Politicians and pundits tried out a new line after the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election: Americans should at least be pleased that the investigation could not find sufficient evidence to charge President Trump or any of his campaign team with conspiring with the Russians.
Phew. Mop your brow. Turns out there were links between Russia and Trump — but nothing that would stand up in a court of law. What a relief.
No one should be reassured by this interpretation. Just as no parent would be reassured if the police returned a teenage son or daughter late at night, saying, “We discovered your child in possession of opioids, but they are not old enough to be charged as an adult.” You wouldn’t just roll over and go back to sleep. Lunching daily with the Mafioso John Gotti would not have been prosecutable, either, but nobody would turn over their life savings to Gotti’s unindicted buddies. Mueller’s report said that “While the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to charge any campaign official.” This is far from a clean bill of health for the Trump administration and its dealings with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. We can deduce what lies just beneath the surface of the Mueller team’s work.
First, in the wilderness of mirrors that is the world of counterintelligence, investigations do not always result in trials and people going to prison. Take the case of Felix Bloch, who was director of European and Canadian affairs for the State Department in the 1980s. Based on investigative steps taken then, I would say that counterintelligence officers at the CIA, FBI and State Department had assessed that Bloch was committing espionage on behalf of the Soviets, and later the Russians. The case happened more than 30 years ago (some things between Russia and the United States never change), but you can read some of the details in a 1990 article by the espionage author David Wise in the New York Times, and judge for yourself. Unfortunately for U.S. law enforcement, Robert Hanssen, an FBI officer who was actively spying for Russia, alerted the Russians that Bloch was under investigation, according to a later FBI affidavit in support of a warrant for the arrest of Hanssen. Perhaps because of this warning, U.S. investigators were never able to accumulate enough hard evidence to charge Bloch. “The Government, the leaks, assert that I’m guilty,” Bloch told Wise in 1989. “Apparently, they can’t prove it. … There’s a presumption of innocence in this country. Someone should not be put in a position of saying, ‘I’m innocent.’ ” Still, Bloch was fired from the State Department, forfeiting his pension. (Hanssen is serving a life sentence in federal prison.)
Second, we cannot rule out the possibility that there are additional counterintelligence investigations of the Trump team ongoing. A careful analysis of the Mueller report’s wording offers clues. The phrase “while the investigation identified numerous links” (italics added) does not preclude the possibility that there could be other investigations (say, in the Southern District of New York) that might uncover additional counterintelligence information. One thing that has become clear over the past two years is the extensive pattern of business interactions between Donald Trump’s organization and Russia or its proxies (including Deutsche Bank). In the counterintelligence world, such interactions may lead to compromising situations that can be exploited by foreign adversarial governments. As the United States learned from cases like Bloch’s, counterintelligence work must be done with the strictest of secrecy (a practice often referred to as compartmentation) to avoid the possibility that a mole already in place inside the government (such as Hanssen) could provide a warning to the Russians. Are there continuing counterintelligence investigations against Trump and his associates? There are many redactions in the Mueller report, so at this juncture we simply don’t know.
Third, while Muller’s determination that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone on the Trump team with conspiracy or coordination with Russia, there are still significant counterintelligence red flags regarding them. These red flags are largely in the public domain. Remember the president’s obsequious behavior in Helsinki, where he indicated he believed Putin over his own intelligence services? Remember the president’s expressed love of WikiLeaks (an organization later described by his own CIA chief as a hostile intelligence service)? Remember when candidate Donald Trump called upon the Russians to spy on Hillary Clinton to get her deleted emails? Imagine for a moment that you had my old job at CIA, which involved managing intelligence collection against the Russian target. Now imagine that a human resources officer approached you and said, “Hey, good news, four new candidates have applied for jobs in your unit! They are Donald J. Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. Are you interested in interviewing them?” (You can take away the names and just imagine individuals with those backgrounds, if it makes this thought experiment easier.) The common-sense response from any counterintelligence practitioner would of course be an emphatic no. Regardless of the fact that neither Trump nor any of his family members or associates was proved to have conspired with the Russians, basic counterintelligence discipline would demand not exposing sensitive secrets, or sources and methods, to individuals with such long and checkered track records in relation to Russia. Why take that risk?
In the highly partisan, divided society that Putin has exploited in this country, it is a dead certainty that there will be continued crowing from Trump supporters in the wake of the release of Mueller’s report, as well as its interpretation by Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr. Trump himself has already started the party via Twitter, of course, with a cry of “No Collusion! No Obstruction! Game Over!” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said the release of the Mueller report was the best day for Trump since his election. Not the least bit surprising are the calls emerging for news outlets reporting on Trump and the Russians to be “held accountable.” What else would we expect after the president, when referring to the media, used the term Lenin used while founding the Soviet Union: enemy of the people.
Taking full advantage of the moment to send a supportive message to the administration, Barr indicated his concern that the government — the U.S. government, not Russia — has been “spying” on political campaigns. An experienced and intelligent individual like Barr could and should have been more precise with his words and use appropriate terms like “criminal investigation” instead of “spying,” but the latter is catchy. It shows Barr has joined the Trump conga line in loosely throwing around terms like “treason,” which, while wholly inapplicable, whip up the base. Many will claim that any critical assessment of Mueller’s work that does not align with Barr’s interpretation amounts to die-hard Trump haters refusing to give up. Some will accuse those who remain concerned about the administration’s links to Russia as being bad losers — “never Trumpers” who will never give the president the benefit of the doubt. Everyone should put this behind them, the argument goes, now that Trump and his entourage have been “exonerated.”
But this is no time for celebration, regardless of whether you support Trump. Russia did in fact attempt to influence the presidential elections (a fact that Barr accepts, despite Trump’s continued denials). Trump stood with the leader of this adversarial, autocratic government and publicly sided with him over his own intelligence community. Some Trump appointees will be spending time in prison. Even if the Mueller report had thoroughly exonerated the president, this would not be a great day for American democracy. Putin, on the other hand, can be proud of what he has helped bring about in this country: a divided, weakened America.