opinion

Hostile Power

Somebody Tell Donald Trump—Russia Is Still an Adversary

Once, they had to sneak out our secrets inside of hollow nickels. Now, they can visit the White House to have them delivered.

opinion

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

A lookout from the FBI’s Special Surveillance Group keeps daily watch outside each of the main Russian facilities in New York and Washington, D.C.

At the appearance of a Russian of significance, the lookout alerts other SSG members. The familiar targets are referred to by a number, as in “Number 2 is out.”

The SSG members—who are not FBI agents, but surveillance specialists—thereupon set to following the subject.

The SSG members then report what they observe to FBI agents assigned to the counterintelligence division.

And so it has gone for day after day, month after month, year after year, even as many Americans ceased to think of Russia as an adversary.

At the same time, those inside the Russian facilities have had continued reason to fear their conversations are recorded.

The reason for this ongoing physical and electronic surveillance is that the Russians in fact remain a hostile power.

“The Russians are an adversary,” says Eric O’Neill, formerly an SSG operative who helped catch an FBI agent turned Russian spy and now serves as national security strategist for Carbon Black. “The Russians have never stopped being an adversary.”

Proof of that came in Putin’s unprecedented effort to influence the course of the 2016 election and thereby undermine the democratic process that is at the core of America’s actual greatness.

“Look what they did to the state of our politics,” O’Neill says.

The Russian president must have figured that he would at the very least weaken Hillary Clinton. He did not likely expect that The Donald would actually win.

The ultimate winner was Vladimir Putin himself. He achieved the seemingly impossible by capitalizing on what is worst in us.

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The hacking would not have made a decisive difference had the contents of the DNC emails not been so lousy.

And Trump supporters did little more than shrug when it became apparent that the Russians used the fruits of a felony to put him in the White House.

So much for America First! and wearing flag-lapel pins and endlessly invoking the best interests of the American People. The news was hardly the primary place for fake to be found.

Meanwhile, ongoing electronic surveillance seemed to prove that the new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied when he said he had not discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before the inauguration. The FBI and the Justice Department feared that the Russians might blackmail Flynn as they had been known to do in the past with less prominent Americans, such as a sergeant from Oklahoma whom they contrived to film with two women in a Moscow hotel room back in 1957.

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified the White House, which did nothing for 18 days and might have gone on doing nothing had The Washington Post not reported that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence, among others. Trump only then fired Flynn, who remained the subject of an FBI investigation as the result of other dealings with the Russians. Trump reportedly asked FBI Director James Comey to shut down the probe, saying, “I hope you can let this go.”

Comey declined and that was surely one reason why Trump subsequently fired him even though the FBI was in the midst of the continued investigation into Russian meddling in the election. Trump followed that bit of recklessness by hosting a White House visit one day later with none other than the Russian ambassador Kislyak, along with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

Imagine how the SSG operatives who routinely follow Kislyak must have felt when they subsequently heard the reports of what transpired in that Oval Office meeting.

As if out of a Russian spy’s wildest dreams, the president of the United States personally presented his two visitors with intelligence that had been given to us by another country on the condition we keep it to ourselves.

Rather than go to all the trouble of entrapping some poor soul with a honey trap and blackmailing him into providing ever more sensitive information through secret codes and dead drops, the Russian had needed simply to walk into the Oval Office to get the most highly sensitive stuff without even asking for it.

And, according to a White House document quoted by The New York Times, there was more.

Trump reportedly also told the two Russians, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

In other words, the president was telling the Russians that he had fired the head of the organization that has long been charged with countering Russia’s intelligence efforts in America and is presently conducting an investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and possible Russian connections with members of the Trump campaign.

The Russians may have waxed a little nostalgic on hearing Trump talk of Comey as “a real nut job,” as it was a standard ploy during the Soviet era to brand an opponent as mentally ill.

But you have to wonder how the other Americans at that Oval Office meeting felt on hearing the president speak this way of Comey and suggest that the investigation had been “taken care of” by removing him. They must have known even as Trump reportedly added, “I am not under investigation” that he was all but ensuring he would be under investigation and that everyone present had just become a witness.

After news broke of Trump’s gift to the Russian diplomats, the present national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told the press that he had attended the meeting and that it is “wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is to the advancement of the security of the American people.” He was entirely right if you took “appropriate” in this context to mean within the letter of the law..

But McMaster gave the impression that the entire meeting was appropriate in the larger sense of being proper. And it was not even close to being proper for Trump to have spoken about Comey in these terms to anybody, particularly to senior representatives of an adversary that is presently under investigation for its successful effort to put Trump in the very office where he now stood.

With regards to Russian intelligence, not much has changed since that day in 1953 when a Brooklyn man who proved to be a Russian agent mistakenly paid a 14-year-old newsboy with a hollow nickel that contained a coded message on microfilm. The newsboy told the teenaged daughter of a cop, who then told an FBI agent. The bureau used basic surveillance to roll up an entire ring of Russian agents, including the one featured in the movies The FBI Story and Bridge of Spies.

Just because Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn made a name for himself in the 1950’s as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s sidekick in a witch-hunt that smeared decent Americans as communist subversives does not mean the Russians were anything but an adversary. McCarthy and Cohn destroyed the noted scholar and college professor Owen Lattimore by falsely accusing him of being “the top Russian espionage agent in the United States.” But there were and are actual Russian agents. Cohn’s protégée, Trump, is now insisting that an effort to investigate a real Russian plot is a “witch hunt.”

Trump has suggested that providing Russia with the sensitive intelligence at the Oval Office meeting was another example of his masterful exercise of the Art of the Deal, that he was seeking to enlist the Russians in a more energetic effort against ISIS. He will likely say that his comments about Comey were part of that effort.

Maybe McMaster has apparently convinced himself that this is true, just as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein seems to have convinced himself that the memo he wrote about Comey did not make him party to a put-up. The Art of the Deal as it is actually practiced seems to include getting decent people to hedge on their sense of right and wrong.

Rosenstein may have been seeking a kind of redemption in appointing former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling in the Trump campaign. Mueller’s integrity is so beyond question that he was not disqualified by his closeness to Comey. Nobody is more capable than Mueller of bringing us to the truth.

Meanwhile, the Russian foreign minister has continued his duties, which include propping up the Assad regime in Syria, the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea and a government in Iran that has supplied insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq with specialized explosives that have killed more than 500 of our finest Americans. Iran has also sworn to destroy Israel, which reportedly provided the information Trump had then given to the Russians.

Trump is visiting Israel after his stop in Saudi Arabia on his first international journey as president. He will continue on to Italy and the Vatican. He will then return to America, where Mueller is commencing his investigation and where the SSG continues to follow Russians of significance because Russia remains an adversary.