Russian Spy Revelation Raises Questions on CIA Information, Potential Links to Steele Dossier

September 11, 2019 Updated: September 14, 2019

News Analysis

The revelation of the alleged extraction of a Russian CIA spy has raised a number of questions, including how the CIA used the information it received—and the quality of that information.

Notably, the spy appears to have been a key source for the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

A closer examination of the spy’s alleged background, however, paints a complicated picture. The spy’s direct supervisor appears to have been mentioned in the Steele dossier, and it’s possible that information provided by the spy may have been included in the dossier.

The primary allegation in the Sept. 9 CNN article—that the decision to extricate the spy was driven by “concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence”—has been disputed by the White House and the CIA. However, the main premise, the existence of a Russian spy who now lives in the Washington area, appears to hold.

It’s likely that the spy, who has been living in the United States since May 2017, is of interest to U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is currently investigating the origins of the investigations into the Trump campaign.

Key Questions Raised

The underlying premise of the CNN story is that there was a CIA spy who was embedded within the Kremlin:

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

The lobby of Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Aug. 14, 2008. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

While CNN is citing only one source for this claim in its story, The New York Times supports CNN’s contention of a CIA spy in the Kremlin:

“Decades ago, the C.I.A. recruited and carefully cultivated a midlevel Russian official who began rapidly advancing through the governmental ranks. Eventually, American spies struck gold: The longtime source landed an influential position that came with access to the highest level of the Kremlin.”

The New York Times noted that the source was “outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making — easily making the source one of the agency’s most valuable assets.”

But The New York Times also noted that there were some doubts within the CIA. Following the refusal of extraction in late 2016, some officials within the CIA “wondered whether the informant had been turned and had become a double agent, secretly betraying his American handlers.”

The potential ramifications of a double agent were dire, holding very real implications that “some of the information the informant provided about the Russian interference campaign or Mr. Putin’s intentions would have been inaccurate.”

And it wasn’t just the agent’s initial refusal of extraction that prompted concerns within the CIA. According to The New York Times, “some operatives had other reasons to suspect the source could be a double agent, according to two former officials.”

On Sept. 10, the Russian Kommersant newspaper reported the likely identity of the alleged spy, a matter later picked up by the Washington Post, which noted that “intelligence experts were baffled that reporters were able to so quickly glean information about a potentially high-level CIA asset.”

The Washington Post reported that the alleged spy worked directly for Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008, and served as Ushakov’s aide. This would place the CIA source within close reach of Putin, as Ushakov later served as Putin’s foreign policy adviser “when Putin became prime minister in 2008 and stayed with him when Putin became president in 2012.”

The New York Times has noted that this source “was instrumental to the C.I.A.’s most explosive conclusion about Russia’s interference campaign: that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered and orchestrated it himself.”

The source was apparently highly regarded by former CIA Director John Brennan, who felt the identity of the source was so important that, according to the New York Times article, he “kept information from the operative out of President Barack Obama’s daily brief in 2016.”

“Instead, Mr. Brennan sent separate intelligence reports, many based on the source’s information, in special sealed envelopes to the Oval Office,” according to the article.

But the nature of the source raises some very real questions. If, for example, the source was indeed so highly placed, why then was the United States so seemingly ill-informed regarding many of Russia’s foreign policy actions, particularly in Syria or Crimea, when Russia forcibly annexed the peninsula from the Ukraine?

And if this asset was indeed so highly placed, how is it that Russia was able to hack the Democratic National Committee servers and extract their emails without the CIA’s advance knowledge of the alleged Russian activities?

There is another significant problem, as well. The Mueller report, after two lengthy years of investigation, concluded there was no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, thereby proving a key part of the alleged Russian activities incorrect.

How could the same spy who was “instrumental to the C.I.A.’s most explosive conclusion about Russia’s interference campaign,” when he was ensconced within reach of Putin’s innermost circle, fail to provide even more concrete proof for Mueller’s team of investigators after he was exfiltrated to our nation’s capital in 2017?

Another strange element to this entire story is the lack of secrecy and almost reckless disregard exhibited by the spy himself. If he indeed served as “one of the C.I.A.’s most important — and highly protected — assets,” how is it that he came to live in our nation’s capital, all the while living under his Russian name? And why is it that Russia was so quickly willing to identify him publicly following the initial reports?

As The Washington Post noted, “It is highly unusual for a country to name a possible turncoat. It’s even more unusual for a suspected spy and defector to be living abroad using his own name.”

Notably, the source wasn’t particularly difficult to locate, given that NBC News reporter Ken Dilanian disclosed that he had personally gone to the Russian source’s home on Sept. 9. Dilanian’s reporting also confirmed the general location of the source’s whereabouts.

According to The Washington Post, the alleged Russian source, who resided in a “six-bedroom house on three acres” had suddenly left “on Monday evening and hadn’t returned.”

One has to wonder why the alleged Russian source has been living openly in our nation’s capital—with apparently little fear of reprisal from Russia.

Other Agencies Not Convinced by CIA Information

Many of the recent disclosures about the Russian source strongly appear to have been previously reported in June 2017 by The Washington Post, which noted that Brennan had received “an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.”

The Post noted that “the intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”

cia spy report
A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal in the lobby of the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in a file photograph. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

This was the same information that Brennan reportedly conveyed “in special sealed envelopes to the Oval Office.” However, as the Post noted, “despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump.”

If Brennan’s source of information came from one of the CIA’s most highly placed and valued assets—a source that the CIA had recruited “decades ago”—why would other intelligence agencies, such as the NSA, be reluctant to agree with the CIA’s conclusions?

Alleged Spy’s Boss Mentioned in Steele Dossier

As noted by an internet researcher, Ushakov, the boss of the suspected Russian spy, is directly referenced in the Steele dossier in a Sept. 14, 2016, memo—one of three memos that were prepared in advance of a meeting between Steele and FBI agents in Rome on Sept. 19, 2016:

“Speaking in confidence to a trusted compatriot in mid-September 2016, a senior member of the Russian Presidential Administration (PA) commented on the political fallout from recent western media revelations about Moscow’s intervention, in favor of Donald TRUMP and against Hillary CLINTON, in the US presidential election. The PA official reported that the issue had become incredibly sensitive and that President PUTIN had issued direct orders that Kremlin and government insiders should not discuss it in public or even in private,” the memo read.

“Despite this, the PA official confirmed, from direct knowledge, that the gist of the allegations was true. Putin had been receiving conflicting advice on interfering from three separate and expert groups. On one side had been the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei KISLYAK, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with an independent and informal network run by presidential foreign policy advisor, Yuri USHAKOV (KISLYAK’s predecessor in Washington) who had urged caution and the potential negative impact from Russia from the operation/s.”

What makes this particularly curious is that by the time the Steele memo was written in mid-September 2016, Brennan had already delivered information on this matter to the White House:

“Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried ‘eyes only’ instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides,” The Washington Post reported on June 23, 2017.

The fact that the CIA information and the Steele dossier contained the same information raises the question of whether the “senior member of the Russian Presidential Administration” mentioned in the dossier is the same as the CIA Russian spy.

This, in turn, would raise the question of how Steele appears to have ended up with the same information as the CIA.

Brennan has claimed that he didn’t see the dossier until “later in that year,” perhaps in December 2016. He also stated in his testimony that the CIA didn’t rely on the Steele dossier and that it “was not in any way used as a basis for the intelligence community assessment that was done.”

But this claim was countered during the July 16, 2018, testimony of former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, when the following discussion took place regarding Brennan’s August 2016 briefing of then-Sen. Harry Reid:

Rep. Mark Meadows: “We have documents that would suggest that in that briefing the dossier was mentioned to Harry Reid and then, obviously, we’re going to have to have conversations. Does that surprise you that Director Brennan would be aware of [the dossier]?”

Lisa Page: “Yes, sir. Because with all due honesty, if Director Brennan – so we got that information from our source, right? The FBI got this information from our source. If the CIA had another source of that information, I am neither aware of that nor did the CIA provide it to us if they did.”

While some within the FBI likely had parts of the dossier in early July, Page testified that the counterintelligence investigative team didn’t receive it until mid-September—likely during their trip to Rome, where they met with Steele:

Rep. Meadows: “So what you’re saying is, is that you had no knowledge of these potential unverified memos prior to the middle part of September in your investigation?”

Page: “That is correct, sir.”

This sequence indicates that only Brennan, the CIA, and Steele had direct access to this information prior to the FBI’s meeting with Steele in Rome—again begging the question, did Brennan have the information first? And if so, who gave it to Steele?

Following the delivery of the Mueller report, Brennan commented on the information he had received—a matter picked up on by an internet researcher:

“Well, I don’t know if I received bad information but I suspected there was more than there actually was. I am relieved that it’s been determined there was not a criminal conspiracy with the Russian government over our election. I think that is good news for the country.“

If Brennan was making this admission after using a source the CIA claimed was the “highest level source for the U.S. inside the Kremlin”—a source who had been, until Sept. 9, living openly under his own name—one has to question the entirety of the CIA’s sourcing and reporting on the Russia collusion narrative.

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