A photographer for a Russian state-owned news agency was allowed into the Oval Office on Wednesday during President Trump’s meeting with Russian diplomats, a level of access that was criticized by former U.S. intelligence officials as a potential security breach.
The officials cited the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been brought into the Oval Office while hidden in cameras or other electronics. Former U.S. intelligence officials raised questions after photos of Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were posted online by the Tass news agency.
Among those commenting on the issue was former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen. Responding to a question posed online about whether it was a sound decision to allow the photographer into the Oval Office, Cohen replied on Twitter: “No it was not.” He declined to elaborate when reached by phone.
The White House played down the danger, saying that the photographer and his equipment were subjected to a security screening before he and it entered the White House grounds. The Russian “had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room,” a senior administration official said.
Other former intelligence officials also described the access granted to the photographer as a potential security lapse, noting that standard screening for White House visitors would not necessarily detect a sophisticated espionage device.
The administration official also said the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer. Russian officials had described the individual as Lavrov’s official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for Tass.
“We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency,” the administration official said.
As a result, White House officials said they were surprised to see photos posted online showing Trump not only with Lavrov but also smiling and shaking hands with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Kislyak has figured prominently in a series of damaging stories for the administration. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign in February over his contacts with Kislyak last year and over misleading statements about the nature of those conversations to Vice President Pence.
The administration official said that “it is standard practice for ambassadors to accompany their principals, and it is ridiculous to suggest there was anything improper.” He added that White House rooms “are swept routinely” for listening devices.
Russia has in the past gone to significant lengths to hide bugs in key U.S. facilities. In the late 1990s, the State Department’s security came under fire after the discovery of a sophisticated listening device in a conference room on the seventh floor, where then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others often held meetings.
Speaking to reporters at the Russian Embassy after his White House talks with Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov did not hide his irritation with repeated questions about Moscow’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election to boost Trump’s chances and damage Hillary Clinton’s.
“I never thought I’d have to answer such questions, particularly in the United States, given your highly developed democratic system,” he said, according to a simultaneous translation of his remarks into English.
Lavrov said that no evidence exists linking Russia to hacked Democratic Party emails released during last year’s election campaign and that the issue of Russian interference in the campaign did not arise in his meeting with Trump that morning.
U.S. intelligence agencies said they concluded with “high confidence” that Russia tried to affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Lavrov at turns characterized such allegations as “noise” and a “humiliation” for the American people.
“We are monitoring what is going on here concerning Russia and its alleged ‘decisive role’ in your domestic policy,” he said, according to a quote reported in Tass, which added a remark phrased less colorfully by the embassy interpreter. “We have been discussing specific issues, but never touched upon this bacchanalia.”
By chance, Lavrov visited as the White House is coming under political fire for Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director on Tuesday night. The FBI has been conducting an investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The overlapping events led to a series of odd scenes.
Before a separate, early-morning meeting with Tillerson at the State Department, Lavrov professed mock surprise when asked whether Comey’s dismissal had cast a shadow over his visit.
“Was he fired?” Lavrov said, arching his eyebrows. “You’re kidding! You’re kidding!”
He then jerked his head back in a dismissive gesture and walked away, shaking his head.
In Moscow, the reaction to Comey’s dismissal also has been acerbic.
“A Comical Firing” was the headline on the Comey story on Russia’s pro-Kremlin NTV news channel. In the report, Konstantin Kosyachev, a senior Russian legislator, said that the FBI director was let go “because he’s not supposed to act like he’s the president.”
The main purpose of Lavrov’s visit to Washington was to discuss the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
In a statement after the meeting, the White House said Trump had “emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria,” particularly urging Russia to “rein in” the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its ally, Iran. He also urged Russia to implement the Minsk accord reached in 2014 in an attempt to end the fighting in Ukraine and “raised the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere,” the statement said.
In his remarks to reporters, Lavrov did not try to paper over his disdain for the Obama administration. He said the Obama administration had driven U.S.-Russian relations to new lows as a result of its “ideological” positions.
Lavrov also said he wants the United States to give back to Russia two properties it seized outside New York and Washington last year after the Obama administration said they were linked to spying.
David Filipov in Moscow contributed to this report.