Not long before Christmas in 2017, Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer turned Russian leader, did something uncharacteristic. He praised the CIA.
Russian security officials had arrested people on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks on St. Petersburg sites that included the majestic Kazan Cathedral. Intelligence warning of the allegedly imminent assault attacks came not from Russian sources, but from Langley. “The information received from the CIA was sufficient to search for and detain criminals,” the Kremlin announced. Putin asked President Trump to convey “words of thanks to the director of the CIA,” at the time Mike Pompeo, now the secretary of state.
That information reached Russia in response to an administration directive that troubled many in the intelligence community, according to a former senior CIA official. They didn’t have a problem with preventing innocent Russians from possibly dying. Instead, their problem was that the Trump administration, like several of its predecessors, had pushed the agency into a counterterrorism relationship that was nowhere near reciprocal.
According to Marc Polymeropoulos, who until July 2019 oversaw clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia, the White House instructed a skeptical intelligence community to share counterterrorism intelligence with Russia, in pursuit of a great-power rapprochement that its predecessors in the Bush and Obama administrations had similarly tried. The effort began at the dawn of the administration.
“As expected, the U.S. got absolutely nothing in return,” said Polymeropoulos, who first discussed the channel on Wednesday with Ryan Goodman of Just Security. “But there was a lot of focus on this from the White House and it came to naught.”
It is not unusual for the agency to share intelligence, particularly intelligence on imminent threats, even with hostile intelligence agencies. Intelligence agencies maintain liaison relationships in part to ensure their operations don’t escalate into open conflict. Pompeo, as well as his predecessor in the Obama administration, John Brennan, have both acknowledged working with Russia on shared counterterrorism goals.
But after the Russians’ 2016 election interference, and then the 2018 Sergei Skripal poisoning, the counterterrorism-sharing effort appeared egregious to some in the intelligence community. That’s a renewed concern given recent and unconfirmed intelligence that the Russians paid Taliban elements to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The order to share intelligence was a standing directive, Polymeropoulos said, encouraging the intelligence agencies to share whenever possible. “You roll your eyes, you shrug, but you gotta do this,” he said. He did not believe the intelligence-sharing harmed U.S. interests; instead, it appeared naive. Pushing back on it would not have been appropriate: “It would feed into the ‘Deep State’ narrative” of security services going rogue to shank Trump, he said.
But agency leaders, both Pompeo and his successor, current CIA Director Gina Haspel, knew of internal dissatisfaction. “Leadership was well aware of the unanimity in view that this was a waste of time,” Polymeropoulos said, “but it doesn’t matter, because it’s [administration] policy. We had to still go through with it.”
A CIA official who retired during the Trump administration was familiar with the channel. The ex-official characterized top agency officials explaining it as “counterterrorism is the only common enemy we have [with the Russians] and we want to maintain that linkage.”
Another former intelligence official said he didn’t feel pressure from the White House to engage the Russians on counterterrorism, and so didn’t consider it a priority. The ex-official, who declined to be named, corroborated that the Russians typically do not share intelligence.
“The last time we got anything from the Russians was around the Sochi Olympics, and it was not much,” the former intelligence official said. In 2011, before Sochi, Russia told the FBI that U.S. resident Tamerlan Tsarnaev had jihadist associates; Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzokhar bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013.
Steve Hall, who retired from the CIA in 2015 after overseeing operations concerning Russia, noted that “there is always an inclination for a new administration to reset with Russia.” Since 9/11, counterterrorism has been an obvious theater for cooperation, in order to see what further detente might result.
But Hall said going beyond typical liaison interaction with the Russians was a dead end. After beginning the outreach, “the guys you expect the Russians to show up with, counterterrorism experts, turn out to be counterintelligence experts,” he said – meaning they were less equipped to target terrorist suspects than they were to target CIA officers.
The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The intelligence sharing instruction drew new scrutiny after reports of unconfirmed intelligence reports holding that the Russians paid Taliban elements to attack U.S. troops. Since 2014, the Russians have sidled up to the Taliban as the U.S. has drawn its forces and attention away from a war that Washington has not ended. “The Russians paying U.S. dollars—it’s not odd for the Taliban,” Mullah Manan Niazi, the former spokesman for deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar, recently told The Daily Beast. Sponsoring attacks, however, would mark a qualitative change in the Russian approach to the war.
Several U.S. diplomatic and security veterans, in interviews, expressed puzzlement over why Russia would escalate in Afghanistan as the U.S. seeks to get out. More likely to them is that the Russians intensified their outreach to the Taliban as a hedged bet for a post-American Afghanistan. The senior U.S. general for the Middle East told the AP on Tuesday he saw no “causative link” between any Russian bounties and any dead U.S. troops. One retired senior diplomat said that “intelligence has become so politicized that someone leaked this to slow down the troop withdrawal.”
In any event, the intelligence-sharing instruction to the intelligence agencies dovetailed with an effort from Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, to expand a military channel to prevent U.S.-Russian conflict over Syria into an active path for counterterrorism cooperation. A highly skeptical military, which is barred from such cooperation by law, stopped Flynn, The Daily Beast reported in 2017.
To Flynn, who has deep experience in the war on terror, the point of rapprochement with Russia was to yield collaboration against what he viewed as “Radical Islamism.” Flynn, who had visited the FSB in Moscow when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, believed that the U.S. and Russia were jointly threatened by an enemy Flynn tended to view in dire civilizational terms. It was something Flynn raised on his phone calls with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, that ultimately led to his downfall and legal jeopardy.
Polymeropoulos said he did not encounter that perspective from the White House – but did encounter it from Russian intelligence officials, who were eager for the counterterrorism assistance. “The Russian intelligence officers that we’d meet with, these are incredibly xenophobic and racist individuals,” he said. “Totally Islamophobic.”
While agreeing that U.S. intelligence has to talk with its adversaries, Polymeropoulos said that the “routine” intelligence-sharing felt “gross and nasty.”
“The U.S. intelligence community has proven, right or wrong, willing to cooperate on counterterrorism with a lot of unsavory folks,” Polymeropoulos said. “There was disdain for doing this [with] the Russians – their track record is terrible, the Russians never come through on this. It’s a complete waste of time and resources, but policymakers wanted this. There was never a single U.S. life saved in the provision of Russian information. Nothing of value was ever given.”
The 2017 episode was not the last time the U.S. provided intelligence of value to Russia. In late February, Putin thanked the FBI “for their support and professional solidarity” in unraveling another St. Petersburg plot, one that Russia unraveled ahead of the New Year, that he attributed to the so-called Islamic State.
“We will naturally respond in kind,” Putin assured.
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng