Mos­cow’s Mules

Don­ald Trump would be a spy­mas­ter’s night­mare

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY NAVEED JA­MALI @Naveeda­ja­mali

“ARE YOU fuck­ing kid­ding me?” It was the sum­mer of 2008, and I was in Wayne, New Jersey, stand­ing in a Hoot­ers park­ing lot with Cap­tain Oleg Ku­likov, a New York– based Rus­sian spy­mas­ter. For three years, I’d been work­ing for Mos­cow, try­ing to prove my worth. I wanted to be­come a key as­set for the GRU, Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agency. In re­turn, I wanted a hefty pay­check and thought I’d done enough to earn it. But Ku­likov was dither­ing—and he could see I was up­set.

What he didn’t know: I was a dou­ble agent, work­ing for the FBI. My mis­sion was to make the Rus­sians be­lieve I was a spy. Which meant I had to show Ku­likov that I was tired of his games and will­ing to walk away.

I’ve thought of this mo­ment sev­eral times since Don­ald Trump won the 2016 presidential elec­tion. Many have spec­u­lated that Trump is a Rus­sian as­set—per­haps a long­time one. His ties to ex-soviet oli­garchs are cer­tainly trou­bling; some al­lege he’s al­lowed the Rus­sian mob to laun­der big money through his prop­er­ties (the Krem­lin re­port­edly has ex­ten­sive links to or­ga­nized crime). His re­marks about Mos­cow are equally trou­bling. He has de­fended the Krem­lin’s killing of dis­si­dents (“Do you think our coun­try is so in­no­cent?”) and dis­missed claims by his own in­tel­li­gence ser­vices that Rus­sian-backed hack­ers car­ried out a plot to un­der­mine his op­po­nent—and Amer­i­can democ­racy—in Novem­ber.

To­day, as a spe­cial coun­sel and oth­ers in­ves­ti­gate ties be­tween the pres­i­dent’s cam­paign and Mos­cow, Trump has dis­missed these probes as “fake news” and a “witch hunt.” His as­ser­tions are false and self-serv­ing.

Yet from my years of be­ing a dou­ble agent, it’s also ev­i­dent that the brash New York real es­tate mogul would have made a ter­ri­ble spy. Be­com­ing a for­eign as­set is a one-sided re­la­tion­ship; the han­dlers have all the lever­age. Be­ing a will­ing par­tic­i­pant is not enough. In­tel­li­gence ser­vices care­fully study their re­cruits, gaug­ing their suit­abil­ity for spy­craft. “The Rus­sians pitch a lot of peo­ple,” says Scott Ol­son, a re­cently re­tired coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence se­nior FBI agent, “but for a host of rea­sons, those peo­ple don’t al­ways make the cut.”

As a dou­ble agent, I spent most of my time

convincing my han­dlers I was not an FBI plant— and that I was trust­wor­thy. Those two things may sound the same, but they aren’t. The Rus­sians were in­ter­ested in the in­tel­li­gence I could pro­vide. And they were con­stantly mak­ing sure they could de­pend on me, as well as keep me un­der con­trol. They had to trust what I de­liv­ered but also that I would fol­low di­rec­tions.

It is of­ten as­sumed that ly­ing is syn­ony­mous with spy­ing, but that is not the case, says Emily Brand­win, a for­mer CIA case of­fi­cer: “At the CIA, we’d al­ways say, ‘Don’t case of­fi­cer a case of­fi­cer’.... You can B.S. every­one else, but you don’t B.S. your col­leagues.” It was the same thing with my Rus­sian han­dlers; my work for the FBI aside, ly­ing wasn’t re­ally an op­tion. The Rus­sians rou­tinely asked me ques­tions they had asked months be­fore to see if my an­swers changed. No matter how in­signif­i­cant the de­tails, there could be no de­vi­a­tion, be­cause if Oleg couldn’t trust me about the small things, how could he trust me about the big things?

Of course, over three-plus years, my Rus­sian han­dler wasn’t able to watch me all the time or ver­ify how I received the in­tel­li­gence I gave him. I once handed him a stack of fighter plane man­u­als that I had “bor­rowed” from a de­fense

MANY HAVE SPEC­U­LATED THAT TRUMP IS A RUS­SIAN AS­SET—PER­HAPS A LONG­TIME ONE.

con­trac­tor. When I pre­sented these ma­te­ri­als to the Rus­sians (which was il­le­gal), they never sus­pected the FBI’S in­volve­ment. My han­dler be­lieved me be­cause I had earned his trust.

The is­sue of trust is even more im­por­tant when some­body is a “high-vis­i­bil­ity” as­set, such as a law­maker. “Politi­cians are mal­leable,” says a for­mer Amer­i­can se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, who served un­der­cover and asked to be called only “Lo­gan” to pro­tect U.S. in­tel­li­gence sources and op­er­a­tions. “We would weigh what they say pri­vately much more than what they say pub­licly.”

En­ter Trump, a politi­cian whose pub­lic and pri­vate per­sona seem to be one in the same. From his in­flam­ma­tory com­ments about the vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, to his tweets trash­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, the pres­i­dent ap­pears to think, speak and act on im­pulse, with lit­tle re­straint.

He also has a long his­tory of lies. Just ask The New York Times. The pa­per has compiled an up-to-date list of his breath­less false­hoods, from the crowd size at his in­au­gu­ra­tion (it wasn’t the largest in presidential his­tory) to his claim that the De­part­ment of Jus­tice signed a “wa­tered­down” travel ban ( he signed it). En­list­ing him as an as­set would be a “night­mare,” says John Sipher, a 27-year vet­eran of the CIA’S na­tional clan­des­tine ser­vice with mul­ti­ple overseas tours as chief of station and deputy chief of station. “Agent han­dlers are look­ing for spies that can… pro­tect the se­crecy of the re­la­tion­ship.”

True. But as the Repub­li­can presidential can­di­date, Trump would still have been a tempt­ing tar­get. Plus, as Sipher points out, the re­al­ity TV star “oozes the two top traits that re­cruiters are look­ing for: an un­healthy ego and over-the-top greed.” Would those at­tributes, cou­pled with his po­si­tion, have negated his ob­vi­ous risk as an as­set? That’s un­clear.

What is clear, how­ever, is that the Rus­sia probe has un­cov­ered some sus­pi­cious be­hav­ior from Trump sur­ro­gates such as Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Jared Kush­ner. All have ties to Mos­cow that pre­date the elec­tion: Flynn ac­cepted money to ap­pear at a gala for RT, a state-con­trolled Rus­sian tele­vi­sion station; Kush­ner has so­cial­ized with Ro­man Abramovich, an in­flu­en­tial Rus­sian bil­lion­aire; and Manafort made a for­tune work­ing for the party of Vik­tor Yanukovych, the for­mer pres­i­dent of Ukraine, now a guest of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin liv­ing in Rus­sia.

Be­cause of these con­nec­tions and oth­ers— and be­cause of Trump’s im­pul­sive per­son­al­ity and his­tory of men­dac­ity—it’s rea­son­able to as­sume that Mos­cow may have avoided di­rect con­tact with the GOP can­di­date in fa­vor of work­ing through sur­ro­gates.

Back in that Hoot­ers park­ing lot, Ku­likov and I stared at each other for a long, tense mo­ment. The Rus­sian spy­mas­ter weighed his op­tions. He had spent years try­ing to cul­ti­vate me, know­ing that if my ac­cess to U.S. gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion grew, so would his. Sud­denly, a smile spread across his face, and he as­sured me that more money would be com­ing my way. He in­vited me in­side for wings and beer—a sign that I had passed his test and of­fi­cially be­come a trusted Rus­sian as­set.

Or so he thought.

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 United States Navy Re­serve and a se­nior fel­low in the Pro­gram on Na­tional Se­cu­rity at the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute.

BLOW­BACK: Pro­test­ers out­side a Trump rally in Phoenix. The pres­i­dent’s proMoscow re­marks and ties to ex-soviet oli­garchs have been dis­con­cert­ing to some ob­servers.

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