Since Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin held a two hour huddle in Helsinki, the contents of that confab have been something of a mystery. But US intelligence agencies may be able to do a better job of putting the pieces together than Trump expects.
According to Putin, he and Trump agreed on the framework to several large strategic actions. That includes agreements to hand over to Russia several parts of Ukraine and agreements on the nuclear START II treaty. The whisper conference seems to have also included discussions on Syria and Iran, as well as possibly lifting the sanctions on a giant Russia aluminum company owned by the same Russian oligarch who was Paul Manafort’s boss. But what was actually said by Putin and Trump is still frustratingly vague. For the most part, Trump has given no details, leaving the US military to scan Russian news sources for word about what their own supposed-leader promised.
But despite Trump’s unusually tight lips, according to Politico, intelligence agencies may already have assembled a fairly good picture of the Trump–Putin exchange. There may even be a recording.
That’s in large part due to the existence of a top-secret U.S. collection service that specializes in tapping adversaries’ communications on the fly, including those of Putin’s entourage at last week’s summit in Helsinki.
There doesn’t seem to any indication that the agency directly planted a bug on Trump—though his tie could easily conceal a full-length TV antenna—but rather that they might have planted listening devices around, or even on, members of Putin’s team. That would allow the agencies to listen in on any pre-talk, post-talk chatter among the Russian group and hear what Putin reported after meeting with Trump.
The Politico report indicates that the “collection service” promptly scooped up both Putin’s debrief to his top officials, and exchanges on the meeting between “the Kremlin’s top spymasters.” They also caught Russian discussions over just how they would spin the results and how it would be presented to the rest of the world. That last part being, presumably, just what the public has been getting as everyone sits back and wonders why Trump is handing out no details. And spin is really the most important issue.
Trump’s no-notes, no-witnesses meetings with both Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un have now resulted in a set of public announcements where it seems that Trump has involved the United States in a series of deals up to and including nuclear weapons. But without witnesses and without notes, the true contents of the meeting will never be anything but “spin.”
As far as the genuine international consequences, Trump and Putin could have spent two hours translating the Wiffenpoof Song, or dealing Moscow Hold-’em (that’s where Trump plays, but Putin keeps all the cards). Because without notes, without witnesses there is no “real” product. What was actually said in the meeting becomes irrelevant. How the meeting is spun is everything.
In the case of North Korea, there seems to be almost zero agreement between what Trump says was agreed on and subsequent actions. North Korea is still going ahead with new missile and upping their production of plutonium, and they’ve repeatedly stood up Mike Pompeo and other officials when it comes to follow-up meetings. For all Trump’s post-Singapore bluster, it seems that what was agreed to was … nothing. Which, really, is all that could be agreed to without any of the framework needed to reach an actual agreement.
For Helsinki, it’s Putin who is so far putting out the message of what was “decided” behind closed doors. He could at this point declare anything. Because what that US intelligence collection team gleaned on Putin’s report about actual words-in-the-room is much less important than the discussion on how Russia decided to spin those results. If Trump agrees to go along with Putin’s declarations of what was said, then it doesn’t matter what was said. Putin could say at this point that they agreed on a joint mission to Mars, and it would not matter one whit whether the topic came up, so long as Trump agrees.
For the moment, Trump seems to be playing the Kim role in this reprise of his earlier summit. He’s the one staying quiet, while Putin does all the defining. But if there really is a collection group with the inside info, that means that Trump and Putin’s talks are a little less Schrodinger’s cat-like than they may believe.
That means the National Security Agency and CIA are at less of a strategic disadvantage than U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged publicly
Still, the CIA is limited in its ability to offer policy advice because Trump won’t reveal his version of what was said. Unlike Putin, Trump apparently hasn’t given even his own team a full accounting of the contents of the meeting. And the CIA is, thankfully, limited when it comes to scattering bugs around the White House.
Leaking the truth of what was actually said may not be what that collection team at the NSA and CIA were built to do. But it may be the best way it can serve the country. Because otherwise, what comes out of that meeting will be only what we’re told was said. And Putin is doing all the telling.
Why isn’t Trump talking? Because he’s not with Putin. Police have long known that the way to tell when an alibi is false is to take multiple witnesses away from each other and question them separately. On the Trump–Putin summit, if they both talk, it only increases the chances that their stories on what they agreed to, will disagree. So Trump is staying silent, and letting Putin do all the spin. Which is all that matters.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.