The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Russian official thought to have spied for the U.S. was hiding in plain sight

On Sept. 10, The Post visited a Virginia mansion belonging to a former Russian government official alleged to have spied for the U.S. (Video: The Washington Post)

A former Russian government official thought to have spied for the United States was hiding in plain sight, living in a suburban neighborhood an hour outside of Washington.

The Russian Kommersant newspaper reported Tuesday that Oleg Smolenkov, whom it described as a “missing” employee of the Russian presidential administration, was spotted in the United States.

The paper reported that Smolenkov disappeared in 2017 during a family vacation to Montenegro and suggested he may have been an American agent who was spirited out of Russia after providing information linking Russian President Vladi­mir Putin to his country’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

It is highly unusual for a country to name a possible turncoat. It’s even more unusual for a suspected spy and defector to be living abroad using his own name.

Public records show two addresses for an Oleg Smolenkov. One is a six-bedroom house on three acres in Stafford, Va., and the other is the Russian Embassy in Northwest Washington.

Diplomatic records show that Smolenkov worked as a “second secretary” in the embassy from at least 2006 until 2008. He appears to have received a traffic citation in 2006 in Arlington.

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Senior Russian diplomats would be coveted spies for the United States. And Smolenkov rose through the Russian diplomatic ranks after his tour in Washington.

He worked for Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov, who served as Russia's envoy to the United States from 1999 to 2008. Back in Moscow, Smolenkov was an aide to Ushakov, who has been at Putin's side for years. The former ambassador served as Putin’s foreign policy adviser and when Putin became prime minister in 2008 and stayed with him when Putin became president in 2012, according to published reports. 

“He’s as close to Putin as you can get with respect to foreign policy matters and especially the United States,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who knew Ushakov well. “He was ambassador for 10 years in Washington. So he’s highly regarded as their country’s expert on America,” and is in every meeting Putin has with a head of state, McFaul said.

It is not clear that Smolenkov is the source who provided the United States with details on Russia’s election interference. But he was almost certainly a valuable CIA asset, according to current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

The CIA declined to comment.

The asset who informed on Putin worked for the CIA for more than 10 years and was taken out of Russia around May or June of 2017, current and former officials said.

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward wrote in his 2018 book “Fear” that the CIA felt its source “was in such jeopardy” that the agency wanted to move the person to another country. “The source refused to leave, apparently out of fear of repercussions against the person’s family if the source suddenly left Russia or disappeared,” Woodward wrote.

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A neighbor who lives across the street from the Smolenkovs said that the family had moved into the neighborhood earlier this year. He said that Smolenkov, his wife and children left on Monday evening and hadn’t returned.

When a Post reporter went to the house Tuesday morning, it appeared unoccupied, save for two black cane corsos, an Italian dog breed sometimes trained as guards. Thick drapes were drawn across the windows on the house’s lower level.

The family seems to have left in a hurry. Behind the house, toys and clothing were strewn about the yard. A woman’s sweatshirt lay draped over a patio chair. A full ashtray and two lighters were on the patio table.

One neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said that Smolenkov didn’t have a job. After moving in earlier this year, Smolenkov said that he looked forward to tending the house’s ample lawn and gardens, the neighbor said.

“He said he had a lot of time on his hands,” the neighbor said.

There was no answer at a cellphone number listed for Smolenkov.

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Intelligence experts were baffled that reporters were able to so quickly glean information about a potentially high-level CIA asset.

Joseph Augustyn, a former senior CIA officer who ran the agency’s National Resettlement Operations Center from 1999 to 2001, said it “boggles my mind” that Smolenkov would be living in the United States under his real name. “That said,” he added, “we respect the wishes of the particular defector.”

“I can see him saying, ‘Well, I want to live as normal a life as possible. I don’t want to assume a new name, make it difficult on my wife and kids,’ ” Augustyn said. “That’s not what the agency would recommend.”

Another former senior CIA official said the agency discourages defectors from using their real names or living near the nation’s capital, where Russian intelligence services have an extensive presence. In most cases, “you come up with a completely new identity and legend, and you want to get the guy out to Colorado” or somewhere similarly outside the Beltway, said the former official, who handled numerous defectors and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss CIA procedures.

There have been exceptions, typically in cases when the United States and Russia have swapped spies — trading operatives who had been caught engaged in espionage with the tacit understanding that they would not be targeted after the transaction. There is no known evidence of such an arrangement in this case. If a swap occurred in Montenegro — where the suspected spy supposedly disappeared in 2017 — the cover story of a family disappearance might have been concocted by the Kremlin to obscure the departure of a former official.

Former senior intelligence officials said that Putin doubtless knew that Kommersant, the Russian newspaper, was publishing Smolenkov’s name. Why do that? “If I’m speculating,” McFaul said, “this is obviously to intimidate him and scare him.’’

Russia has a long history of targeting former spies and dissidents abroad, most recently last year when operatives tried to assassinate former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in England using a deadly nerve agent.

So far, Moscow has not carried out killings in the United States.

Augustyn said there are “several hundred” defectors now living in the United States, coming from countries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

“At the CIA, our responsibility is to our asset,” he said. “Our responsibility is to make sure that they remain safe, and when it looks like it’s time to bring somebody out, we’ll do it.”

Will Englund in Moscow, Julie Tate and Greg Miller contributed to this report.