Dispatch September 13, 2019

Why the U.S. Exfiltrated A Russian Asset

Recent reporting has suggested that soon after Trump allegedly leaked classified intelligence to two senior Kremlin officials in a 2017 meeting, U.S. intelligence exfiltrated a high-level secret Russian government source out of Russia.

The asset was high-value and provided information specific to the Russia’s interference campaign in the 2016 election.

  • As American officials focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election “the informant became one of the C.I.A.’s most important—and highly protected—assets.”
  • U.S. officials had been extremely careful when it came to this source. The CIA director at the time, John Brennan, reportedly sent Obama separate reports about this source “in special sealed envelopes.”

U.S. intelligence officials had tried to exfiltrate the asset once before, but it wasn’t until after Trump took office that the asset changed his mind and took them up on their offer.

  • The New York Times suggested that U.S. officials tried to extract the Russian asset in late 2016, but the informant originally refused.
  • After Trump took office, and as reporting continued to reveal more details about the information that the U.S. government had received from the asset, U.S. officials became “convinced […] that they had to update and revive their extraction plan.”
  • CNN suggested that the exfiltration was due in part to concerns that Trump couldn’t keep classified information to himself and specifically cited a May 2017 Oval Office meeting with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as an example of these concerns. Both the CIA and the White House has denied these claims.
    • The CNN story also noted that Mike Pompeo, who was CIA Director at the time, had privately expressed concerns “that too much information was coming out regarding the covert source.”
  • In response to this reporting, the CIA director of public affairs stated that “misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence—which he has access to each and every day—drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate.”

A closer look at Trump’s actions around that time, however, reveal plenty of other reasons that would have driven U.S. intelligence to exfiltrate their Russian asset.

  • On May 2, 2017, less than two months after then-FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, Trump spoke with Putin over the phone.
    • The call was ostensibly about Syria, although it was likely the catalyst for a subsequent meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov that preceded the Oval Office meeting.
  • The day after this call, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, confirming that the FBI was continuing to investigate Trump’s ties with Russia.
  • On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey.
  • On May 10, 2017, Trump stood in the Oval Office with two of the most senior-ranking Russian government officials. He bragged to them about firing former FBI Director James Comey the previous day, saying he had “faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Then, he did something even more astounding: He leaked highly classified information from an ally—reported to be Israel—to the two Russian officials.
  • That same day, Trump also met with Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin. After these two meetings, he tweeted side-by-side pictures of the meetings with the caption “Lets [sic] Make Peace!”
  • Immediately after Comey’s firing, the FBI opened a separate counterintelligence investigation “investigating whether [Trump] had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”

The CIA was worried about its high-level source in the Russian government, one for which there was “no equal alternative,” and this timeline of events highlights why the asset would have needed to be quickly exfiltrated. The president was under investigation for ties between his campaign and Russia; he had fired the man who was in charge of investigating him; and he had subsequently met with high-ranking Russian officials the very next day.

Most importantly, the FBI was officially investigating Trump as a counterintelligence risk. Even without leaking classified information, it’s not hard to imagine why U.S. intelligence officials would have wanted to get their asset out of Russia.