The Spies Who Remained in the Cold
IN 1989, A SPY WALKED INTO
my father’s office in New York City. He claimed to be a military officer assigned to the Soviet mission to the United States and said he wanted to do business. My dad, a Pakistani immigrant, had started a small defense company that supplied the U.S. government with books and research material. So while a Soviet standing in his office was abnormal, what he asked for—information on nuclear nonproliferation—was not.
About 20 minutes after the man left, two FBI agents walked in and told my father the man’s true identity. Then they asked for his help: My dad was to continue doing business with him and share what information he learned with the bureau. It was the beginning of a decades-long relationship between my family and the FBI that lasted until 2009.
Toward the end of that period, I became part of the family business. For more than three years, I worked as a double agent for the bureau, infiltrating Russian military intelligence. So I’ve watched the Trump-russia probe play out with considerable interest. During that time, I’ve been quietly asking current and former counterintelligence professionals, “Who is making sure Russia doesn’t undermine our democracy?” The answer has always been the same: “I don’t know, but I hope somebody is.” Yet since Donald Trump still refuses to admit that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election, I’m not sure anybody—in his administration or the intelligence community—is keeping proper tabs on our Cold War adversary.
This threat from Moscow is not an idle one. It appears to have resulted in a successful operation against the United States, one that likely began long before Trump took office.
The Russians seem to have penetrated the president’s inner circle, used social media to spread fake news and may have even targeted the American voting system. In the aftermath of this malicious campaign, the U.S. has done too little to harden its defenses against such an operation. There have been no demands to increase the budget of the intelligence community to counter Russia and other intel threats to the nation. Instead, many seem to think we can defeat Moscow simply by throwing Trump out of office. That’s a dangerous idea.
My father saw firsthand the intelligence threat Moscow poses to the U.S. He also saw how the demise of the Soviet Union had little impact on the Russian spy game. After the collapse of the USSR, intelligence officers from the Russian mission to the United Nations very quickly began showing up at the family office, looking for the same information that first spy had sought. To them, the U.S. was still the enemy.
But U.S. intelligence viewed Moscow a bit differently. When I began working for the FBI in 2005, my handlers and I were completely focused on Russian spies. But we were the
exceptions; the rest of America was focused on terrorism and Al-qaeda. The agents I worked with were patriots and professionals, but they had little support and few resources. I would often joke with them about their hand-me-down cars. The agents were fighting a battle the American people thought was over. We had just been attacked by a deadly new enemy, and that fight was sucking up most of the money and resources available.
Counterintelligence wasn’t a top priority. During my operation, a military attaché from a foreign country invited me to meet with him. As I sat in his Manhattan consulate, drinking tea, the attaché told me he was looking for “somebody in D.C. to put me in contact with,” a positive and intriguing sign. I reported the details to the FBI and then waited. Weeks rolled by. Finally, one of the agents dejectedly told me that “the agent responsible for that country won’t return my calls.” I never spoke to the attaché again. I never learned who in D.C. I was supposed to contact. It was a missed opportunity.
Moscow rarely misses opportunities. The Russians were distrustful of everyone and everything. The tactics they employed to avoid FBI surveillance were simple but highly effective. They would conclude each of our meetings by handing over a menu or a business card of another restaurant. Then, a week or so later, I would receive a short call inviting me to lunch. At the end of the meeting, the process would repeat. There was never any discussion by phone or email. All communication occurred in person. This meant unless the FBI knew where I was meeting my “handlers,” they would have struggled to know how to monitor us. The Russians had honed their craft, while the FBI agents were struggling to keep up.
As my days working against the Russians concluded, I worried more and more about this mismatch. In a post–cold War world, it’s easy to understand how justifying the cost of counterintelligence may have become politically difficult. But nobody told that to the Russians.
With FBI counterintelligence efforts languishing, they found the perfect opportunity to attack the U.S. In the aftermath of that assault in 2016, the U.S. has still not acknowledged a counterintelligence failure, nor has it adequately sought to fix it. As long as the president continues to call Russian interference a “hoax,” the weaknesses Moscow exploited to successfully undermine American democracy will never be strengthened.
If Russia’s electoral interference has taught me anything, it is that the U.S. must hold FBI counterintelligence to the standard it was held to in 1989 when agents walked into my father’s office: to be able to detect and counter a Russian recruitment effort in roughly 20 minutes. NAVEED JAMALI is the author of How
to Catch a Russian Spy, a memoir about working undercover as a double agent for the FBI. He continues to serve as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and is a senior fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Many seem to think we can defeat Moscow simply by throwing Trump out of office. That’s a dangerous idea.
RED DON Trump with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. If the president continues to call Moscow’s interference a “hoax,” America will continue to lose the new Cold War.