My relationship with the FBI and Russian intelligence began in 1988 when a Soviet Intelligence officer walked into my parents’ office in midtown Manhattan. The man wanted to buy some books—something that was in line with what my family’s company did: supplying the government with books. After the man left, two men walked into the family office and said, “That man was a Soviet intelligence officer... get him his books.”
In 2005, with 9/11 fresh on my mind and the desire to join the Navy as an intelligence officer, I offered to help the FBI against the Russians who had been coming to the family office for almost two decades. In the years I worked as what the Russians believed was their spy, I saw how the Russians target and recruit Americans. It is these actions that I saw as an FBI double agent posing as a Russian spy that I believe were used in 2016.
Excerpt from How to Catch a Russian Spy: new epilogue for paperback edition:
I tried to warn you. Though the Cold War is supposedly over, the Russians still view America as enemy number one. They thirst for the return of Soviet glory. They’re eager to expand their diminished sphere of influence. They’ll stop at nothing to undermine the world’s democracies— invading their neighbors, aligning with despots and terrorists, employing their espionage agents and computer skills to threaten any nation they view as an adversary.
Who could possibly be surprised that the Russians would try to influence the outcome of an American presidential election? I know I wasn’t. Before they came for Donald Trump and those around him, they came for me.
No longer are the Russians motivated by communist ideology. Power, money, and domination—that’s what they thirst for now. Their ruthlessness and craftiness haven’t diminished one iota. They’ve grown bolder. Not satisfied with trying to corrupt young Americans like me, they’ve set their sights higher, aiming to exert influence in the Oval Office itself.
I have no idea whether, in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Russians found those around Donald Trump—or Trump himself—easy marks, or whether in their subtle recruiting they received more than they bargained for, as they did when they tried to turn me. As I role-played with senior Russian military-intelligence officer Oleg Kulikov, my FBI handlers and I managed to outfox him and his superiors in Moscow. We wasted their resources. We buried them in disinformation. And as you’ve read in prior pages, we unmasked Oleg, proving that this high-ranking United Nations diplomat was, in fact, a busy Russian spy.
Something tells me the Russians were more on their game this time around, but as I write this, it’s still too early to know.
Now, the whole world is focused on Russian espionage activities in the United States. Congressional committees are investigating. A special counsel is digging in. News pundits delight in conducting damage assessments. The political implications are enormous, extending to the highest levels. Our national security is at stake. And I find myself in a unique position, two years after How to Catch a Russian Spy was first released in hardcover. The story I told is suddenly at the center of everything. I lived it on the inside as few American civilians have. Everything I saw, everything I learned, everything I warned about is startlingly relevant. I have looked into the eyes of our Russian enemies. I know what they’re capable of. To fully understand what’s happening now, you have to recall—and fully understand—what happened to me.
During the time I acted as a double agent—a period that stretched from 2005 to my last meeting with Kulikov in late 2008—the Cold War had long been over and the Russian threat had faded from the public eye. In a post–9/11 world, the FBI was focused on counter-terrorism, not so much counter-espionage. While the agents I worked with were dedicated professionals, they no longer had Russians on their minds in the same way their colleagues had in 1988, on the first day a Soviet intelligence officer walked into my parents’ office in New York City. The Russians, on the other hand, always behaved as if their time in New York City was spent behind enemy lines. Consequently, Oleg Kulikov took great precautions to ensure he wasn’t being observed. Exhibit A was his adamant refusal to use electronic communications like email or cell phones, which would have exposed him to FBI surveillance.
Indeed, during my time jousting with Oleg, Russian paranoia and a well-cloaked distaste for Americans influenced not just how Russian intelligence operators spied but also how they lived their daily lives. For instance, though they often took full advantage of the free American services offered to them, like public school educations for their kids, they refused to pay for tolls, viewing the activity as contributing to the U.S. government. My interaction with Oleg showed how comfortable the Russians were while operating in “enemy territory.” Take, for example, his telling me how to handle cash to avoid bank reporting or how he filled me in on the amount of access to information I’d have once I joined the military. That these far-from-home Russians were in their comfort zone was no surprise; they’d been running the same game for decades.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Russians were ruthlessly patient—that they were completely willing to spend years studying and testing me before actually tasking me with retrieving information.
One of the most important lessons I learned during my operational time is how, in a world reliant on network and cyber security and focused on keeping outsiders out, it is relatively easy to recruit someone on the inside. The most effective firewalls and tallest guard towers are totally useless if a Russian operative can simply co-opt a person who has legitimate access to a facility. My ability to get access to Northrop Grumman or the U.S. government’s Defense Technology Information Center (DTIC) database proves how effective the Russians’ “find the insider” approach can be. My actions were never even questioned by on-site personnel.
The truth is, so many of our security efforts are devoted to keeping the bad guys out that looking at those already inside becomes an afterthought. Or, as I liked to say to the FBI, “Legitimacy is just a smile and an official business card away.”
The Russian method, as I observed with Oleg, has always been to target potential spies, meet with them, and evaluate their suitability. The process can be excruciatingly slow—even meandering. I would sit up at night wondering what plan the Russians had in store for me. I wondered, What is their master plan? Of course, retrospectively, I can see that I was putting the cart before the horse. First, the Russians wanted to determine if I could be used. They’d save the how for later.
It’s easy to wonder if, in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the Russians were engaged in purposeful meandering aimed at determining the could. I’d be willing to bet that they were. But I’d also be willing to bet that the Russians succeeded in direct proportion to the extent that the FBI downplayed Russia’s active-measures capability. My story serves as a reminder that American counterintelligence has slowly atrophied while precious resources and attention have been shifted to counterterrorism. At the height of my success infiltrating the Russian spy network, the FBI’s unwillingness to take on more risk caused them to shut down the operation.
It was a decision that I’ve always found to be both short-sighted and indicative of a larger issue. It seemed that those who ran the FBI were interested in short-term wins—exactly the opposite of the Russian approach. The Russians were—and are—willing to play the long game and take risks. How can the FBI defend against that if they’re not willing to roll the dice with an established operation like mine?
I was willing to go in deeper. Scratch that. I was eager to. It was my FBI handlers or their superiors who decided to pull the plug. Had the FBI been committed to playing the counter-espionage long game in 2008, might they have racked up subsequent wins against the Russians that would have changed the 2016 election? That’s a tormenting question that’s hard to answer, and it keeps me up at night. The 2016 election was an awfully close one. The Russians clearly attempted to influence the results. Even a few switched votes could have changed everything. Who knows? By now, we could all be getting used to a second President Clinton, and Donald Trump could be recruiting contestants for a brand-new season of The Apprentice.