When Russian intelligence officers score big wins against the United States, they are typically rewarded with medals. We are certain that a lot of medals were handed out in Moscow after the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
That’s one of our conclusions after reading the Senate Intelligence Committee’s fifth, and last, report in its series on the Russian attack against our democracy four years ago. This report, released last week, covered the counterintelligence aspect of the covert war waged by Russian President Vladimir Putin against us — trying both to obtain private information from the Trump campaign and to influence the views of the campaign and the policies of a new administration.
As we — two former intelligence officers, one a career analyst and the other a career operations officer — read the report, five points occurred to us.
First, this report, like the four before it, is bipartisan. In this age, it is reassuring and even encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats work together on an issue that so directly threatens our national security.
Second, this report makes clear that Putin’s objectives in interfering in 2016 were to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and if she won, as president; help Donald Trump’s candidacy; and weaken our democracy. This is now not only the conclusion of the full Senate committee but also of the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation.
While we will never know to what extent Russia actually swung votes in Trump’s favor, we can put to rest forever that Putin’s motivation was to do just that.
Third, it is clear from the report that Russia mounted a classic and multifaceted human intelligence operation against the Trump campaign. The report provides a blueprint for how an intelligence operation works.
An intelligence organization — whether it is Russian, Iranian or American — looks at potential agent candidates, who can be witting or unwitting, with three key factors in mind: access, vulnerabilities and motivation.
Access means an individual has the potential to either obtain protected information or conduct an influence operation due to his or her proximity to those in power. Access can be developed over time, but the ideal agents are those in place now and can obtain information or conduct tasks in the daily course of business. Vulnerabilities include a mix of ideological, financial and ego-driven characteristics that ultimately drive someone to cooperate with an intelligence service. Finally, motivation is that extra special cause that kicks in that drives an agent to succeed.
The U.S. individuals reviewed in the Senate report checked all three boxes. Paul Manafort was the campaign chairman in direct touch with a Russian business associate, who the Senate report states was a Russian intelligence officer; Manafort was passing the Russians campaign strategy and polling data. Roger Stone was the conduit to WikiLeaks who updated Trump on its activities that ultimately resulted in the publication of damaging information about Clinton. Stone, too, had direct contact with Russian intelligence, and now we know from the Senate report that WikiLeaks knew it was part of a Russian intelligence operation. The list goes on.
Fourth, the targeted Americans made it easy for the Russians. It appears there was nary a meeting that the Russians put in front of the Trump campaign that anyone turned down. According to the Senate report and a New York Times analysis, Trump and 18 of his associates had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries. That is an extraordinary number for an intelligence operation against a “hard target,” in this case, the United States.
At the CIA, we used the term “overturning rocks” to indicate the hard, long, tedious work that entails finding and meeting the right agent candidates, particularly our adversaries. In this case, the Russians probably could not believe their luck at how many Americans in the Trump orbit were taking the bait.
We can only imagine the wall charts at the headquarters of the Russian intelligence agencies SVR, FSB and GRU, listing the inroads to individuals within the Trump campaign and Russian success with so many of them.
This is undoubtedly the work for which Russian intelligence officers earned medals.
The ease with which the Russians operated was due to a combination of factors — naivete on the part of the individuals approached, the pursuit of financial interests on the part of those persons, a win-at-all cost mentality, and above all, a lack of a moral compass.
Fifth, we only know what we know. Counterintelligence investigators do not have access to the other side; one can’t subpoena documents from the Russian government or interview Russian intelligence officers. Historically, we’ve learned the full truth in counterintelligence cases only when someone from the other side tells us.
This means that it might take years, if ever, to understand the totality of what the Russians and their American contacts did, whether any Americans were actually recruited and paid as Russian spies; whether any are still working for the Russians today; and how much of the same is going on today.