IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Former U.S. spies warned in 2020 that the Hunter Biden scandal had Russian fingerprints. They feel vindicated now.

The Justice Department said this week that informant Alexander Smirnov invented a story about $5 million bribes paid to Joe and Hunter Biden and is also "peddling new lies."
President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at the White House on April 10, 2023.
President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at the White House in 2023.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

The Justice Department’s assertions this week that a longtime FBI informant was seeking to “spread misinformation” designed to hurt President Joe Biden after speaking to Russian intelligence operatives has put a new spotlight on an old debate:

To what extent, if any, has the Russian government manufactured or amplified unproven allegations of corrupt Ukraine dealings by Joe and Hunter Biden?

In a request to revoke his bail, prosecutors said that former informant Alexander Smirnov, charged last week with lying to the FBI in 2020 when he said Joe Biden had received a $5 million bribe, “is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials” as recently as last fall.

The allegation that Smirnov was spreading new falsehoods about Joe Biden with an election looming hearkened back to an episode from the 2020 election, when the question of whether Russian spies were trying to smear Joe Biden was first raised.

Derogatory information, purportedly from Hunter Biden’s laptop, had surfaced in a New York Post article. Soon afterward, 51 former intelligence officials signed and blasted to the media a letter warning that the laptop story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”

The letter continued: “We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails … are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement — just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.”

The laptop data included embarrassing photos of Hunter Biden with prostitutes — and emails that detailed his business dealings in Ukraine and China. The mainstream media largely ignored it, while Twitter and Facebook put restrictions on the sharing of the New York Post story.

After mainstream news organizations verified portions of the laptop material, the letter became a focus of anger among Donald Trump and his supporters. They branded the group of mostly Biden supporters as “spies who lie” and accused them of election interference, saying their letter suppressed coverage of a story that reflected poorly on their candidate.

The House Judiciary Committee hauled some of them in for sworn interviews, and in May published a report titled, “How senior intelligence community officials and the Biden campaign worked to mislead American voters.” Some received death threats.

Alexander Smirnov, left, leaves the Las Vegas courthouse on Feb. 20, 2024.
Alexander Smirnov, left, at Las Vegas courthouse on Tuesday.AP

Now, many of those former officials say they feel vindicated by the allegations against the FBI informant.

No public evidence has emerged pointing to a Russian government role in how the laptop materials were made public. But the former officials say the materials fueled stories consistent with Russian efforts to accuse Biden of corruption that persist to this day — and that therefore they were justified in sounding the alarm.

“It validates exactly what we were warning about,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year CIA veteran who supervised operations involving Russia. “Ours was a prudent warning. The Russians were going to push this narrative of Hunter Biden and corruption, to hurt Joe Biden.”

Polymeropoulos, who spent much of his career in counterterrorism, said he received emails saying he and his family should be hung, and a barrage of crank phone calls. Another signatory, former CIA operations officer John Sipher, says he was also targeted by threats.

Sipher said the group never claimed that material about Hunter Biden was made up — only that the story fit a narrative being pushed by people with ties to Russian intelligence, including some who had met in Ukraine with Trump’s lawyer and adviser Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani had provided the laptop materials to the New York Post.

“This has always been an ugly political game from the beginning,” Sipher said. “Anyone who actually bothered to read the letter would realize that the focus was on warning about Russian subversive efforts prior to the 2020 election.”

He added, “The recent revelations show that we were prescient. While I would love to gloat, the important issue remains the same — foreign interference in American democracy, and unethical, cynical and faithless behavior by members of Congress entrusted to provide oversight of our important institutions.”

Russell Dye, a spokesman for the GOP-led House Judiciary Committee, responded:

“The Hunter Biden laptop was always real and always authenticated. They knew, or should have known, that and they still ran with their verifiably bogus letter. The people who signed the letter should feel zero vindication.”

The Judiciary Committee report included excerpts of an interview with Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, who said he asked Polymeropoulos to draft the letter. Morell acknowledged that he did so after being contacted by then-candidate Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken, who flagged the New York Post story.

That revelation was characterized by Republicans as more evidence the letter had been a political maneuver. Most if not all the signatories preferred Biden over Trump in the 2020 election. Among them were James Clapper, who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, and Leon Panetta, an Obama CIA director and defense secretary. 

There is little doubt the letter helped Democrats rebuff allegations of Biden family corruption. Biden cited it during a presidential debate when Trump raised the issue, asserting that “there are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plan.”

But the signatories said they were expressing a genuine concern that went beyond who would win an election. And it wasn’t only those 51 former officials who were concerned about possible Russian attempts to smear Biden. NBC News reported in October 2020 that the CIA and other spy agencies gathered intelligence on Giuliani’s dealings with alleged Russian intelligence agents as he searched for dirt on Biden and passed his findings on to the Trump White House.

American intelligence agencies were not spying on Giuliani, but on the people with whom he was talking, including Andrii Derkach, who had been identified by the Treasury Department as a Russian agent. In the process, the U.S. spy agencies learned that Derkach and other Russian operatives were in touch with Giuliani, and wanted to feed him information in an attempt to discredit Joe Biden.

In that context, the emergence of the laptop around the same time raised suspicions, especially because the New York Post reported that it obtained the material from Giuliani, who got it from the owner of a Delaware computer repair shop. The shop owner said Hunter Biden brought it in and never picked it up.

Material from the laptop became evidence in the criminal investigation of Hunter Biden, which ultimately resulted in a pair of indictments accusing him of tax and gun crimes. He has pleaded not guilty. A recent court filing by the lead prosecutor in the case, special counsel David Weiss, says investigators authenticated the laptop material — and the fact that a computer had been left in a store.

“In August 2019, IRS and FBI investigators obtained a search warrant for tax violations for the defendant [Hunter Biden]’s Apple iCloud account,” the filing said. “In response to that warrant, in September 2019, Apple produced backups of data from various of the defendant’s electronic devices that he had backed up to his iCloud account. Investigators also later came into possession of the defendant’s Apple MacBook Pro, which he had left at a computer store. A search warrant was also obtained for his laptop and the results of the search were largely duplicative of information investigators had already obtained from Apple.”

It was Weiss who filed charges last week against Smirnov, accusing the informant of lying to the FBI when he relayed information that Joe and Hunter Biden had each accepted bribes of $5 million in 2015 from Ukrainian executives of Burisma, the company that paid Hunter Biden millions of dollars to sit on its board.

NBC News has reported that the bribery allegations had been investigated and debunked by the Justice Department during the Trump administration. But they had become part of the push by House Republicans to impeach Joe Biden. And the prosecutor who investigated, former Pittsburgh U.S. Attorney Scott Brady, testified to the House Judiciary Committee in October that the FBI viewed the informant as a “trusted source.”

It’s not clear when and why that changed. In a filing this week seeking to revoke Smirnov’s bail, prosecutors said he had repeatedly “lied to his FBI Handler after a 10-year relationship where the two spoke nearly every day” — and that he had “extensive” contacts with Russian operatives. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Hunter Biden’s lawyers said in a filing that the informant’s alleged lies have irreparably tainted the cases against him.

“Smirnov’s contacts with Russian officials who are affiliated with Russian intelligence services are not benign,” the filing says, adding that his “efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States continues. … What this shows is that the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2020. He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November.”