Former FBI counter-spy on Mueller, Trump and Putin: "Russia is winning"

Naveed Jamali was a double agent battling Russian intelligence. He says their plans have worked brilliantly

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 10, 2017 5:00AM (EST)

Robert Mueller; Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)
Robert Mueller; Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)

Where there's smoke, there is usually fire. It may seem like a month ago, but only last week a grand jury impaneled by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller issued the first indictments in the Russia scandal. Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign manager, was charged  with making false statements under oath, conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, working as an unregistered agent for a foreign country and various other financial crimes.

Manafort's assistant, Rick Gates, was charged with similar crimes. Manafort's indictment was long expected, given his many decades of close contact with senior Russian government officials and oligarchs.

There was also a less expected revelation: An obscure Trump adviser named George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty some time ago to perjury charges related to his concealment of contacts he had with Russian agents. Papadopoulos is more of a wildcard. He was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, despite having only minimal background in the field. His responsibilities, given his age and apparent subpar qualifications, were outsized. Papadopoulos was apparently involved in trying to obtain emails and other "dirt" from Russian sources (and perhaps elsewhere) that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton.

More indictments from Mueller's grand jury are expected, but the whirlwind around Trump's administration and the Russia scandal has continued to grow. In testimony before Congress last Thursday, Carter Page -- who was a national security adviser on the Trump campaign -- admitted that he told then-Sen. Jeff Sessions about attending meetings in Russia. Sessions has repeatedly denied being aware of any such meetings. A recent leak of documents from an offshore legal group revealed that both Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House adviser Jared Kushner have financial connections to Russian oligarchs -- and, in the case of Ross, to family members of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

These are individual pieces of a much larger strategic puzzle. What do these revelations tell us about what Putin hoped to gain by interfering in the 2016 American presidential election? Was Papadopoulos "flipped" by the Russians to work against the United States? Do we now have evidence that the Russians infiltrated Trump's inner circle accomplished? Is Trump likely to fire Mueller, and would that provoke a constitutional crisis? Is it possible to convince Republicans and Trump supporters of the deep threat to American democracy posed by Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election? Will they choose the common good and patriotism over loyalty to their party and its leader?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with former FBI counterespionage operative Naveed Jamali. He is a senior fellow in the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of the recent book "How to Catch a Russian Spy," which details his time as a double agent working against Russian military intelligence. 

Mueller's first indictments related to the Russia scandal were not a complete surprise. How do you make sense of these charges, as well as the Trump administration's behavior before they were made public?

Everything pointed to the fact that the president was making preemptive attacks for no reason. Mueller operated in a very calculated fashion and his messaging was totally clear. The message from his treatment of Manafort and Gates is, "If you don’t cooperate with the FBI, we're going to throw the book at you." But if you look at Papadopoulos, the message is a complete 180. Mueller made it clear that if someone is cooperating they are going to get zero to six months in jail and potentially just probation. It's a very different outcome for three different people. I think the message is clear: "You cooperate with us, you tell me what I want to know, I'm not going to make it difficult on you."

What do we actually know in terms of the indictment against Gates, Papadopoulos and Manafort?  

I think we can lump Gates and Manafort into one category. As such, it seems likely that the allegation is that both of them were involved in some very serious, intense big-figure money-laundering operation. One of Manafort's biggest clients was the former president of the Ukraine [Viktor Yanukovych], who is now living comfortably in Russia. He is very pro-Russian. From this I conclude that the simple motive is that [Yanukovych] was making hundreds of millions of dollars from supporting the Russians.

To assume that when Manafort came to the Trump campaign his intent of supporting Russia was going to go away is simply ludicrous, especially since we know that Manafort himself offered to work for Trump for free. So where was he making his money? I think that one can logically infer that the Russians were still paying his meal ticket -- or he at least he saw that as where his meal ticket was going to get paid, going forward. That explains Manafort and Gates. Papadopoulos is someone very different. I think what we're seeing with him is consistent with what is known as a "dangle operation."  This is akin to using a lure for a fish.

Russia's goal was to build a relationship ,with the intent of recruiting people to become their assets. This was done with the lure being Hillary Clinton's email. This was done with Peter W. Smith, the Republican operative who committed suicide [last May, shortly after an interview with the Wall Street Journal]. It was also hinted at in the discussions that came out of the infamous Donald Trump Jr. Trump Tower meeting [in June 2016], where Manafort and Kushner were present with a Russian lawyer. In addition, there are the discussions of Roger Stone speaking with someone online called Guccifer 2.0, who may have been offering him information as well.

It seems very clear that the Russians were using the prospect of giving Trump dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of their effort to make contact with people within the Trump's inner circle. This is also a clear sign that the Russians tried to recruit Papadopoulos. He had several meetings with them across both Moscow and London. To me, that indicates there is a strong likelihood that Papadopoulos was in fact a Russian asset.

You wrote a book about your experience with how the Soviet Union, and then Russia, recruited people to spy for them.  What are some of the boxes that you checked off in your mind as you learned about Manafort and Papadopoulos?   

It is always about motivation, right? You know, the Russians may have said, "We're going to give you emails with Hillary Clinton." They may not even have had Hillary Clinton's emails, but that was just a ploy to misdirect, essentially build trust and ultimately build relationships. What would be the motive for someone to work for the Russians, where they're going to tell you what to do and you are going to do it?

With Manafort, look to the money. In counterintelligence and espionage there is an acronym called MICE. These are the four pillars of motivation for espionage: money, ideology, coercion, ego. With Manafort it was all about money. He has long business ties with the Kremlin and with all sorts of unsavory characters. When it comes to Papadopoulos, while we don’t know much about him, it seems that the approach of using Hillary Clinton opposition information resonated because of the E part: ego.

These are people who wanted to win at all costs, and believed that this information was something they could get that would help secure the presidency for Trump. Those are the boxes that get ticked for me. Then there is actually the question of opportunity and access. We know Manafort had connections with the Kremlin.

Again, this pattern demonstrates an attempt by the Russians to recruit U.S. persons to support their operational intent to undermine our country.

How does the information gleamed from Mueller's indictment either complicate or clarify the timeline of Russia's interference in the 2016 election?

I think the biggest problem we have with Manafort and Gates is that there are alleged criminal activities which predate the campaign, especially the Ukrainian money-laundering operation.

That is something which will be used to parry and deflect. But ultimately it does not matter if these events happened before the presidential campaign. They are still a crime. It also shows that Manafort is a man who has been a campaign manager and likely a money launderer for the Russians. He should never have been in that position [on the Trump campaign] to begin with. At best, Donald Trump could just plead ignorance, that he didn’t do his due diligence. Again, this doesn’t make him look any better.

How do you read the question of Trump's involvement, given the new information? Like a Mafia don, it seems that Trump will say he had no idea what was going on around him.

That's a very good point. I think that Donald Trump was not fully aware of a lot of these intricacies. I think he was not aware of them simply because of the Russians. The Russians were very smart about this, in terms of figuring out how to recruit people. We see that with Hillary Clinton emails and the success that they apparently had there.

They rightfully characterized Trump as someone who is not suitable to be an asset. You want to recruit him, you want to manipulate him -- but the better strategy for the Russians would have been to target those around him, such as Flynn, Kushner, Manafort and so on.

What that does, though, is to give Donald Trump some plausible deniability. However, he was the presidential candidate. He's certainly the president of the United States now. Ultimately responsibility rests with Trump, whether there's criminal activity directly associated with Russia or not, because this was his show. He should have known what's going on. Take someone like Manafort and all these other characters, for example. It certainly brings up questions such as: Did Trump bring them here because of incompetence, or did he bring them here for some ulterior motive?

Fox News and the broader right-wing media is pretty much an alternate, fact-free universe. If you were to try to convince  someone who is devoted to those news sources about the importance of Mueller's investigation into Russian interference and collusion, what would you say?

It matters because this was a sophisticated campaign by a foreign intelligence service to attack and undermine the United States of America. In addition to that, there were potentially -- and I would say at this point, likely -- U.S. persons who were supporting that foreign adversary in that effort. That's concerning. At a minimum, from a national security standpoint it is the absolute biggest threat that we can deal with.

Look, if we had said ISIS attempted to attack us, and U.S. persons were supporting them in that campaign, people at Fox News would be freaked out. They should be just as freaked out, even if it is not ISIS and it is in fact Russia. That's the concern that I have. I think it's the piece that needs to be hammered over and over.

What do you think comes next? Do you think Trump will fire Mueller?

That is the talk of the town. He can't fire Mueller without cause. So Trump has to do what Nixon did in Watergate [in the "Saturday Night Massacre" of October 1973], which is to keep firing people until you find someone who is willing to fire Mueller. This would undoubtedly create a constitutional crisis. One would say logically that the president of the United States wouldn’t do that, but Donald Trump has so far shown a complete and utter lack of grasp of logic.

The second question is where do we go from here? I think the strategy that Mueller has employed is a brilliant one. He is essentially setting the stage to encourage people to voluntarily come forward and talk. That is what he did with these two indictments. There was one guilty plea, and also maybe an additional indictment or a request to compel an attorney to speak.

I think this is only the beginning. But at the end of the day this is still a counterintelligence investigation into how the Russians launched a sophisticated attack against us, and who in the United States -- I mean specifically in Donald Trump's presidential campaign -- helped them do that.

We talked several months ago about the Russia scandal. With Mueller's indictments your predictions have come true. How does it feel to be right?

These are broad claims that I've made. I do not want to say that I'm right. I knew something was happening. It is disconcerting because of the question you asked about the Fox News viewers. There is going to be 30 percent of the country that no matter what evidence is wheeled out, what logic is presented, whatever facts are raised, whatever irrefutable evidence comes forward, will refuse to believe that any of this is true. They will think it is supposedly "fake news."

The Russians planned an operation. Donald Trump did not wake up one day and say, "I want to collude with the Russians." It was the other way around. The Russians planned an operation and Americans said yes to their overtures. What bothers me, and what keeps me up at night, is the fact that people do not seem to want to hear that. They seem completely unwilling to believe that this is anything but a Russian operation. They seem fixated on this being some kind of Democratic plot. It's maddening.

Thinking about this strategically, how do these events play into Russia's larger plans?  

The reality is that Russia is winning. We are talking about something which occurred, at its latest, over a year ago. This means that whatever the Russians did, they have had a year to figure out what they're going to do next. They have suffered no consequences, so why wouldn’t Russia continue with this strategy? They'll have at least a year's head start on us. We have not even begun to discuss how the Russians were able to plan and execute such an operation.

None of those discussions are happening now. Instead we are stuck with trying to assign blame, rightfully so, and criminality to individuals. We're not talking about the holes that existed for the Russians to exploit.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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