SEA ISLAND, Georgia — The Russian intelligence officers picked up the American spies from Moscow’s Metropole Hotel and drove them a few short blocks to an ornate, lushly appointed guest house. It used to be the home of a wealthy Jewish dentist before being turned into a meeting place for Russia’s intelligence services.
The 17th-century mansion served as the backdrop of a 2007 summit of CIA officers, FBI agents, and their Russian counterparts, as the Bush administration tried to build a cooperative relationship with Moscow on counterterrorism.
Over glasses of cognac and the occasional shot of chilled vodka, the Russian and American officers sat across from each other at a long conference table, in what turned into an interrogation instead of the hoped-for bridge-building exercise. The Russians probed the Americans to find out where their sources were, how big their networks were and any potential weaknesses to exploit later.
“It was worse than a polygraph,” one former senior intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “They used different people to ask us the same questions over and over, each time phrased in slightly different ways, as if to see whether we were lying,” and to trick information out of them.
That interaction is emblematic of 20 years of U.S. attempts to reach out to Moscow, with the initially Pollyannaish new American administration seeking cooperation, and the Russians using each opportunity to gather intelligence on their enemy to advance their own interests.
“We, the United States, are the ‘main enemy’ to them,” said former CIA officer John Sipher. “In their mind, they are at war with us. Anything that’s hurtful to the United States is positive for Russia.” That goes doubly for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once led Russia’s FSB, the successor to the infamous Soviet-era KGB.
It’s a cautionary tale CIA veterans hope to impress upon President Donald Trump and his closest advisers in the White House, who they fear still hope to forge an alliance with Russia even as Pentagon chief Jim Mattis and other top national security staffers warn against it.
Half a dozen former intelligence officers at the spook-heavy Cipher Brief conference in Georgia spoke to The Daily Beast, as did other former CIA officers, describing their Russian interactions during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years.
They described a consistent pattern: the U.S. engages with Moscow on a tough problem like terrorism, and Russia comes through at first. After a matter of months, the U.S. finds the cooperation is short-lived or has plenty of strings attached. The moment a disagreement over something like Ukraine or Syria intrudes, everything the Americans have shared with the Russians gets turned into a weapon against them.
“The Russians will establish some sort of counterterrorism cooperation as a chit, a quid pro quo, and withdraw it because of some of the other things we’re doing,” said Steve Hall, former CIA chief of Russian operations worldwide prior to his retirement in 2015.
When the relationship breaks down, counterterrorist officials who’ve visited Moscow and therefore revealed their identity to the Russians find themselves added to Russia’s worldwide terrorist watch list, and pulled aside at airports of Russia-friendly nations for harassing questioning. That’s just one of a dozen ways U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have paid for putting their trust even briefly in Russia, another former senior intelligence officer said.
"Or they will get our counterterrorism experts together and then target them,” Hall said, using whatever they found out at meetings to coerce the Americans into spying for Russia. “Vulnerabilities like are they drinkers, do they need money, are they pro-Russia? Anything that they can use to get some sort of leverage to try to recruit somebody.”
Trump had signaled his intention to improve relations with Putin, flattering him during the U.S. presidential campaign, and in the opening days of the Trump presidency.
"I do respect him, but I respect a lot of people. That doesn't mean I'm going to get along with him,” Trump told then-Fox-News-anchor Bill O'Reilly last February. When the now-departed O’Reilly described Putin as a "killer," Trump replied, "There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country's so innocent?"
Trump’s attitude turned more combative as Moscow turned more intransigent, especially after Putin denied that his Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas on his own people. Trump responded with a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Still, there are Trump advisers who have explored lifting sanctions on Moscow even as members of the Trump administration are investigated for possible collusion with Russia during the campaign.
“Every time there’s a new president, a new director of the CIA, there’s always this thought: ‘We can make it right with Russia,’” said Hall. “But it rarely ends up working. The Russians see us coming and take us to the bank every time.”
Former director of the CIA’s clandestine service Michael Sulick declared himself “skeptical” of a warming trend with Russia, recalling what Putin said when Trump was first elected. “Putin’s first congratulatory words were, ‘I hope we can improve relations and the United States can correct the mistakes of the past,” said Sulick in an interview.
He was also former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence and wrote about the CIA’s decades-long battle against American turncoats that Russia had convinced to spy for Moscow. “In other words, all the concessions would be from our side, and we’re the ones who made all these mistakes,” he said.
The Clinton Years
“After Berlin Wall went down, you've never seen such nice Russians,” said Jim Woolsey of his early interactions with Russian officials before becoming President Bill Clinton’s CIA director. Woolsey lived through the evolution of Russia’s initial warmth just after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the surge of optimism after the election of President Boris Yeltsin.
As Clinton took office in 1993, “It was reasonably cordial, but beginning to chill," Woolsey said in an interview. The FSB was created in 1994 as a successor to the Soviet KGB or Committee for State Security. But the old KGB mindset soon re-asserted itself, and Russia returned to Cold War mode by the mid-nineties.
By the time Yeltsin resigned and nominated his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting president, the transformation was complete, he said.
"The Russians are never not interfering," said Woolsey, who briefly advised the Trump campaign but declined to comment on conversations with Trump about Russia.
9/11—Hope out of the ashes
The Bush administration came in with fresh eyes, and the same slightly egotistical presumption that they could do it better than the last guy. Bush officials saw an opportunity when Putin was among the first to reach out after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington to offer help against the Taliban who were hosting al-Qaeda.
“In a very American way, a lot of people who did not deal with the Russians day-to-day just assumed they would be natural allies,” said former CIA officer Sipher of the days just after the attacks. “Those of us who had been working on Russia for years and years had become pretty jaded because the Russians are sort of a police state… writ large,” with American spies and diplomats there subject to full-time surveillance and harassment.
Yet Russia offered crucial aid, said Robert Dannenberg, another former senior CIA officer.
“It was Putin who picked up the phone and called Bush and said we didn't know anything about this and we'll help you anyway we can,” Dannenberg said in an interview. “Three days later, we had a team of Russian intelligence officials back in Langley.”
“It turned out, they didn't have as much as we thought, or it was dated and wasn't as useful,” despite Russia’s long military occupation of Afghanistan, Dannenberg said.
But U.S. officials still headed to Moscow, to that mansion a short drive from the Kremlin for an intelligence and law enforcement summit with the FSB and the SVR, Russia’s external intelligence service.
“The meetings kick off at around 9 a.m. in a living room… where the hosts give everyone glasses of cognac to start the day,” one former intelligence officer reminisced. “The participants then move into a slightly larger room where the two delegations face each other along long tables with tea and mineral water at each spot.”
Several of the former intelligence officers spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the cat- and- mouse games they’ve played with their Russian adversaries.
“At each break, there is more cognac,” and everyone downs a mandatory vodka shot at a sumptuous lunch, competing to give progressively more over-the-top toasts to celebrate their newfound bonhomie.
In the evening, the Russians would take their American charges to the circus or ballet. The official Russian security vehicles carrying the Russian and American spooks raced around Moscow in convoys with sirens blaring. They were trailed by the beat-up surveillance vehicles that were designed to blend in with the traffic during their normal spying duties, but in this situation, so obvious that they provided a comic coda to the entourage.
Despite the wining and dining, the meeting produced only short-term cooperation, Dannenberg said. The Russians were less interested in the “Global War on Terrorism,” as the Bush administration called it, than what CIA officers came to call the “Global War on Chechnya,” where Russia was engaged in a bloody years-long fight against Muslim Chechen separatists.
“Where our view of the war on terror and their view overlapped, the Russians were happy to cooperate because it was in their interest,” he said. “Where we wanted them to give us information on… an Al Qaeda cell in Jakarta, for example, we found them completely unresponsive.”
But the Russians did offer practical logistical assistance, including access to Russian airspace that helped the U.S. deploy hundreds of CIA and special operators into a country they hadn’t operated in for years.
“We would never have been able to run operations in Afghanistan had we not had Russian cooperation at the outset,” he said. “They came through.”
The 2007 meeting in Moscow was yet another part of the effort to build some post-9/11 cooperation, as al-Qaeda of Iraq was proving a new deadly threat and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was slowly reviving itself after the initial American onslaught.
U.S. officials made another sojourn to Moscow, and were driven from the ornate Art Deco-era Metropole Hotel once again to the even more ornate Russian intelligence guest house.
“It was very clear early on that our Russian interlocutors were focused on a whole different purpose,” said one of the CIA officers on the 2007 trip. “We were interested in a very American notion of cooperation, even with an adversarial state, against an existential adversary.” That could eventually spell information sharing, or the sharing of leads in terrorism cases, if the other side agreed. They didn’t.
“They were using this as a tremendous opportunity to essentially do broad and general intelligence collection on the U.S. plans and intentions on terrorism,” the former spy said. “The Russians were trying to figure out what we knew, what we didn't know and from what we knew, how did we know it. They wanted us to share intelligence and terrorism contact information.”
Over four and a half days, different Russian officials plied them with food and copious amounts of tea and alcohol, and came at them in different ways.
“The same questions, different days, different questioners, where the questions were recast in slightly different fashion,” the official said. “It was very investigatory, where they were trying to determine whether our answers were deceptive, evasive or consistent.”
The Americans ended the meetings in frustration, and went back home.
A few months later, a Russian delegation came to Washington, D.C., and they gave it one more try.
The Russians insisted on only meeting at their embassy, which is legally Russian sovereign territory, in a vast compound in the upscale Glover Park neighborhood. The motley crew of spies and law enforcement agents met in the embassy’s ornate chancery building, where each room is elaborately decorated like a Hollywood movie set to represent different parts of Russia.
The former U.S. intelligence official said the same pattern of aggressive questioning they’d experience in Moscow resumed.
“It was all about influence, manipulation, intimidation. Typical,” the former spy said with a shake of his head. “They wanted to establish a superior-subordinate relationship, right from the beginning.”
“No thanks,” he said, summing up the feelings of the American delegation. Once again, the Americans called it off.
“Frankly, we didn’t see an upside to counterterrorism cooperation,” said former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, who led the agency through this period. “There’s a responsibility to warn, so if we had information we felt the Russians would need to protect their citizens, of course we would share it," he told The Daily Beast.
But shortly after that 2007 attempt at restarting U.S.-Russian relations, Russia staged its surprise invasion of Georgia.
Such was the distrust that when the Russian intelligence delegate to Washington made a 20-minute courtesy call to Hayden’s office at CIA headquarters, “when he left, we immediately had the office swept,” for bugs, he said.
Barack Obama Learned the Hard Way, Too
The Obama administration went through that learning curve a few times over. Agreements that looked successful at the outset turned out to be more complicated or incomplete, like the attempt to strip Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad of weapons of mass destruction.
The Obama administration’s years of quiet negotiations with Russian nuclear experts led to Moscow brokering the deal in 2013. But then Russia invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, shattering the hopes of those who’d made the deal for a new dawn in relations with Moscow.
Worse, it's now clear Assad kept some stocks or some manufacturing capacity intact, capability that U.S. officials say Russian military advisors in Syria must have been aware of, though they deny it. Russian forces are co-located on the base where Syrian planes took off to attack the Syrian rebel town of Idlib in April, loaded with the nerve agent sarin. That April attack on Syrian civilians prompted Trump to fire a barrage of Tomahawk missiles at the base and put a crimp in any plans for a Russian bromance anytime soon.
“I never met with the Russians. Not worth it,” said Michael Morell, former acting CIA Director in the Obama administration. He said Russia wants to be seen as equal to the United States, a goal most nations would seek to reach by growing their influence through their economy.
“They’ve got nothing to work with,” Morell said in an interview. “Their economy is a disaster. Their demographics are a disaster. Their politics are a disaster. So they go with the second step, which is to undermine us, everywhere they can.”