I’ve been reading a wonderful spy novel called “Masaryk Station” by David Downing. It’s about an American double agent in postwar Berlin working for the nascent CIA who is actually working for the KGB. Got that? Typical spy novel wilderness of mirrors describing what has been commonly referred to over the years as a “double agent,” that is, an agent for one country who is actually providing information to and advancing the interests of the enemy country.
There have been dozens of them over the years. In this country we had Aldrich Ames, a CIA agent who worked secretly for the Russian KGB for more than 10 years until he was arrested in 1994, and Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied on the United States for the KGB for 22 years before he was caught in 2001. The Russians had their own doubles: Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel, worked for British intelligence from the mid-1970s to the mid-'80s, and Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in Soviet military intelligence service GRU spied for the United States and Great Britain in the late '50s and early '60s, revealing that the Russians had nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Perhaps most famously, in Great Britain during the height of the Cold War there was the famous group of British spies, Kim Philby, Donald McLean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, four chums who met at Cambridge during their college years and went to work for Soviet intelligence, continuing to spy for Russia right up until they were found out, one by one, in the 1950s and 1960s. The first three held prominent intelligence and national security positions before defecting to Russia, and the fourth, Blunt, actually worked inside Buckingham Palace as curator of the “queen's pictures” until he was given immunity from prosecution on the promise he would tell the story of how he and his Cambridge pals had been Russian spies for decades.
Sound familiar? A spy granted immunity on the promise he would tell all about his pals who spied alongside him for Russian intelligence? Does the name Michael Flynn ring any bells?
This is where we find ourselves today? Are we looking at a whole bunch of American citizens who have been actively working to advance the interests not of their own country but those of Russia? We know about Flynn and his secret phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, during at least one of which Flynn is suspected of promising to lift sanctions on Russia imposed after its invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. We know that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met secretly in Trump Tower with Ambassador Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the director of the Russian state-owned Vnesheconombank.
We know that Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, while serving as an important player on Trump’s campaign team, met at least three times with Ambassador Kislyak — once just before the Republican Convention when the Trump campaign weakened the platform’s position on Russia’s seizure of Crimea — and then lied about it to the Senate at his confirmation hearings.
And now we know that Carter Page, the former adviser to the Trump campaign who traveled to Russia and met with several high level officials of Putin just before the Republican Convention, had been recruited by two Russian spies back in 2013. The two Russian spies, who exchanged documents secretly with Page, were linked to Evgeny Buryakov, another Russian spy who was arrested, tried and convicted of spying for Russia last year. Buryakov worked in the New York office of VEB bank, the same Russian state-owned bank run by the same Sergey Gorkov who met with the same Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner; that's the same Russian bank that was banned from doing business in the U.S. by sanctions imposed by the Obama administration at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Crimea.
Have you digested the names of all those Russians who met with all those Trump associates? OK, here’s something new for you. The Washington Post just reported that Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the infamous U.S. paramilitary security company that was involved in murders of civilians in Iraq, met secretly in the Seychelles in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss opening a secret “back channel” between Putin and Trump.
The meeting took place on Jan. 11 during the transition period before Trump assumed office around the same time that Flynn and Kushner were meeting with Kislyak. Prince, the brother of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, did not have a formal job with the Trump campaign or the transition team, but he contributed $250,000 to the Trump election effort and was known to be an informal adviser to the campaign. He was seen visiting Trump Tower during the transition period and is known to be close to Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. Private businessmen like Prince are regularly used as “cutouts” between national leaders when they don’t want to leave diplomatic fingerprints that would point to secret connections between them.
The meeting between Prince and the prominent friend of Putin was facilitated by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan who in December had made a secret trip from the United Arab Emirates to New York to meet at Trump Tower with Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner. It isn’t known if Prince was in on that meeting, but he was seen visiting Trump Tower around that time in December. Prince has had long connections to the UAE. He moved to the UAE in 2010 when Blackwater was in hot water in the U.S. for the excesses of its operatives in Baghdad.
The United Arab Emirates hoped that by helping to set up the back channel between Trump and Putin that its interest in moving Russia away from its friendship with UAE enemy Iran could be advanced. During the campaign Trump had spoken repeatedly about establishing better relations with Russia, discussing several strategic aims, including influencing Russia to drop its support of the Assad regime in Syria and softening Russia’s alliance with Iran, both strategic goals that Trump shared with the UAE. Any agreement by Russia to move strategically away from Syria and Iran would have involved a Russian quid pro quo involving U.S. relaxation of sanctions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea.
There they are again: sanctions. Trump officials had meetings with Kislyak about what? Sanctions. Trump son-in-law Kushner met with Kislyak and Gorkov about what? Sanctions. And now we’ve got Betsy DeVos’ brother and Bannon buddy Erik Prince flying to a goddamned speck of an island in the Indian Ocean to meet secretly with a pal of Putin to establish a back channel involving what? Sanctions. Anybody see a pattern here?
Most important, whose interests were these guys seeking to advance: ours or Russia’s? That’s the question, isn’t it? If these guys were acting as agents of Trump’s campaign or Trump’s transition operation or even now as agents of Trump’s administration, were they our agents or were they secretly Russian double agents?
That’s what really gets my attention. In all of this stuff that’s been going on at least since July when there were meetings between Trump officials and the Russian ambassador, we have seen exactly zero apparent defections from the Russian camp — zero Russians who have been discovered secretly advancing the interests of the United States against the interest of their own country. But we now have at least a dozen suspected instances of Trump’s people seeking to advance the interests of Russia against U.S. interests by conspiring to lift sanctions on Russia that have damaged their economy and hurt Putin’s oligarch buddies as punishment for their invasion of Ukraine and Crimea.
We got a whole new look at how the Russians play this double game last week when the Senate Intelligence Committee held its first hearing. This was the committee’s inaugural hearing and what did it do? It called a former FBI agent by the name of Clinton Watts as its star witness. Watts worked in counterintelligence in the FBI, served as the executive officer at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and is currently a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
What did committee members want Watts to explain to them? Well, they wanted him to testify about how Russian intelligence operatives used social media and remote fake news sites to spread propaganda, which was intended to influence the U.S. elections last year. Watts made a very interesting case. He told the Senate hearing that too much attention has been paid to the technical aspects of the Russians' hacking of Democratic National Committee and Podesta emails and too little attention to how they used that information to advance their own interests.
Have a look at this little nugget he let drop in answer to a question from Republican Sen. James Lankford about why Vladimir Putin seems to have made such a powerful effort to influence the election last year:
“The answer is very simple and it’s what nobody is really saying in this room,” Watts answered. “Which is, part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief, [Trump,] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents.”
Let’s take a deep breath and let that sink in for a moment. How did we get to this place where we find ourselves “in this room,” as Watts said, where the question on the table is how and why did the man elected to be our president “used Russian active measures at times against his opponents” in last year’s election?
Trump wasn’t the only one who used “active measures” Russian intelligence had taken to influence the election. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, and Trump himself cited a fake news story advanced by two Russian propaganda outlets, RT and Sputnik News, to attack Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists,” Manafort said. “You had a number of things that were appropriate to this campaign, were part of what Mr. Trump has been talking about.”
Trump’s and Manafort’s strong implication was that Hillary was “soft on terrorism” in her failure to denounce a savage terror attack on NATO while Trump took on those damn terrorists in Turkey and stuff like that wouldn’t happen under his watch. The problem was that there was no terrorist attack on any NATO base in Turkey. The whole story was planted by Russian intelligence and manipulated so appear in mainstream media so that Trump would pick up the story and use it. Which he did.
Watts gave several other examples of Russian intelligence ginning up fake news stories and using a powerful system of automated “bots” to spread the stories on social media until the stories took on a life of their own and infected the United States political campaign so that, as Watts described it, they were “weaponized” by the Trump campaign as talking points. According to Watts, Russians had been using this propaganda tool to damage United States interests at least since 2015.
What’s really interesting about Watts’ testimony last week is that it happened at all. Why would the Senate Intelligence Committee, controlled by North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, put on as its star witness a man who would virtually accuse the Republican Party and the Trump campaign and Trump himself as using Russian propaganda “active measures” in the campaign against Clinton?
Well, you have to understand a bit about how congressional committees do their business in order to understand why Watts’ appearance last week was so remarkable. Before a witness like Watts goes in front of the committee on TV, he is questioned extensively by committee staff about what his testimony will be. Staffers get to see the opening statement that the witness will make. Staffers ask questions that senators on the committee will pose during the hearing. Staffers listens to every single answer the witness, in this case former FBI agent Watts, will give.
And then the staffers turn around and brief the committee chairman, Richard Burr, and the Democratic ranking member, Mark Warner, about what they have heard. And then the committee chairman and his Democratic counterpart make a decision about whether to call the witness.
They decided to call Clinton Watts. And they arranged for testimony that could only be seen as extremely damaging to the leader of the Republican Party, President Trump. Why would they do this? Well, I have a theory. Do you remember a few weeks ago when TV cameras on Capitol Hill caught FBI Director James Comey coming out of a closed meeting where he had just given of the Senate Intelligence Committee a top secret briefing about the FBI investigation of Russian efforts to influence the election and possible collusion between agents of Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign? And do you remember how the same cameras caught Sens. Burr and Warner as they exited the top-secret super-secure room where they had just heard Comey’s briefing? And do you remember the looks on their faces?
They looked to me like two men who had just been hit on the head with a two-by-four. One of the cable news reporters described Burr and Warner as looking “like they have just seen a ghost.” My theory is that Burr and Warner had just heard Comey brief them on what the FBI had on the Trump campaign and Trump himself and that what they heard was a lot worse than what they have said publicly. So putting Clinton Watts before the cameras was their way of signaling how bad things really are. By allowing Watts to testify, Burr is either playing a very dangerous game or the Republican chairman has thrown in the towel on Trump.
The question I think we have before us today, as presented by Watts to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and as raised by the recent report of Prince’s secret meeting with a pal of Putin in the Seychelles, is this: Have Trump’s people like Prince, Flynn, Manafort, Page and Kushner and Trump himself been acting in the interests of the United States of America or in the interests of Russia? In effect, are Trump’s men Russian spies? Indeed, is Donald Trump a Russian spy?