Two years ago, the US removed a spy from Russia who had access to the highest levels of the Kremlin over concerns for his safety — and that President Donald Trump might endanger him further.
In a stunning Monday morning report, CNN’s Jim Sciutto detailed how US intelligence officials were so worried that Trump might accidentally expose the covert asset’s identity that they launched a secret mission to extract him from Russia in 2017.
The exfiltration took place in 2017, and this person, who sent secrets to Washington for decades and later on had access to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s papers, now lives in the greater Washington, DC area.
Put together, it seems that overall concerns for the asset’s safety drove the effort to get the person out of Russia. It’s still unclear how much Trump’s own Moscow-friendly conduct contributed to the urgency.
But what’s known is this: the US, which considers Russia a top adversary, now has less information on the inner workings of Putin’s regime and how Moscow could threaten America.
Why the US would want a key intelligence source removed from Russia
Trump’s presidency has been marked by his personal desire to improve relations with Russia. As a result, he’s taken some actions that experts say have weakened US intelligence and strengthened Moscow’s hand.
In May 2017, Trump disclosed classified information in an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That information, given to the US by Israel, concerned information about an ISIS plot to bomb airplanes using laptops. At the time, there was genuine concern that Israel’s covert source might’ve been burned by Trump’s revelation.
Two months later, Trump met with Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. It’s still unclear what exactly they talked about because Trump took away the interpreter’s notes. That’s not a common move — usually, the interpreter gives the written play-by-play to other US officials to help inform other parts of the government, including the intelligence community.
Those actions — along with Trump’s general distrust of spies — would certainly raise alarm bells inside the CIA and elsewhere. In one case Trump openly gave classified information, and in the other case, it’s completely possible he told state secrets behind closed doors to an adversary.
The question, though, is if concerns about Trump’s handling of intelligence led the CIA to want to bring the Russian asset to safety. That’s what CNN initially reported Monday.
But sources denied to the New York Times and the Washington Post that the CIA weighed Trump’s actions when deciding whether to extract the spy from Russia. Instead, they pointed to a January 2017 report from parts of the US intelligence community that said Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election was ordered by Putin. Many of the details in the report, including that one, were so specific — and media scrutiny so intense — that US officials feared it would become obvious they had a significant source of intelligence placed inside Russia.
“That’s a pretty remarkable intelligence community product — much more specific than what you normally see,” a US official told the Washington Post on Monday. “It’s very expected that potential US intelligence assets in Russia would be under a higher level of scrutiny by their own intelligence services.”
And so a mixture of what the US spy revealed and Trump’s behavior may explain why some felt the asset had to be removed. But how much each of those issues weighed on the decision is unknown.
The US likely hasn’t replaced the source yet
John Sipher, who formerly ran the CIA’s Russia operations, tweeted after the CNN story broke that the US has lost a nearly irreplaceable asset.
“[R]ecruiting a source with key access is extremely hard,” he said. “A source in a key position may happen once a generation, if ever.”
“It is a big deal to lose these kind of sources,” he continued.
Indeed, those are presumably the kinds of assets that can shed light on Russia’s efforts to influence US elections or build weapons to beat American defense systems. Without those well-placed people, the US government loses key insights into Putin’s regime and the way it functions. It’s why human sources may not provide the greatest quantity of information, but in many cases, they can produce the best quality.
The asset’s removal, while likely prudent if the person was in mortal danger, surely puts the US at a disadvantage for the next few years as key intelligence that once flowed in stops entirely. “You can’t reacquire a capability like that overnight,” a former senior intelligence official told CNN.
The question now is if anything has changed since 2017. Has Trump gained the intelligence community’s trust with how he handles classified intelligence? Has the CIA gained another top covert source inside the Kremlin? Or does the US still have a major gap to fill?
Either way, the US intelligence community likely has a lot of work to do to regain its intelligence advantage inside Russia.