Latest Russian spy story looks like another elaborate media deception

The tale of Oleg Smolenkov is just the latest load of high-level BS dumped on us by intelligence agencies

When I was 20, I studied at the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. Most of the Russians I met were amusingly free of stress caused by following news. Why would they bother? Bull-factories like Rossiskaya Gazeta and Leningradsaya Pravda were basically collections of dreary government news releases rewritten to sound like news reports.

I saw newspapers in Leningrad shredded into slivers of toilet paper, used in place of curtains in dorm rooms, even stuffed into overcoat linings as insulation. But I can’t recall a Russian person actually reading a Soviet newspaper for the content. That’s how useless its “news” was.

We’re headed to a similar place. The cable networks, along with the New York Times and Washington Post increasingly act like house organs of the government, and in particular the intelligence agencies.

An episode this week involving a tale of a would-be American spy “exfiltrated” from Russia solidifies this impression. Seldom has a news story been more transparently fraudulent.

The story was broken by CNN Monday, September 9th, under the headline, “Exclusive: US extracted top spy from inside Russia in 2017”:

In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN.

CNN’s lede relayed multiple key pieces of information, not one of which was really emphasized in the main of its unconfirmable story:

  • America not only had a spy inside Russia’s government, it had multiple spies, with the subject of this particular piece being merely one of America’s “highest level” sources

  • The “extraction” was completed “successfully”

  • The sources are “multiple Trump administration officials”

The story told us our spy agencies successfully penetrated Russian government at the highest levels (although apparently not well enough to foresee or forestall the election interference campaign the same agencies spent the last three years howling about).

We were also told the agencies saved an invaluable human source back in 2017, and that the story came from inside the Trump administration. But the big sell came in the second and third paragraphs (emphasis mine):

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure…

So great was this spy of ours, we were told, that he had “access to Putin” and “could even provide images of documents on the Russian leader’s desk.” This was “according to CNN’s sources,” an interesting attribution given passages like this:

The source was considered the highest-level source for the US inside the Kremlin, high up in the national security infrastructure, according to the source familiar with the matter and a former senior intelligence official.

It’s a characteristic of third world countries to have the intelligence world and the media be intertwined enough that it’s not always clear whether the reporters and the reported-about are the same people. When you turn on the TV in Banana Republics, you’re never sure which group is talking to you.

We’re now in that same paradigm in America. CNN has hired nearly a dozen former intelligence or counterintelligence officials as analysts in the last few years. Their big get was former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but they also now have former deputy FBI chief Andrew McCabe, former FBI counsel James Baker, and multiple former CIA, NSA, and NSC officials.

Meanwhile, former CIA director John Brennan has an MSNBC/NBC gig, as does former CIA and DOD chief of staff Jeremy Bash, and several other ex-spooks. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who doubles as the CEO of one of America’s largest intelligence contractors.

This odious situation is similar to 2003-2004, when cable networks were tossing contributor deals to every ex-general and ex-spook they could find while they were reporting on the Iraq invasion. At one point, FAIR.org found that 52 percent of the sources in network newscasts were current or former government officials.

The numbers now aren’t quite that skewed, but CNN and MSNBC both employ former senior intelligence officials who comment upon stories in which they had direct involvement, especially the Russia investigation.

The CNN piece about the exfiltrated spy quotes a “former senior intelligence official,” a ubiquitous character that has become modern America’s version of the Guy Fawkes mask. I asked the network what their position was on whether or not they felt obligated to make a disclosure when (or if) a source was one of their own employees. They haven’t responded. 

Within hours after the CNN report broke, the New York Times had a triple-bylined piece out entitled, “C.I.A. Informant Extracted From Russia Had Sent Secrets to U.S. for Decades.” Written by three of their top national security writers, Adam Goldman, Julian Barnes and David Sanger, the story repeated the CNN information, but with a crucial difference:

C.I.A. officials worried about safety made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia. The situation grew more tense when the informant at first refused, citing family concerns…

CNN reported (and continues to report) that the “decision” to remove the spy came “soon after a May 2017 meeting.” The Times, based on interviews with its own batch of “current and former officials,” insisted the “arduous decision” came in “late 2016.” The Times noted the source “at first refused” to be extracted, explaining the delay in his removal.

How to understand all of this? A Washington Post story by Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima released at 6:06 the next morning, “U.S. got key asset out of Russia following election hacking,” came up with the final formula. To see the complex, absurd rhetorical construction in full, one unfortunately has to quote at length:

In 2017, the United States extracted from Russia an important CIA source…

The exfiltration took place sometime after an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, when President Trump revealed highly classified counterterrorism information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador...

That disclosure alarmed U.S. national security officials, but it was not the reason for the decision to remove the CIA asset, who had provided information to the United States for more than a decade, according to the current and former officials.

The old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials used the tagline, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter.” This Post story is, “You got your 2016 decision in my 2017 exfiltration!”

The paper brazenly fuses two unconnected narratives, telling us that a spy who had provided valuable information in 2016 was extracted in early 2017, after the Trump-Lavrov meeting. While that sequence may be chronologically correct, the story’s own authors say the Trump-Lavrov meeting was “not the reason” for the exfiltration. So why mention it? Moreover, who was this person, and what was the real reason his removal from Russia was necessary?

On Tuesday, September 10th, the Russian newspaper Kommersant* disclosed the name of the spy. They identified him as a mid-level Foreign Ministry official named Oleg Smolenkov.

Was Smolenkov a “very valuable agent”? Maybe, but Kommersant – amusingly, playing the same role as transparent mouthpiece for security organs – said no. They quoted a Russian foreign ministry official saying, “Let the CIA prove this.” As to Trump disclosing secrets to Lavrov in that meeting, the official told the Russian paper, “CNN never before thought up such nonsense,” adding that it was “pure paranoia.”

Kommersant further related that Russians instituted a murder case over the disappearance of Smolenkov and his family in 2017.

Disappear, however, Smolenkov did not. He went from Russia to Montenegro in 2017, then ended up in Virginia, where he and his family bought a house in Stafford, Virginia in January of 2019, in his own name! This is the same person about whom the Times this past Monday wrote:

The person’s life remains in danger, current and former officials said, pointing to Moscow’s attempts last year to assassinate Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian intelligence official who moved to Britain as part of a high-profile spy exchange in 2010…

Smolenkov was so afraid for his safety, he put his family in a house the FSB could see by clicking on Realtor.com! That’s “tradecraft” for you.

To recap: U.S. officials decided to exfiltrate a spy capable of transmitting pictures from Vladimir Putin’s desk (why are we telling audiences this, by the way?) because… why? Although all three of the initial major American news stories about this referenced Trump’s May 2017 meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the actual reason was buried in the text of all three pieces:

In the Times:

But former intelligence officials said there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source, and other current American officials insisted that media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone was the impetus for the extraction.

The Post:

In January 2017, the Obama administration published a detailed assessment that unambiguously laid the blame on the Kremlin…

“It’s quite likely,” the official continued, “that the U.S. intelligence community would already be taking a hard look at extracting any U.S. assets who would have been subject to increased levels of scrutiny” after the assessment’s publication.

CNN:

A US official said before the secret operation there was media speculation about the existence of such a covert source, and such coverage or public speculation poses risks to the safety of anyone a foreign government suspects may be involved. This official did not identify any public reporting to that effect at the time of this decision and CNN could not find any related reference in media reports.

That last passage by CNN, in which the network claimed it could not find “any related reference” to a secret source in media reports, is laughable.

Unnamed “senior intelligence officials” spent much of the early months of the Trump administration bragging their faces off about their supposed penetration of the Kremlin. Many of their leaks were designed to throw shade on the new pompadour-in-chief, casting him as a Putin puppet. A January 5, 2017 piece in the Washington Post is a classic example:

Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

We’re constantly told the intelligence agencies can’t reveal classified details out of fear of disclosing “sources and methods,” but this story revealed a very specific capability. If that “Russians celebrating Trump’s win” tale came from a person, it wouldn’t be long before the source’s head would be found in Park Sokolniki.

A more revealing Washington Post piece came in June, 2017. It was called “Obama’s Secret Struggle to Punish Russia for Putin’s Election Assault.” In that article, we’re told at length about how Brennan secured a “feat of espionage,” obtaining sourcing “deep within the Russian government” that provided him, Brennan, with insights into Russian’s electoral interference campaign.

Brennan, the Post said, considered the source’s intel so valuable that he reportedly hand-delivered its “eyes only” bombshell contents directly to Barack Obama in summer of 2016. This was before the story was told to the whole world less than a year later.

In that Post article, it was revealed that the October 2016 assessment of Russia’s role in an electoral interference campaign initially was directly tied to Putin, but Putin’s name was removed because it might “endanger intelligence sources and methods.”

Taken in sum, all of these facts suggest it wasn’t at all Donald Trump’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov that necessitated the “exfiltration.

(Side note: many of these spy stories are larded with Tom Clancy-style verbiage to make the reader feel sexier and more in the know. The CNN story, for instance, ludicrously told us that a covert source was also “known as an asset.” Derp – thanks!).

What is this all really about? We have an idea only because Brennan and Clapper aren’t the only ex-spooks pipelining info to friendlies in the media.

As noted by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and others, Attorney General William Barr earlier this year directed the Justice Department and former Connecticut Attorney General John Durham to investigate the intelligence agencies. In June, the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Barr has been interested in how the C.I.A. drew its conclusions about Russia’s election sabotage, particularly the judgment that Mr. Putin ordered that operatives help Mr. Trump by discrediting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to current and former American officials.

The Times quoted former CIA officials who expressed “anxiety” about this inquiry:

While the Justice Department review is not a criminal inquiry, it has provoked anxiety in the ranks of the C.I.A., according to former officials. Senior agency officials have questioned why the C.I.A.’s analytical work should be subjected to a federal prosecutor’s scrutiny. 

We know, because it was bragged about at length in hagiographic portrayals in papers like the Washington Post, that John Brennan was the source of the conclusion that Putin directed the interference. We were even told that the determination of Putin’s involvement was too dangerous to publish in late 2016, because it would compromise Brennan’s magical Kremlin mole.

Now, suddenly, we’re treated to a series of stories that try to assert that the mole was removed either completely or in part because of Trump.

Maybe there’s an element of truth there. But it’s astonishing that none of the major news outlets bothered, even as an insincere gesture to convention, to address this story’s obvious counter-narrative.

If the mole was even that important, which I’m not convinced of – as McGovern told me this week, “They make stuff up all the time” – it seems more than possible we lost this “asset” because our intelligence chiefs felt it necessary to spend late 2016 and early 2017 spilling details about our capabilities in the news media.

This story wasn’t leaked to tell the public an important story about a lost source in the Kremlin, but more likely as damage control, to work the refs as investigators examine the origins of the election interference tale.

In 2017-2018, the likes of Brennan and Clapper were regularly feeding bombshell news stories to major papers and TV stations, usually as unnamed sources. The ostensible subject of these tales was usually Russian interference or collusion, but the subtext was a squalid power struggle between the enforcement bureaucracy and its loathed new executive, Trump.

After this “exfiltration story” broke, Esquire columnist Charlie Pierce, a colleague with whom I’ve sadly disagreed about this Russia business, wrote a poignant piece called “The Spies Are Acting as a Check on Our Elected Leaders. This Is Neither Healthy Nor Sustainable.”

In it, Charlie said something out loud that few have been willing to say out loud:

My guess is that the leak of this remarkable story came from somewhere in the bowels of the intelligence community…

The intelligence community is engaged in a cold war of information against the elected political leadership of the country, and a lot of us are finding ourselves on its side. This is neither healthy nor sustainable.

I personally don’t see myself as being on either side of this Cold War, but his point is true. He’s thinking about the country, but there’s the more immediate question of our business. A situation where the newspapers and airwaves are not for relaying facts but for firing sorties in an internecine power struggle really is unsustainable.

It won’t be long before audiences realize they’re not reading true news stories but what the Russians call versii, or “versions.” Whether it’s the pro-Trump wasteland of Fox or the Brennan-Clapper government-in-exile we see on MSNBC and CNN and in the Washington Post, the news has become two different nations, both intensely self-interested, neither honest. If this continues, it won’t be long before we’re filling overcoats and bird cages with things we used to read.

NOTE: Larry Johnson of Sic Semper Tyrannis added a lot on this topic, offering the impressions of a fellow intelligence officer in reviewing the story:

Regardless of the quality of his reporting, Smolenkov is the kind of recruited source that looks good on paper and helps a CIA case officer get promoted but adds little to actual U.S. intelligence on Russia…

[The] competing explanations for what prompted the exfiltration of this CIA asset say more about the incompetence of Barack Obama and his intel chiefs, John Brennan and Jim Clapper in particular…

Johnson’s conclusion suggests the motive for this story coming out now is to spin news that may come out of the Durham and Horowitz investigations:

This kind of chaotic leaking about an old intel op is symptomatic of panic. CIA is already officially denying key parts of the story. My money is on John Brennan and Jim Clapper as the likely impetus for these reports. They are hoping to paint Trump as a national security threat and distract from the upcoming revelations from the DOJ Inspector General report on the FISA warrants and, more threatening, the decisions that Prosecutor John Durham will take...

I have doubts about how much might ultimately come out of the various Russiagate-origins investigations. However, we have seen repeatedly that sources on both sides of the Russia affair will leak tales to major outlets in an effort to get ahead of news created by official probes. This went on before James Comey’s congressional testimony in June of 2017, before Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony, ahead of investigations into the use of FISA warrants, and countless times in connection with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s inquiry (often from people questioned by Mueller).

In the Smolenkov story, noise is getting back to reporters by way of the “ranks of the C.I.A.,” as the Times put it, i.e. from the officials who are ostensibly being questioned as part of Durham’s probe. It’s reasonable to assume that the public airing of this old tale is somehow connected to those investigations. This makes it striking that none of the mainstream news accounts bothered to even mention the ongoing Russia probes as context — a glaring problem in a story where “Why is this coming out now?” is the first question readers need answering to make sense of the news.


* Full disclosure: I wrote for Kommersant a few times in 2003-2004, in an unsuccessful effort to try to write humorously about American politics for Russians.

Image by Gage Skidmore

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