As additional information appears, it’s clear that the intelligence operative extracted from Russia in 2017 was a major player, a source who had provided the United States with direct intelligence from inside the Kremlin for decades. Overnight, both CNN, which broke the original story, and The New York Times are providing additional information that shows the importance of this asset. Being forced to extract this individual represents a major blow to U.S. intelligence and a major setback when it comes to awareness of Vladimir Putin’s intentions. Thanks to the actions of Donald Trump—and of Republicans defending Trump—Russia has gained significant advantage against the United States.
This loss has, as The New York Times put it, “effectively blinded” the U.S. to the decision-making process in the Kremlin. It’s an action that has made it infinitely harder to know how to deal with every issue from Ukraine to Iran to nuclear weapons agreements. And the latest information shows that the asset was directly responsible for providing the U.S. with a heads-up concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The extent of Trump’s involvement in Moscow at that time, including the fact that he had not ended his private negotiations with the Kremlin, wasn’t known to the public, but it was likely known to the CIA. Trump was still looking to Moscow as the place to build the tallest building in Europe—including an official Ivanka Trump theme spa and a top-floor penthouse set aside expressly for Putin. And Trump was about to have access to the name of an official who was not only providing information from Putin, but was directly responsible for something else as well.
The now-extracted asset was not just key to letting the CIA know about Russian interference, but was also the source making it clear that the plan to assist Trump in the election ran all the way up to Putin. Putin “ordered and orchestrated it himself,” reports The New York Times. The source also made it clear that Putin had personally ordered the hacking of the DNC and Democratic officials by Russian military operatives, and that the intention was not simply to cause chaos but also to boost Trump’s odds of election.
The asset had to come out, because as soon as Trump had information that would be of value to Putin, there was every reason to think he would be on the red phone.
The extraction took place only days ahead of Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin, a meeting at which Trump notably dismissed everyone else from the room other than his interpreter. But the decision that the asset would need to be removed came earlier. It came, in fact, right after Trump’s election. Given that Trump had coddled Russia throughout the campaign, welcomed Russian interference in the election, and demonstrated that he would take Putin’s word over that of U.S. intelligence officials, the decision seemed obvious.
Meanwhile, Russian officials admitted that the asset had worked inside Putin’s administration but denied that they had direct access to Putin. This statement seems intended to minimize the apparent value of the asset’s information and also minimize Russia’s embarrassment at having a long-operating mole in its midst. As with all information coming from the Kremlin, or the Trump White House, take that with a very large grain of salt.
Sources talking with CNN and the Times put it differently, indicating that the asset was not part of Putin’s “inner circle” but had regular assess to high-level decision-making at the Kremlin. This would seem to suggest someone who was a longtime Kremlin official rather than one of Putin’s oligarchs.
There were other good reasons for the CIA to be worried about the security of its asset. Throughout 2017, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes had demonstrated that he was perfectly willing to wreck intelligence assets to gain favor with Trump. Nunes, working with the White House, undermined investigations and repeatedly released information over the objections of both the CIA and FBI, even when told that the information could endanger assets abroad. It was exactly the kind of action that those inside the intelligence agencies feared when Trump was elected.
Not only has Trump publicly stated his disdain for those agencies and taken every step to replace effective, long-term officials with men whose loyalty begins and ends with Trump, but he’s also spread that disdain to the Republican Party. The war on the “deep state” is a war on the ability of the United States to effectively gather intelligence and protect itself against Russia and others.
Even in the modern era of cyberwarfare and info-terrorism, the greatest intelligence assets remain human beings on the ground who can listen and participate in events. Every intercepted email is subject to fears that it was meant to be intercepted. Everything overheard by any listening device may be a performance intended expressly for the ears on the other end of the line. But a man in the room, someone actually part of the day-to-day routine as well as the major decisions, is an invaluable, incomparable instrument.
The only issue with such assets is that they are human beings, and any threat that their identity might be revealed means not just a loss of a source, but the potential loss of a life. When such a threat is raised, an extraction becomes necessary. And in this case, that threat was named Donald Trump.