- CNN says decision made shortly after 2017 Oval Office meeting
- US officials alarmed by Trump’s private meeting with Putin
The US extracted “one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government” in 2017, it was reported on Monday, in part because of concerns that mishandling of classified intelligence by Donald Trump and his administration could jeopardise the source’s safety.
CNN cited “multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge” of the matter and said “a person directly involved in the discussions” said the move was made because Trump and his officials could not be fully trusted.
Describing a “culmination of months of mounting fear within the intelligence community”, CNN said the decision to carry out the extraction was made shortly after a now infamous Oval Office meeting in May 2017 in which Trump, who had recently fired the FBI director, James Comey, discussed highly sensitive intelligence concerning Isis in Syria with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the then ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
The report also said US officials had been alarmed by Trump’s private meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Hamburg in July that year.
CNN cited “a source with knowledge of the intelligence community’s response” to the Trump-Putin meeting as saying: “Officials again expressed concern that the president may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia.”
It also said Trump and “a small number of senior officials” were “informed in advance of the extraction”.
The report added: “Details of the extraction itself remain secret and the whereabouts of the asset today are unknown to CNN.”
The leak in 2010 of classified US diplomatic cables revealed how successive US administrations have struggled to find high-level assets inside the Russian government with genuine knowledge of key decisions and players.
Generally speaking, US diplomats have relied on a public network of scholars and Russian journalists to make sense of Kremlin affairs. The Kremlin – made up largely of ex-KGB officers – is paranoid about western spies, especially American ones.
The penalty for cooperating with western intelligence services has been laid bare in a series of extraterritorial assassinations, including the 2006 polonium murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, and the 2018 novichok attack on the former GRU military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
In 2017 Russia arrested two top cybersecurity officials in the FSB security services and charged them with treasonous links to the CIA. Russian media reported that one of the men had been marched out of a gathering at the FSB with a bag over his head.
The last-known US intelligence asset to be exfiltrated from Russia was Alexander Poteyev, a deputy director of the “illegals” programme of spies operating in the US run by Russia’s foreign intelligence service. He escaped Russia in 2010, shortly before the FBI rounded up 10 Russian agents in the US whose identities it is believed he gave away to the Americans. Tried in absentia in Russia, it was reported he fled the country via Belarus on a passport belonging to a Russian citizen who had previously applied for a US visa. He now lives in hiding in the US.
On Monday, John Sipher, a former member of the CIA Senior Intelligence Service, wrote on Twitter: “Recruiting a source with key access is extremely hard. A source in a key position may happen once a generation, if ever. Keeping him or her safe is daunting work. It is a big deal to lose these kind of sources.”
The mystery of Trump’s relationship with – and publicly expressed regard for – Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, fuels continued speculation.
Earlier this year, special counsel Robert Mueller concluded a near-two-year investigation of the matter. Mueller did not establish a conspiracy between Trump aides and Moscow but he did lay out extensive contacts between Trump and Russia and numerous instances of possible obstruction of justice by the president.
On Monday, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN its reporting was “not only incorrect, it has the potential to put lives in danger”.
The CIA director of public affairs, Brittany Bramell, said its “narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false.
“Misguided speculation that the president’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence – which he has access to each and every day – drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate.”
Shortly after the CNN report was released, the president attacked the network on Twitter.
Trump did not immediately mention the report, instead commenting on the network’s corporate fortunes and adding: “But most importantly, CNN is bad for the USA.”