Earlier this month, America was roiled by the Department of Justice’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence (GRU) officers, as well as the arrest of suspected “unregistered foreign agent” Mariia Butina. So are Russian spies meddling more in American affairs, or are we simply getting better at catching them?
Neither. Despite all the attention currently being paid to the swirl of suspicion and controversy surrounding Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, the real story of the recent indictments is one of failure. Because American intelligence officials have known about the Russian threat for decades, and yet still were apparently unable to stop foreign agents from interfering in a democratic election.
American intelligence officials have known about the Russian threat for decades, and yet still were apparently unable to stop foreign agents from interfering in a democratic election.
Take this intercepted court message, released in court proceedings against suspected Russian spies. In the note, Moscow’s orders were clear and simple: "You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, your bank accounts, car, house, etc — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels (intelligence reports) to C (Centre)."
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While this missive reads like evidence collected against the 12 GRU agents, it was in fact part of a 2010 FBI case against a group of so-called Russian “illegal” deep cover agents. But 2010 was far from the only warning U.S. agencies received. Indeed, there were convictions and charges brought against both Americans and Russians in 2012 and 2015 (case involving Carter Page).
There are several reasons why this threat may have been missed, or merely considered a lesser priority than other threats. The biggest potential reason is that the September 11 attacks shifted the focus of the intelligence community away from foreign counterintelligence and towards what felt like a more immediate threat: terrorism. This shift makes sense in theory — after all, how many Americans have Russian agents killed in the past 20 years? But it's also a short-sighted one. Russian efforts to influence and interfere with the democratic process are a real threat to American national security, and they need to be treated as one.
There are several reasons why this threat may have been missed, or merely considered a lesser priority than other threats. The biggest potential reason is that the September 11 attacks shifted the focus of the intelligence community.
Counterintelligence has the singular mission of stopping foreign intelligence operations, like those that occurred in 2016. The lead agency for counterintelligence is the FBI, whose mission is “to neutralize national security threats from foreign intelligence services…[t]he FBI is the lead agency for exposing, preventing, and investigating intelligence activities on U.S. soil, and the Counterintelligence Division uses its full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities to combat counterintelligence threats.”
FBI counterintelligence uses any number of investigative methods, including simply notifying the foreign state that their actions have been detected. States like Russia engage in intelligence operations with the goal of avoiding both detection and direct confrontation. As such, details like those listed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment surely could have been used to let the Russians know that their operations were compromised.
Indeed, on the eve of the 2016 election, President Barack Obama did try to directly warn President Vladimir Putin via the so-called red phone that connects Moscow and the White House. Obama’s message to Putin was that any attempt to interfere with the U.S. election would be considered a “grave matter” and that “International law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace.” Furthermore, NBC reported that Obama informed Putin that "[the U.S.] will hold Russia to those standards.”
Obama’s warning to Putin may have staved off some direct manipulation and disruption on the Election Day, but it did not address the actions outlined by the Mueller indictment — which occurred well before November 2016.
If Obama was unaware of the significance of the intelligence that has now been released as part of the Mueller probe, it would not be the first time that a looming threat was downplayed to a U.S. president. While the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief to President George W. Bush warned that Osama Bin Laden “wanted to carry out terrorist attacks in the U.S.,” it failed to elevate the gravity of the threat in the last sentence with “a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the United States planning attacks.”
Maybe the intelligence community failed to communicate the gravity or the full scope of the Russian operation to Obama. Or perhaps it was that an FBI was so focused on counterterrorism in a post 9/11 world that it simply wasn’t prioritizing a Cold War threat. Whatever the reason, it now appears that U.S. intelligence failed to detect and neutralize a significant Russian operation against the United States.
Worse, America's current president seems determined to ignore the increasingly dire warnings now being communicated by the intelligence community. In other words, although President Donald Trump claims to want to correct the mistakes made by his predecessors, his actions thus far are only making them worse.
Naveed Jamali is an MSNBC intelligence analyst, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI double agent who spent three years successfully working undercover against Russian military intelligence. His book, “How to Catch a Russian Spy," was published in 2015.