CIA vet­eran Rolf Mowatt Larssen says the June 2016 meet­ing fits the de­scrip­tion of a Rus­sian in­tel op­er­a­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Out­look@wash­

Don­ald Trump Jr. is seek­ing to write off as a non­event his meet­ing last year with a Rus­sian lawyer who was said to have dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Hil­lary Clin­ton. “It was such a noth­ing,” he told Fox News’s Sean Han­nity on Tues­day. “There was noth­ing to tell.”

But ev­ery­thing we know about the meet­ing — from whom it in­volved to how it was set up to how it un­folded — is in line with what in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts would ex­pect an over­ture in a Rus­sian in­flu­ence op­er­a­tion to look like. It bears all the hall­marks of a pro­fes­sion­ally planned, care­fully or­ches­trated in­tel­li­gence soft pitch de­signed to gauge re­cep­tiv­ity, while leav­ing room for plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity in case the ap­proach is re­jected. And the Trump cam­paign’s will­ing­ness to take the meet­ing — and, more im­por­tant, its fail­ure to re­port the episode to U.S. author­i­ties — may have been ex­actly the green light Rus­sia was look­ing for to launch a more ag­gres­sive phase of in­ter­ven­tion in the U.S. elec­tion.

Let’s start with the in­ter­locu­tor: Rus­sian lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya. When ar­rang­ing the meet­ing, mu­sic pro­moter and Trump fam­ily ac­quain­tance Rob Gold­stone re­ferred to a “Rus­sian gov­ern­ment at­tor­ney.” Both Ve­sel­nit­skaya and the Krem­lin have sub­se­quently de­nied any as­so­ci­a­tion. What’s be­yond dis­pute is that she has lob­bied for the United States to re­peal Mag­nit­sky Act sanc­tions against Rus­sian of­fi­cials, that she reg­u­larly rep­re­sents the in­ter­ests of the Moscow re­gional gov­ern­ment and that her clients in­clude the vice pres­i­dent of state-owned Rus­sian Rail­ways.

My read, as some­one who has been part of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity for more than four decades, is that Ve­sel­nit­skaya is prob­a­bly too well-con­nected to have in­de­pen­dently ini­ti­ated such a high­level and sen­si­tive en­counter. If she had,

her use of known Trump and Krem­lin as­so­ci­ates (Aras and Emin Agalarov) to help make in­tro­duc­tions and the sug­ges­tion, in Gold­stone’s ac­count, that she wanted to share “of­fi­cial doc­u­ments and in­for­ma­tion” as “part of Rus­sia and its gov­ern­ment’s sup­port” for Trump could have got­ten her into sig­nif­i­cant trou­ble. Her ef­forts to meet Trump as­so­ci­ates would have surely come to the at­ten­tion of Rus­sian author­i­ties at some point, given Rus­sian gov­ern­ment email mon­i­tor­ing and other means of sur­veil­lance. The Krem­lin would look harshly on some­one go­ing rogue in a man­ner that would surely dam­age on­go­ing Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ef­forts re­lated to the cam­paign.

A bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion is that Ve­sel­nit­skaya is far enough re­moved from Moscow’s halls of power to make her a good fit as an in­ter­me­di­ary in an in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tion — as a “cut-out” with lim­ited knowl­edge of the larger scheme and as an “ac­cess agent” sent to as­sess and test a high-pri­or­ity tar­get’s in­ter­est in co­op­er­a­tion. She may have had her own agenda go­ing into the meet­ing: to lobby against the Mag­nit­sky Act, which hap­pens to af­fect some of her clients. But her agenda dove­tailed with Krem­lin in­ter­ests — and it would have added another layer of plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity. Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence prac­tice is to co-opt such a per­son. News Fri­day that she was ac­com­pa­nied by Ri­nat Akhmetshin, a Rus­sian-Amer­i­can lob­by­ist who is re­port­edly sus­pected of hav­ing ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence (which he de­nies), fur­ther bol­sters this read­ing.

Trump Jr.’s as­ser­tion that Ve­sel­nit­skaya didn’t de­liver the promised dirt in that meet­ing is also con­sis­tent with how Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence op­er­ates. So, too, is Akhmetshin’s ac­count that Ve­sel­nit­skaya pre­sented a doc­u­ment that she said sug­gested il­le­gal pay­ments to the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, but told Trump Jr. that sup­port­ing ev­i­dence would re­quire more re­search. Rus­sia would have wanted to feel out the cam­paign be­fore shar­ing its most prized ma­te­rial. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers pre­fer to dip their toes in the wa­ter be­fore tak­ing a plunge. And it’s too risky to at­tempt a blunt ap­proach to an ex­tremely sen­si­tive tar­get (such as the son of the Repub­li­can front-run­ner for pres­i­dent), es­pe­cially on hos­tile (in this case, Amer­i­can) soil.

More­over, Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence pre­sum­ably would not have risked pass­ing high-value in­for­ma­tion through Ve­sel­nit­skaya. As an un­trained as­set or co-optee — not a pro­fes­sional in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer by any ac­count — she would not have been en­trusted with mak­ing a direct in­tel­li­gence re­cruit­ment ap­proach, in­clud­ing the pas­sage of com­pro­mis­ing in­for­ma­tion. For­mal­iz­ing a re­la­tion­ship with the Trump cam­paign would be left for another day. If and when that day came, the pitch would be car­ried out by an ex­pe­ri­enced in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in fa­vor­able cir­cum­stances, with the right Trump as­so­ciate and on friendly turf.

But even at the soft-pitch stage, standard Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence prac­tice would re­quire mak­ing clear what was on of­fer. The point is to test the tar­get. Are they open to en­ter­ing into a com­pro­mis­ing re­la­tion­ship? Will they re­buff the mere sug­ges­tion of such im­pro­pri­ety? Will they alert author­i­ties and thus stand in the way of Rus­sian ef­forts?

And here, the deal should have been ob­vi­ous to ev­ery­one. Moscow in­tended to dis­credit Clin­ton and help get Trump elected, and in ex­change it hoped the Repub­li­can would con­sider its in­ter­ests — in sanc­tions re­lief and oth­er­wise. The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment ap­pears to have sig­naled its direct in­volve­ment and real in­ten­tion in ad­vance of the meet­ing, pre­sum­ably to avoid the pos­si­bil­ity that its of­fer might be mis­con­strued, per­haps naively, as an in­no­cent ges­ture of sup­port and noth­ing more.

From the Rus­sian per­spec­tive, the fact that Trump Jr. agreed to the meet­ing would have been the first promis­ing sign. That vet­eran po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive Paul Manafort and se­nior ad­viser Jared Kush­ner showed up with him would have fur­thered the im­pres­sion that there was strong in­ter­est in Rus­sian as­sis­tance (and vul­ner­a­bil­ity to com­pro­mise) on the part of the cam­paign. But, ac­cord­ing to standard es­pi­onage trade­craft, the most no­table achieve­ment of this en­counter lay in the cam­paign’s fail­ure to re­port it to the ap­pro­pri­ate U.S. author­i­ties — as Rus­sia would have re­al­ized when there was no im­me­di­ate, dra­matic in­crease in U.S. coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence scru­tiny of its elec­tion-re­lated operations.

We should be cau­tious about over­es­ti­mat­ing the significance of this episode in iso­la­tion. Rus­sia may have ex­tended other feel­ers to other Trump as­so­ci­ates at other points in time. In­deed, the Steele dossier sug­gests that the Krem­lin was try­ing to cul­ti­vate the Trumps as far back as 2011. But, based on the pub­licly avail­able in­for­ma­tion, the June 2016 over­ture seems to have been a win for Rus­sia. It helped set the stage for the pos­si­bil­ity of sub­se­quent con­tacts be­tween Trump as­so­ci­ates and wit­ting agents of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. (Some of these con­tacts are now known; oth­ers, per­haps not.) And it would have al­lowed Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence to be com­fort­able ini­ti­at­ing the next phase of its op­er­a­tion — sys­tem­at­i­cally leak­ing in­for­ma­tion on Clin­ton and try­ing to pen­e­trate the U.S. vot­ing process — with the knowl­edge that the Trump cam­paign was in­ter­ested in such Rus­sian gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance.

Al­though the Krem­lin could have med­dled with­out ac­tive or tacit ap­proval from the cam­paign, hav­ing the cam­paign on board would have made the med­dling more ef­fec­tive. For ex­am­ple, Rus­sia could be sure that its ac­tions would fit with Trump cam­paign strat­egy. Even Trump Jr.’s ini­tial thought to drop the Clin­ton in­for­ma­tion later in the sum­mer would be valu­able for the Krem­lin to know in terms of best timing.

Rus­sia also would have wanted an im­plicit if not ex­plicit agree­ment that in­tel­li­gence as­sis­tance would be re­warded by a grate­ful Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will­ing to re­lieve sanc­tions and em­bark on a more con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship. The pres­i­dent pre­sum­ably would not be nearly as will­ing to shift the long-stand­ing, hard-line U.S. ap­proach to­ward Rus­sia — or its po­si­tion on Ukraine, NATO and other is­sues — if he didn’t have a full ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the Rus­sian con­tri­bu­tion to his elec­tion vic­tory.

And af­ter Rus­sia’s over­tures to the Trump cam­paign and the Trump cam­paign’s pub­lic de­nials that it had ever in­ter­acted with Rus­sians, Vladimir Putin may have had the kom­pro­mat he needed to in­di­rectly in­flu­ence the Repub­li­can Party (such as the GOP plat­form on Ukraine) and Trump if he made it to the White House. The worst out­come would be that Trump would lose the elec­tion and, as a bil­lion­aire with global in­ter­ests, still be a very use­ful ally for Putin.

Had this Rus­sian over­ture been re­jected or promptly re­ported by the Trump cam­paign to U.S. author­i­ties, Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence would have been forced to re­cal­cu­late the risk vs. gain of con­tin­u­ing its ag­gres­sive op­er­a­tion to in­flu­ence U.S. do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. Rus­sian med­dling might have been com­pro­mised in its early stages and stopped in its tracks by U.S. in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies be­fore it reached fruition by the late fall.

So the sug­ges­tion that this was a noth­ing meet­ing with­out con­se­quence is, in all like­li­hood, badly mis­taken.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the di­rec­tor of the In­tel­li­gence and De­fense Project at Har­vard’s Belfer Cen­ter. He served for three years as di­rec­tor of in­tel­li­gence and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence at the Depart­ment of En­ergy and for 23 years as a CIA in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional posts. Ryan Good­man, a pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity School of Law, an edi­tor at Just Se­cu­rity and a for­mer spe­cial coun­sel to the gen­eral coun­sel of the Depart­ment of De­fense, con­trib­uted to this es­say.


Rus­sian lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya fits the pro­file of some­one who might serve as a “cut-out” or “ac­cess agent” in a Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tion de­signed to as­sess and test a tar­get’s in­ter­est in co­op­er­a­tion.

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