDB. After 2015, the decision to submit a Smolenkov-sourced report for inclusion in the PDB would be made by Clement and his staff. For a report to be nominated, it would have to pass an exacting quality control review process which evaluated it for accuracy, relevance and reliability.
Sometime in the leadup to August 2016, this process was halted. Oleg Smolenkov was a controlled asset of the CIA. While he was given certain latitude on what information he could collect, generally speaking Smolenkov worked from an operations order sent to him by his CIA controllers which established priorities for intelligence collection based upon information provided by Smolenkov about what he could reasonably access. Before tasking Smolenkov, his CIA handlers would screen the request from an operational and counterintelligence perspective, conducting a risk-reward analysis that weighed the value of the intelligence being sought with the possibility of compromise. Only then would Smolenkov be cleared to collect the requested information.
It is not publicly known what prompted the report from Smolenkov which Brennan found so alarming. Was it received out of the blue, a target of opportunity which Smolenkov exploited? Was it based upon a specific tasking submitted by Smolenkov’s CIA handlers in response to a tasking from above? Or was it a result of the intervention of the CIA director, who tasked Smolenkov outside normal channels? In any event, once Brennan created his special analytical unit, Smolenkov became his dedicated source. If Smolenko was in this for the money, as appears to be the case, he would have been motivated to come up with the “correct” answer to Brennan’s tasking for information on Putin’s role. By late 2016, Western media had made quite clear what kind of answer Brennan wanted.
Every intelligence report produced by a controlled asset is subjected to a counterintelligence review where it is examined for any evidence of red flags that could be indicative of compromise. One red flag is the issue of abnormal access. Smolenkov did not normally have direct contact with Putin, if ever. His intelligence reports would have been written from the perspective of the distant observer. His report about Putin’s role in interfering in the 2016 election, however, represented a whole new level of access and trust. Under normal circumstances, a report exhibiting such tendency would be pulled aside for additional scrutiny; if the report was alarming enough, the CIA might order the agent to be subjected to a polygraph to ensure he had not been compromised.
This did not happen. Instead, Brennan took the extraordinary measure of sequestering the source from the rest of the Intelligence Community. He also confronted the head of the Russian FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, about the risks involved in interfering in U.S. elections.
Whether Brennan further tasked Smolenkov to collect on Putin is not known. Nor is it known whether Smolenkov produced more than that single report about Putin’s alleged direct role in ordering the Russian intelligence services to intervene in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Despite Brennan’s extraordinary effort to keep the existence of a human source within the Russian Presidential Administration a closely-held secret, by December 2016 both The Washington Post and The New York Times began quoting their sources about the existence of a sensitive intelligence source close to the Russian president. The timing of these press leaks coincided with Smolensky being fired from his job working for the Presidential Administration; the method of firing came in the form of a secret decree. When the CIA found out, they desperately tried to convince Smolenkov to agree to extraction, fearing for his safety should he remain in Moscow. This Smolenkov allegedly refused to do, prompting the counterintelligence-minded within the CIA to become concerned that Brennan and his coterie of analysts had been taken for a ride by a Russian double agent.
Smolenkov’s firing occurred right before the Intelligence Community released its much-anticipated assessment on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Like the special analytical unit created by Brennan to handle the intelligence about Putin ordering the Russian intelligence services to intervene in favor of Trump in the 2016 election, Brennan opted to produce the Russian interference assessment outside the normal channels. Usually, when the IC opts to produce an assessment, there is a formal process which has a national intelligence officer (NIO) from within the National Intelligence Council take the lead on coordinating the collection and assessment of all relevant intelligence. The NIO usually coordinates closely with the relevant Mission Centers to ensure no analytical stone was left unturned in the pursuit of the truth.
The 2016 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) was produced differently — no Mission Center involvement, no NIO assigned, no peer review. Just Brennan’s little band of sequestered analysts.
Smolenkov’s information took top billing in the ICA, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” published on Jan. 6, 2017. “We assess,” the unclassified document stated, “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Smolenkov’s reporting appears to be the sole source for this finding.
The ICA went on to note, “We have high confidence in these judgments.” According to the Intelligence Community’s own definition, “high confidence’” generally indicates judgments based on high-quality information, and/or the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment. A “high confidence” judgment is not a fact or a certainty, however, and still carries a risk of being wrong.
The same day the ICA was published, Brennan, accompanied by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, met with President-elect Trump in Trump Tower, where he was briefed on the classified information behind the Russian ICA. Included in this briefing was the intelligence from “a top-secret source” close to Putin which sustained the finding of Putin’s direct involvement.
Brennan had sold the Smolenkov reporting to both President Obama and President-elect Trump, along with the rest of the intelligence community, as “high-quality information.” It was, at best, nothing more than uncorroborated rumor or, at worst, simple disinformation. This reporting, which was parroted by an unquestioning mainstream media that accepted it as fact, created an impression amongst the American public that Vladimir Putin had personally ordered and directed a Russian interference campaign during the 2016 election designed “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible,” according to the ICA.
As CIA director, Brennan understood very well the role played by intelligence in shaping the decisions of key policy makers, and the absolute need for those who brief the president and his key advisers to ensure only the highest quality information and derived assessments are briefed. In this, Brennan failed.
Coming in From the Cold
After being fired from his position within the Presidential Administration, Smolenkov continued to live in Moscow, very much a free man. By this time he was the father of three children, his new wife having given birth to two daughters. Following Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, Brennan resigned as CIA director. By May, Brennan was testifying before Congress about the issue of Russian interference. Increasingly, attention was being drawn to the existence of a highly-placed source near Putin, with both The New York Times and The Washington Post publishing surprisingly detailed reports.
Concerned that Smolenkov could be arrested by the Russians and, in doing so, have control over the narrative of Russian interference transfer to Moscow, the CIA once again approached Smolenkov to defect to the United States. This time the Russian agent agreed.
In July 2017, Smolenkov, accompanied by his wife and three children, travelled to Montenegro on vacation. They arrived in the resort city of Tivat, flying on a commercial air flight from Moscow. The CIA took control of the family a few days later, spiriting them away aboard a yacht that had been moored at the Tivat marina. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Smolenkov and his family were placed under the control of the CIA’s resettlement unit.
According to the Russian media, Smolenkov’s disappearance was discovered in September 2017. The FSB opened an investigation into the matter, initially suspecting foul play. Soon, however, the FSB reached a different conclusion — that Smolenkov and his family had defected to the United States.
Normally a defector would be subjected to a debriefing, inclusive of a polygraph, to confirm that he or she had not been turned into a double agent. Smolenkov had, over the course of a decade of spying, accumulated a considerable amount of money which the CIA was holding in escrow. This money would be released to Smolenkov upon the successful completion of his debriefing. In the case of Smolenkov, however, there doesn’t seem to have been a detailed, lengthy debriefing. His money was turned over to him. Sometime in June 2018, Smolenkov and his wife bought a home worth nearly $1 million in northern Virginia. The couple used their real names. They were not afraid.
I can only speculate as to the circumstances that led to Smolenkov’s firing by secret decree. Normally, Russians charged with transmitting classified material to the intelligence services of a foreign state are arrested, placed on trial and given lengthy prison sentences, or worse. This did not happen to Smolenkov.
But this does not mean the Russian authorities were ignorant of his activities. This raises another possibility, that Smolenkov could have been turned by the Russian security services before he had compromised any classified information, and that he operated as a double agent his entire CIA career. Since the only classified information he transferred would, in this case, be approved for release by the Russian security services, he would not have technically committed a crime. If Smolenkov was working both sides, it could have been a Russian vehicle to create distrust between the U.S. intelligence community and Trump.
Smolenkov was fired, and left to his own devices, once his utility to Russia had expired. Having escaped being arrested as a spy, Smolenkov believed he might be able to live a normal life in Moscow. But when the potential for compromise arose due to leaks to the press, I asses that it was in the CIA’s interest to bring Smolenkov in, if for no other reason than to control the narrative of Russian interference.
There are three scenarios that could be at play regarding Smolenkov’s bone fides as a human intelligence source for the CIA. First, that this was a solid recruitment, that Smolenkov was the high-level asset the CIA and Brennan claim he was, and the information he provided regarding the involvement of Putin was unimpeachable. Mitigating against this is the fact that when Smolenkov was fired from his position in late 2016, he was not arrested and put on trial for spying.
Russia is fully capable of conducting secret trials, and controlling the information that is made available about such a trial. Moreover, Russia is a vindictive state–persons who commit treason are not tolerated. As Putin himself noted in comments made in March 2018, “Traitors will kick the bucket. Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those thirty pieces silver they were given, they will choke on them.” The odds of Smolenkov being fired for committing treason, and then being allowed to voluntarily exit Russia with his family and passports, are virtually nil.
The second scenario is a variation of the first, where Smolenkov starts as a solid recruitment, with his reporting commensurate with his known level of access–peripheral contact with documents and information pertaining to the work of the aide to President Putin on international relations. Sometime in July 2016 Smolenkov produces a report that catches the attention of DCI Brennan, who flags it and pulls Smolenkov out of the normal operational channels for CIA-controlled human sources, and instead creating a new, highly-compartmentalized fusion cell to handle this report, and possibly others.
Three questions emerge from the second scenario. First, was Smolenkov responding to an urgent tasking from Brennan to find out how high up the Russian chain of command went the knowledge of the alleged DNC cyber attack, or did Smolenkov produce this report on his own volition? Was Brennan arranging evidence to show that there was indeed a Russian hack. After all, all the FBI had to go by was a draft of a report by the virulently anti-Russian private security firm CrowdStrike. The FBI never examined the DNC server itself.
In any case, the Smolenkov report in the white envelope represented a level of access that would have significantly deviated from what one could expect from a person in his position and which suggests he may have been telling the CIA what he knew Brennan wanted to hear. As such, normal counterintelligence procedures should have mandated an operational pause while the intelligence report in question was scrubbed to ensure viability. Under no circumstances would a report so flagged be allowed to be put into the Presidential Daily Brief. However, by pulling the report from the control of the Europe and Eurasian Mission Center, turning it over to a stand-alone fusion cell, and bypassing the PDB process to brief the president and a handful of advisors, there would be no counterintelligence concerns raised. This implies that Brennan had a role in the tasking of Smolenkov, and was waiting for the report to come in, which Brennan then took control of to preclude any counter-intelligence red flags being raised.
The third scenario is that Smolenkov, a low-level failure of a diplomat with drinking issues, marital problems and monetary frustrations, was recruited by the CIA, but only with the complicity of the Russian security services. The same red flags that the CIA looks for when recruiting agents are also looked at by Russian counterintelligence. At what point in the recruitment process the Russians stepped in is unknown (if they did at all.) But it is curious that this professional failure was suddenly transferred from running a co-op to being the right hand man of one of the most influential foreign policy experts in Russia–Yuri Ushakov.
Moreover, this muddling diplomat whose questionable behavioral practices scream “recruit me” is, within three years of returning to Moscow, given a significant promotion that enables him to follow Ushakov into the Presidential Administration–a posting which would require extensive vetting by the Russian security services. Smolenkov’s promotion pattern is enough, in and of itself, to raise red flags within the counterintelligence offices tasked with monitoring such things. The fact that it did not indicates that the quality and quantity of reporting being provided by Smolenkov was deemed by the Americans too important to interfere with.
In this scenario, Smolenkov would have been playing to a script written by the Russian security services. Since he, technically, had broken no laws by serving as a double agent, he would not be subjected to arrest and trial. But once his existence became the fodder of the U.S. media via inference and speculation, his services as a double agent were no longer needed. He was fired from his position, via a secret Presidential proclamation, and set free to live his life as he saw fit.
The most pressing question that emerges from this possibility is why? Why would the Russian security services want to cook the books, so to speak, in a manner which made the Russians look guilty of the very thing they were publicly denying?
In my view, if one assumes that the Smolenkov July 2016 report at the center of this drama was not a result of serendipity, but rather a product derived from a specific request from his CIA managers to find out how high up in the Russian decision-making chain the authorization went for what U.S. intelligence agencies were already publicly pushing as an alleged DNC cyber attack, then the answer I believe becomes clear–the Russians knew the U.S. had an intelligence deficit. I am speculating here, but if the Russians provided an answer guaranteed to attract attention at a critical time in the U.S. presidential election process, it would inject the CIA and its reporting into the democratic processes of the United States, and thereby politicize the CIA and the entire intelligence community by default. This would suppose, however, that the agencies did not have their own motives for wanting to stop Trump.
In this scenario, the Russians would have been in control of when to expose the CIA’s activities–all they had to do was fire Smolenkov, which in the end they did, right as Smolenkov’s report was front and center in the post-election finger-pointing that was taking place regarding the allegation of Russian interference. The best acts of political sabotage are done subtlety, where the culprit remains in the shadows while the victims proceed, unaware that they have been played.
For the Russians, it didn’t matter who won the election, even if they may have favored Trump; simply getting President Obama to commit to the bait by confronting Putin at the G20 meeting in September 2016 would have been a victory, because I assess that at that point the Russians knew that they were driving the American narrative. When the President of the United States acts on intelligence that later turns out to be false, it is an embarrassment that drives a wedge between the intelligence community and the Executive Branch of government. I have no solid evidence for this. But in my speculation on what may have happened, this was the Russian objective–to drive that wedge.
An Idyllic Truce
In my view, the CIA, Russia and Smolenkov were happy to maintain the status quo, with Smolenkov living in comfortable retirement with his family, the CIA continuing to accuse Russia of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, and Russia denying it. As well, Russia seems to have brushed off the sanctions that resulted from this alleged “interference.” This idyllic truce started to unravel in May 2019, when Trump ordered Attorney General William Barr to “get to the bottom” of what role the CIA played in initiating the investigation into allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians that led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller’s investigation concluded earlier this year, with a 400-plus page report being published which did not find any evidence of active collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Trump’s instructions to Barr are linked to a desire on the part of the president to hold to account those responsible for creating the narrative of possible collusion. Reports indicate that Barr is particularly interested in finding out how and why the CIA concluded that Putin personally ordered the Russian intelligence services to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Barr’s investigation will inevitably lead him to the intelligence report that was hand couriered to the White House in early August 2016, which would in turn lead to Smolenkov, and in doing so open up the can of worms of Smolenkov’s entire history of cooperation with the CIA. Not only could the entire foundation upon which the intelligence community has based its assessment of Russian interference collapse, it could also open the door for potential charges of criminal misconduct by Brennan and anyone else who helped him bypass normal vetting procedures and, in doing so, allowed a possible Russian double agent to influence the decisions of the president of the United States.
Seen in this light, the timing of the CNN and New York Times reports about the “exfiltration” of the CIA’s “sensitive source” seems to be little more than a blatant effort by Brennan and his allies in the media to shape a narrative before Barr uncovers the truth.
At the end of the day, Smolenkov and his family are not at risk. If the Russian government wanted to exact revenge for his actions, it would have done so after firing him in late 2016. In any event, Smolenkov and his family would never have been allowed to leave Russia had he been suspected or accused of committing crimes against the state. A few days following Smolenkov’s “outing” by the U.S. media, the Russian government filed a request with Interpol for an investigation into how someone who had gone missing in Montenegro was now living in the United States.
The only person at risk from this entire sordid affair is Brennan, whose reputation and potential livelihood is on the line. At best, Brennan is guilty of extremely poor judgement; at worst, he actively conspired to use the office of Director of the CIA to interfere in the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. Neither option speaks well of the U.S. Intelligence Community and those in Congress charged with oversight of its operations.
Watch Scott Ritter discussing this article on CN Live! Episode 9.
Consortium News does not necessarily endorse the views of its authors.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.
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