‘Intelligence Sources’ Appear to Run Damage Control on Joseph Mifsud

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
July 3, 2019 Updated: July 4, 2019

News Analysis

As the Justice Department probes the origins of the Trump–Russia investigation, intelligence sources appear to be trying to play down any connection between Joseph Mifsud, supposedly the key player in those origins, and Western intelligence.

Mifsud, an academic of Maltese origin, was portrayed in the final report of special counsel Robert Mueller as a cut-out between the Russian government and the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump.

It was Mifsud who, on April 26, 2016, told Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, according to Papadopoulos.

There’s no evidence that Papadopoulos told other officials in the campaign.

Mueller took over the probe of alleged Trump–Russia ties from the FBI in 2017 and, in March, concluded that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Some Republican lawmakers have questioned how Mifsud, a man with supposedly deep and nefarious ties to Russia, had apparently mingled for years with Western politicians and high-ranking security and intelligence officials.

Papadopoulos has argued that Mifsud was a Western intelligence operative.

On July 1, The Washington Post ran an article on Mifsud’s background quoting John Sipher, the former officer in charge of the CIA’s Russia operations, who “called the idea that Mifsud was a CIA asset who set up Papadopoulos ‘nonsense,’ noting that the CIA is not allowed to target Americans.”

Yet the whole premise of Papadopoulos’s allegation is that some intelligence agency ran a rogue operation on him—not one played by the book.

Another veteran of CIA Russia operations, Steve Hall, told the paper that in counterintelligence, “you can almost never rule anything out completely.”

“But he added,” the article continues, “that Mifsud’s known activities closely parallel long-standing Russian techniques of targeting academic institutions to spot possible recruits and gather information, making it more likely that Mifsud was working with the Russians than a Western intelligence agency.”

The article fails to mention, however, that it’s not just Russia that targets academic institutions for recruitment and intelligence gathering. In fact, it was Mifsud’s job to make overtures to foreign universities as a “director of international relations” and recruit foreign students for the Link Campus University in Rome, an entity with deep ties to Western intelligence and security figures.

A former Link employee even told the Post that Mifsud was key in brokering academic partnerships with foreign universities, including in Russia.

Mingling Place

The Post article dismisses Link’s ties to Western intelligence as merely represented by a single CIA-sponsored conference co-hosted by Link in 2004.

But that’s far from the full picture.

Former CIA analyst Stephen Marrin was a guest lecturer at Link.

FBI Special Agent Preston Ackerman apparently gave a presentation at Link in September 2016.

Andrew Bagley, former FBI adviser and, since 2015, privacy counsel to CrowdStrike, was a visiting researcher at Link in 2010, according to his 2015 resumé.

Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta has been the director of “Special Projects” at Link since 2015, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Claire Smith, a career UK diplomat and former member of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee, gave a training to high-ranking Italian military officials in Rome in 2012, which was co-organized by Link. Smith was photographed there, standing next to Mifsud.

General Carmine Masiello and Roberto Baldoni, both deputy directors of the Italian Department of Security Intelligence, lectured or gave talks at Link.

Emanuela Del Re, Italian deputy minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, lectured at Link in 2015 and 2016 (pdf).

Three deputy directors of the Italian External Security agency, Gens. Giuseppe Caputo, Giovanni Caravelli, and Luciano Carta, as well as the deputy director of the Italian Internal Security agency, Valerio Blengini, attended a Link event in 2018, La Republica reported.

Link’s director himself, Vincenzo Scotti, was the Italian interior minister in the early 1990s.

The list goes on.

Russian Links

Mifsud’s Russian contacts, on the other hand, were largely in academic circles. The most nefarious connection Mueller dug up was Mifsud’s knowing “a one-time employee of the [Internet Research Agency], the entity that carried out the Russian social media campaign [of meddling in the 2016 election].” It seems Mifsud in January and February 2016 discussed potentially meeting that person in Russia, though the investigation found no evidence that the meeting took place.

The Post article states that “officials familiar with U.S. intelligence reports told The Post that Mifsud had been identified by intelligence agencies as a potential Russian agent before he met Papadopoulos, an assessment drawn from reporting collected over several years.”

The trouble is that unnamed sources with supposed knowledge of intelligence have become notorious for peddling erroneous or misleading claims, particularly over the past two years. The Trump–Russia narrative was built up by the media in large part upon claims of faceless “sources” only to be shattered by Mueller on record.

“If Mifsud has extensive, suspicious contacts among Russian officials as portrayed in the Special Counsel’s report, then an incredibly wide range of Western institutions and individuals may have been compromised by him,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in a May 3 letter to the heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the State Department.

But if Mifsud wasn’t a counterintelligence threat, Nunes said, “then that would cast doubt on the Special Counsel’s fundamental depiction of him and his activities, and raise questions about the veracity of the Special Counsel’s statements and affirmations.”

Link Campus supposedly cut ties with Mifsud after his conversations with Papadopoulos came out in late 2017.

“I can’t afford to have the university embroiled in shady situations,” Scotti told the Post. “As long as I have no reason to suspect anyone of a problem, they will have the utmost freedom to pursue their work. But as soon as I see a sign of a problem, that’s it. The relationship ends.”

But Mifsud was still living in Rome until May 2018 in an apartment apparently provided by Link Campus, according to an April 18 report by Italian list Il Foglio.

His whereabouts since then are unknown.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.