Over the past few years, we’ve come to learn more about Russian disinformation and the Kremlin’s ability to weaponize false narratives. As former CIA director Michael Hayden has pointed out, “covert influence campaigns don’t create divisions on the ground, they amplify divisions on the ground.” As the Russians and others seek preexisting divisions to inflame, nonpublic calls by U.S. leaders and their allies provide Russian intelligence the means to alter the information and use it in a variety of covert ways. And it is not simply fake information that can be weaponized. With access to knowledge unavailable to U.S. investigators or Congress, the Kremlin can also inject real information into the political arena at a time of its choosing, knowing full well that it will lead to an explosion of media speculation, partisan political attacks and a social media frenzy.
However, recent actions by Trump and his allies have provided Russian intelligence with an additional means to subvert American interests. Namely, the president’s poor security practices and use of amateurs to carry out an uncoordinated, personal foreign policy has opened another door for the Kremlin’s malign activities.
As the impeachment process recently moved from the Intelligence Committee to the Judiciary Committee, we learned new information about administration and congressional contacts related to Ukraine. The House Intelligence Committee impeachment report provided subpoenaed phone call records revealing conversations between Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Giuliani, indicted Giuliani aide Lev Parnas, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a mysterious phone number that many assume is Trump’s.
Though these calls are potentially important, it’s probable that neither the public nor U.S. investigators will ever know the specific content of the conversations. Even if the participants testify, they will not be able to re-create details from the numerous calls. But it is highly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin knows exactly what was discussed. Likewise, he probably also has transcripts of correspondence from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and other key players in the Ukraine saga. Putin’s intelligence agencies have been provided ample opportunity to target key players in Ukraine, and they have the means to collect information from phone calls, emails and texts. They also probably have human agents who can collect information on Giuliani’s efforts and inject information back into Giuliani’s world as they deem necessary. Picking up conversations on open phone lines from Ukraine is child’s play for the successors of the KGB. Likewise, collection of emails, texts, personal and travel data and introducing human agents to key players are to be expected.
In the covert game of intelligence, information about your opponent that he doesn’t know you have provides ammunition that can be weaponized in many ways. It can be publicly deployed in a fashion similar to the 2016 effort or used as deception material to feed back to adversaries’ intelligence services via bogus double agents or forgeries. By trying to distribute material via numerous channels — some overt and some covert — stolen information from sloppy, uncoordinated and undocumented activity on behalf of the president’s personal interests can be useful fodder to a hostile intelligence service in support of a covert influence campaign.
U.S. intelligence officers overseas are always on the lookout for new sources who can answer some of these difficult questions about Russian actions and intentions. And they’re well aware of Russia’s skill at deception operations. The KGB and its successors regularly wield dangles, double agents, forgeries, rumors and provocations. Russia has used these tools for decades to keep its adversaries off balance. For example, in 1986, Soviet intelligence ran a sophisticated deception campaign to help safeguard its two premier spies inside the CIA and FBI, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, after tips from those two helped the KGB roll up American spies inside the Kremlin. It dangled a false defector to the CIA in Moscow, who provided an alternative explanation for the arrests of U.S. agents. It also ran complementary operations around the world to send false signals designed to confuse, distract and reorient U.S. investigations. The Soviets took significant risks and cleverly exploited their information advantage to buy time and protect their covert sources.
Sadly, the uncoordinated and insecure activities of Trump’s allies — and Trump — are surrendering similar information advantages today, providing Putin’s security services new ammunition to use in different ways.
At some point in the future, it’s a safe bet that a U.S. intelligence officer overseas looking to develop a source inside the Russian intelligence apparatus will be handed information from what purport to be sensitive files relating to Trump or the recent events in Ukraine. How should the intelligence community leadership respond? Will it encourage the officer to accept the information? Will it allow the officer to further develop the relationship to test and validate the source and his access? How can it know whether the information provided is part of a deception campaign or is real? Does the fact that the Russians apparently know the truth of Giuliani’s activities while the U.S. intelligence community does not just make it too hard to validate the take? Would CIA leaders worry that the White House will seek to inject itself into the process? Would the normal collection of foreign intelligence assessments of U.S. politicians be spun by the White House as an attempt by the CIA to “spy” on the president? If it will take time and effort to judge the veracity of the source and the information, will the CIA turn away someone who could be genuine and a potential source for decades to come because he or she had access to potentially embarrassing information on the schemes of the president’s allies? Has the wilderness of mirrors become too tilted in our adversaries’ favor, due to the “domestic political errands” that Trump allies have been running around the world?
Separating truth from fiction and determining whom to trust is always hard for intelligence collectors and analysts. Sources with access to secrets must be met, tested and validated to ensure we are not tricked. But when hostile services hold U.S.-derived information unavailable to the U.S. intelligence community, the initiative is in their hands. They can weaponize information or craft disinformation to support their narratives and make it hard to distinguish truth from fiction. When foreigners know the truth, and we don’t, it is just too easy to be used or tricked.