The outing of a CIA informant inside of the Kremlin raises new questions about the Russia investigation and the intelligence officials behind it.
The informant, identified as Oleg Smolenkov, disappeared from Russia in June 2017 and turned up in the US living under his own name, in a luxury home in the Washington, DC suburbs. Former CIA analyst John Kiriakou says that all of this points to Smolenkov being less valuable an asset than he’s been portrayed – and, just as we saw during the Iraq war — to the possible manipulation of the intelligence he provided by then-CIA head John Brennan.
Guest: John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst who was imprisoned after blowing the whistle on the agency’s torture program.
The outing of a CIA informant inside of the Kremlin raises new questions about the Russia investigation and the intelligence officials behind it. The informant has been identified as Oleg Smolenkov, a mid-level Kremlin official. CNN first reported that the CIA removed Smolenkov from Russia in 2017 amid concerns President Trump could expose his identity. “The removal of the Russian was driven in part by concerns that President Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence, which could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy,” CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported.
That turns out to be false. Reports from the New York Times and Washington Post strongly suggest that it was in fact leaks to the media that forced Smolenkov’s departure. According to Russian media, Smolenkov disappeared during a visit to Montegero in June 2017. After that, he turned up in the US living under his own name, in a luxury home in the suburbs of Washington, DC.
“I was astounded when I read that he was living openly under his own name,” former CIA analyst John Kiriakou tells Pushback. “I didn’t have a lot of experience at the CIA with defectors or people who had been resettled, but I had some, and they were, never ever resettled in their own names and they were almost never resettled in the Washington area.”
“The fact also that he was living openly under his own name tells me a couple of things: one, this source wasn’t as sensitive as we may have been led to believe; or, two, even if he was sensitive the information that he provided either has been overtaken by events or isn’t really that important in the long run.”
If Smolenkov is not the valuable asset that he was portrayed as, this would undermine a core element of the Russia investigation. “The Moscow informant was instrumental to the C.I.A.’s most explosive conclusion about Russia’s interference campaign: that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered and orchestrated it himself,” the New York Times reported. “As the American government’s best insight into the thinking of and orders from Mr. Putin, the source was also key to the C.I.A.’s assessment that he affirmatively favored Donald J. Trump’s election and personally ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The informant, according to people familiar with the matter, was outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making — easily making the source one of the agency’s most valuable assets.”
Kiriakou also notes that the way Smolenkov’s intelligence was handled raises echoes of the CIA’s manipulation of intelligence to helpt justify the Iraq war. The information from Smolenkov was handled personally by then-CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan reportedly sidelined other CIA analysts and kept the Smolenkov information out of the Presidential Daily Briefing – instead delivering it personally to President Obama and a small group of officials.
“That is a highly highly unusual thing to do, but I think [Brennan] did it because he knew that the source wasn’t well placed, he knew that the source was lying about his access to Putin — or information coming from Putin — and I think that for whatever reason John Brennan really wanted the president to run with this narrative that the Russians were trying to somehow impact the 2016 election, when the intelligence just simply wasn’t there,” Kiriakou says.
According to the book “The Apprentice” by the Washington Post‘s Greg Miller, Brennan sequestered himself in his office to pore over the CIA’s material, “staying so late that the glow through his office windows remained visible deep into the night.” Brennan “ordered up,” not just vetted, “‘finished’ assessments – analytic reports that had gone through layers of review and revision,” Miller adds, but also “what agency veterans call the ‘raw stuff’ – the unprocessed underlying material.”
Kiriakou says that raises “a very big red flag.”
“As a matter of practice, you never ever give the raw data to the policymaker,” he says. That was something that was done during the George W. Bush administration where Vice President Cheney demanded the raw intelligence. But more often than not raw intelligence is just simply incorrect — it’s factually incorrect, or it’s the result of the source who’s a liar, or it’s the result of the source who has only part of the story. And so you can’t trust it. You have to vet it and compare it to the rest of your all-source information to see what’s true, what’s not true, and then only the true information you use in your analysis. For the director of the CIA to be using the raw data is highly unusual because that’s what you have a staff of thousands to do for you.”
“So the notion that the director of the CIA would be holed up in his office into the middle of the night with the raw data… just makes no sense to me unless John Brennan had his own narrative and was trying to figure out a way to convey that narrative to the White House, and use the data to support his analysis, rather than the analysis of his experts.”
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.