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Some Useful Trump/Russia Definitions

The Trump/Russia scandal has filled our heads with a lot of intelligence jargon. Unwitting asset. Agent. Active measures. But what do these words actually mean?

Someone pointed me to the CIA’s own Glossary of Intelligence Terms, created in 1989. Granted it’s a bit outdated, but it’s also quite helpful. (I am indebted to The Black Vault, an online repository of declassified documents for the glossary.)

Here’s how the CIA defines active measures:

Active measures: A literal translation of a Russian phrase that is used to describe overt and covert techniques and intelligence operations designed to advance Soviet foreign policy objectives and to influence events in foreign countries by altering people’s perceptions. Active measures should not be confused with legitimate diplomatic activities.

We often hear Trump described as a possible asset, unwitting or otherwise, of Russia. But according to the CIA’s glossary this isn’t the right use of the word.

Agent (1) A person who engages in clandestine intelligence activity under the direction of an intelligence organization but who is not an officer, employee, or co-opted worker of that organization. (2) An individual who acts under the direction of an intelligence agency or security service to obtain, or assist in obtaining, information for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes. (3) One who is authorized or instructed to obtain or to assist in obtaining information for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes.

A better word is asset.

Asset: (1) Any resource — a person, group, relationship, instrument installation, supply — at the disposition of an intelligence agency for use in an operational or support role. (2) A person who contributes to a clandestine mission but is not a fully controlled agent. (Also see intelligence asset, national intelligence asset, and tactical intelligence asset.)

We recently learned that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump after his firing of James Comey. Here’s how the CIA defines it.

Counterintelligence: Information gathered and activities conducted to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted for or on behalf of foreign powers, organizations, persons, or terrorist activities, but not including personnel, physical, document, or communications security programs. (Also see foreign counterintelligence, security countermeasures, and technical surveillance countermeasures.)

It’s interesting to view propaganda from an intelligence perspective.

Propaganda: Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.

The dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele is often described as raw intelligence.

Raw intelligence: A colloquial term meaning collected intelligence information that has not yet been converted into finished intelligence. (Also see intelligence information.)

That takes us to another definition.

Finished intelligence: (1) The product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign countries or areas. (2) The final result of the production step of the intelligence cycle; the intelligence product. (Also see intelligence cycle and end product.)

Let me know if this is helpful or there are any other terms you’d like to see explained.

Is the President a Russian Agent?

Back-to-back newspaper stories have brought up the central question that motivated me when I began this blog two years ago: Is the president of the United States an agent of a foreign power?

First came the blockbuster January 11th story in The New York Times revealing that the FBI grew so concerned about the president’s behavior after his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey that they began an extraordinary investigation into whether the president was working on behalf of Russia against American interests.

That was followed by a report in The Washington Post about the “extraordinary” measures the president has taken to hide the details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump reportedly grabbed the notes of his own interpreter and instructed the linguist not to tell other administration officials what he had discussed with the Russian leader.

The common thread in both of these extraordinary stories is what a criminal investigator might call Trump’s “consciousness of guilt.” The president is behaving as though he has something to hide when it comes to Russia and is acting to cover up a crime.

The president fired James Comey because his agents were investigating the president’s ties to Russia, as he told NBC’s Lester Holt. An early draft of Comey’s dismissal letter also referenced Russia. And why would Trump keep the details of his conversations with Putin secret from his own administration unless he had something to hide?

Last evening, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro put this remarkable question to the president when he called in to her show: “Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?”

Trump’s answer is a “non-denial denial” — something that sounds like a denial but isn’t. Missing from this answer is the word “No.”

“It’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked” goes in the pantheon of other famous non-answers like Nixon’s “I am not a crook” Mark McGwire’s “I’m not here to talk about the past” and Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Here’s the thing about espionage: Trump can be an asset of Russia and still believe he’s not. In spy terms, this would make him an unwitting agent asset — someone who is unaware that he or she is being exploited by an intelligence operative as a means of attack by an adversary. It’s like a chess piece that thinks it’s moving around on the board as it wishes, unaware it is being guided by an unseen hand.

Putin, after all, is a master manipulator, who spent 16 years in the KGB “studying studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” as Fiona Hill, senior director for Russian and European Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council wrote in her aptly titled book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. (Hill, not surprisingly, was one of the ones kept in the dark about Trump’s conversations with Putin.)

Trump’s enormously fragile ego make him ripe for exploitation. You get a glimpse of how this works in a Washington Post story about phone conversations between Trump and Putin.

The Russian president complains to Trump about “fake news” and laments that the U.S. foreign policy establishment — the “deep state,” in Putin’s words — is conspiring against them, the first senior U.S. official said.

“It’s not us,” Putin has told Trump, the official summarized. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.”

We also see it in a photo op at the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. ,

… the Russian president leaned in to Mr. Trump, gestured to the journalists in the room, and asked: “These are the ones insulting you?”

“These are the ones. You’re right about that,” Mr. Trump responded.

What we don’t see or hear are the conversations taking place where Trump is getting fed actual Kremlin talking points. Since Trump doesn’t read and doesn’t study history how did he come to believe that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to fight terrorism or that Montenegro was going to start World War III?

Let’s not forget all the president’s policies that support Russia’s interests and undermine America’s: his attacks on NATO, his abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria, and his inability to protect the United States from a repeat of Russia’s 2016 attack on our democracy. If Putin had given Trump a checklist of items he wanted take care of, the end result wouldn’t look much different.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president of the United States, most likely without realizing it, is acting as an asset of a foreign power.

It may have taken most people a long time to come around to this ugly reality (if they’ve come around at all) but it’s been plain as day to intelligence officials ever since the presidential campaign.

“In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” Michael Morrell, former acting director of the CIA, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in August 2016.

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said the same thing when he pointed out how Putin’s dealings with the president showed what a great case officer the Russian president was.

The back-to-back explosive stories over the weekend are another signal flare being sent up from inside the Trump administration. The stories, which both involved events in 2017, may have been meant to invite a congressional subpoena to the FBI agents or Trump’s translator. With the Democrats in control of the House, they may get their chance.

Who is Victor Boyarkin?

The elusive Mr. Boyarkin

Victor Boyarkin, a close aide to the sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, is getting some unwanted attention these days.

“How did you find me here?” Boyarkin asked a TIME magazine reporter who managed to track him down at a conference in Greece.

Boyarkin, reportedly a former colonel in the GRU, is part of the constellation of intelligence officers employed by Deripaska that help him maintain his proximity to the Kremlin’s inner circle.

TIME had questions for Boyarkin about Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. References to Boyarkin (“Victor” and “our friend V”) were sprinkled in emails to Manafort during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Tell V boss that if he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote to his associate, Konstantin Kliminik.

Boyarkin told TIME he was talking to Manafort during the presidential campaign to collect on a debt. “He owed us a lot of money,” Boyarkin said. “And he was offering ways to pay it back.”

The fact that Trump’s campaign chairman was in debt to someone like Deripaska and being hounded for money by someone like Boyarkin shows, yet again, how deeply unqualified Trump was to be president. Trump’s best defense is that he didn’t know about any of this. The much darker, worst-case scenario is that he chose Manafort precisely because he had these sorts of connections to Russia.

Boyarkin headed up “special operations” for Deripaska, according to the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online. This work took him to the African country of Guinea where Rusal, Deripaska’s Russian giant aluminum concern, had a plant that was shuttered by a strike. But lately, Boyarkin’s “special projects” have involved the Trump administration.

According to Intelligence Online, Boyarkin recently returned to Deripaska’s inner circle to deal with the sanctions imposed in April 2018 by the Treasury Department on Deripaska and his companies. (Exactly what role he played isn’t clear.) Lord Barker of Battle, the chairman of Deripaska’s London-listed holding company, En+, paid the DC lobbying firm $108,500-a-month, Mercury Group, to lobby for sanctions relief.

It was money well spent. Ever since those tough sanctions were imposed on Deripaska, the Trump administration has been looking for ways to soften the blow, as I wrote for The New York Times. The Treasury recently said it intends to lift the sanctions on Deripaska’s companies in what seems like a sweetheart deal.

Boyarkin was himself sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury earlier this month “for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Oleg Deripaska.” Notably, The Senate intelligence committee said the sanctions on Boyarkin “will help counter some of Russia’s malign influence efforts, and is a welcome step.” It seems the sanctions on Boyarkin appear to be part of the deal to lift the sanctions on his boss.

According to the U.S. Treasury, Boyarkin and Deripaska were both involved in providing Russian financial support to a Montenegrin political party ahead of Montenegro’s 2016 elections. A decade earlier, Manafort worked for Deripaska in Montenegro to manage a referendum campaign that ended with the country declaring its independence.

Boyarkin is a former colonel in the GRU, according to the British newspaper, The Telegraph. (Other sources describe him as a lieutenant colonel.) Boyarkin’s name shows up in the U.S. diplomatic list from the 1990s when he was posted to Washington as a Russian naval attache, often a cover for intelligence officers.

Have we learned all there is to know about Deripaska’s ties to the Trump administration?

I doubt it.

What Was the Internet Research Agency?

Earlier this week, the Senate intelligence committee released a pair of reports analyzing the social media output of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian outfit that masqueraded as Americans as it pumped out millions of social media posts aimed at dividing the United States and helping elect Trump,

The New York Times’ front-page coverage of these reports focused on how the IRA tried to influence the black vote, with critics calling that paternalistic. The lead author of one of the studies wrote that her report showed the need for a broad effort to combat disinformation.

After reading these reports, what struck me was something else. I was blown away by the sophistication of the IRA’s efforts, which, the reports showed, had a broader reach than previously understood.

To borrow a line from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, let’s stop calling what the Russians did meddling. This was not merely the work of some amateurs in what’s often called the “St. Petersburg troll factory.” This outfit had the hallmarks of a professional intelligence operation.

(In my book, Trump/Russia, I’ve written about how the IRA tactics are a modern twist on an old spy game that dates back to the WWII Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Special Services, the predecessor to the CIA.)

Exhibit A is a startling and previously unreported tactic employed by the IRA: Recruiting human assets.

One of the IRA’s more popular Facebook pages was a fake Christian group called “Army of Jesus.” This site offered free counseling to people with sexual addiction.

“Army of Jesus” Facebook ad

As one of the Senate-commissioned reports notes, “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability – usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed – is a timeless espionage practice.” People did respond to these posts, although it’s not known how effective these and other campaigns were.

A revealing side note: the “Army of Jesus” Facebook site that offered free sexual addiction counseling originally started as a Kermit the Frog account, then switched to The Simpsons before turning to Jesus.

SSCI Research Summary, December 1, 2018

Other IRA outreach efforts included offering free self-defense classes. Meetup.com was used to organize black self-defense classes for the Fit Black/Black Fist IRA accounts.

The authors of the report “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency” deliver a strong warning about the future of source recruitment via the Internet:

This tactic will be increasingly common as platforms make it more difficult to grow pages and buy ads with fake personas. It will be extremely difficult to detect. The number of organic posts that reveal attempts to engage with Americans reinforces our conviction that influence operations are
unlikely to be managed without information sharing between the public and private sector.

NewKnowldge, “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency”

It also turns out that the IRA was involved in selling merchandise. Some of the merchandise was aimed at building audience, particularly in the accounts targeting the black community. The IRA also sold LGBT-positive sex toys (!)

In addition to a source of revenue, merchandise sales allowed the IRA to gather personal information: names, addresses, email address and phone numbers, as well as credit card information. Once again, this has an espionage application for source recruitment.

Finally, the most frightening thing is that this work continues. IRA accounts remain active. Russia continues meddling in the recent U.S. midterm elections, as members of the Trump administration have conceded.

Make no mistake: The Trump administration could easily stop this activity if it wanted to. It could take steps that really make Russia nervous like sanctioning its debt or banning its banks from any activity in the United States. But Trump won’t do that.

The question is why not?

Trump’s Latest Favor for Russia: A Pass on Election Interference

On his 600th day in office, following months of dire warnings from his own intelligence officials, President Trump finally did something to try and prevent Russian interference in the upcoming Midterm elections. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to Trump and Russia.

An executive order signed by Trump on September 12th declared a national emergency to deal with interference in U.S. elections, which it rightly describes as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” But Trump’s executive order does little to stop it. It targets unspecified, large companies while giving the president full discretion to choose from a range of sanctions that have failed to deter Russian aggression in the past. Democrats in Congress blasted the order as toothless. Daleep Singh, a former assistant Treasury secretary in the Obama administration, testified before Congress that it represented more a press release than a change in policy.

The real purpose of the executive order, Trump’s critics maintain, isn’t to deter Russian election meddling. It’s to deter far tougher legislation in Congress. Two bipartisan bills pending before the Senate would inflict severe economic pain on Russia if it continues to meddle in American politics. One measure, dubbed the “sanctions bill from hell” by its co-sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham, rattled nerves when it appeared in Moscow newspapers over the summer. Both Graham’s bill and the leading effort, introduced in January by Senators Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio, threaten to shut off the flow of U.S. dollars to the Kremlin.

[Read Van Hollen and Rubio’s DETER Act here. Graham’s “sanctions bill from hell” can be found here.]

It may come as a surprise to many Americans that some of the money paying for Russia’s bad behavior comes from the United States.  The Kremlin has borrowed billions of dollars from U.S. investors over the years through sales of Russian sovereign debt, which effectively are loans to Vladimir Putin’s government. Yes, you read that right: public pension funds from New York to California, along with asset managers, hedge funds, and U.S. banks are financing a regime that is deliberately trying to undermine American democracy and the U.S.-led Western alliance. A Moscow-based credit rating agency estimated last month that the United States holds 8 percent of Russia’s sovereign debt — or more than $12 billion, based on the latest figures from the Russian Central Bank.

Cutting off these financial flows is the kind of serious step missing from Trump’s executive order.  The administration’s reason for rejecting sanctions on Russian debt was outlined in a congressionally-mandated study by the Treasury Department earlier this year. The concern is over the “negative spillover effects” on global financial markets and businesses. In other words, the White House is worried that sanctioning Russian debt might do economic harm to America’s friends and allies — something that doesn’t seem to apply to the president’s trade war with Canada.  And Treasury’s warnings have proved overblown. Since April, when ruble debt was more popular outside Russia than ever before, foreign investors have been quietly dumping their holdings with none of the predicted upheaval.

The only economy that will be seriously harmed by sanctions on Russian bonds is Russia’s. It would put downward pressure on the ruble and drive up Russia’s borrowing costs, forcing Putin to scrap his ambitious spending plans for what is likely to be his last term in office. More importantly, it would put Russia in the same league as Iran and Venezuela, the only two other nations that have had their debt sanctioned by the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service.  Both Senate bills go a step further, and would also bar Americans from doing business with big Russian banks like Sberbank. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said such an action would be a declaration of “economic war” and promised to retaliate “economically, politically, or, if necessary, by other means.”

There’s no good reason for the White House to reject these penalties, serious as they are, or even tougher ones, because there’s an easy way for Russia to avoid them: Don’t interfere in U.S. elections.  Without a sure, strong response, the American electoral system remains as vulnerable as it was before Trump’s executive order. It’s clear that existing sanctions weren’t enough to stop Russia from wreaking havoc in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Van Hollen and Rubio’s bill, the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines, or Deter Act, would bring a cruise missile to the fight; the president is bringing a pop gun. “That’s why it is imperative that the Senate and House take action because, clearly, the administration abdicated its responsibility in this area,” Van Hollen told me. It remains to be seen whether Congress can do what the president cannot or whether Trump’s executive order will lay the matter to rest.

It’s important to remember what’s at stake.  Confidence in our elections, the foundation of American democracy, was dealt a serious blow in the 2016 presidential race. It was further weakened by Trump’s refusal to accept the findings of his own intelligence community on Russian interference.

Now, the president’s long-delayed response sends the signal that the United States can’t or won’t do what it takes to protect its sovereignty.  This abject failure of leadership raises troubling questions about where the president’s loyalties lie. It suggests once again that Trump is putting the interests of Russia above that of the country he was elected to lead.