Almost no one sets out to be an asset to a foreign intelligence service, and many who do aren’t even aware that they’re doing so, intelligence professionals tell TPM.
That troubling ambiguity—whether seemingly innocuous conversations with senior Russian officials constituted aid to a hostile government—may lie at the heart of the investigation into what role, if any, the Trump campaign played in Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
As multiple investigations delve deeper into suspected collusion between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign staffers, embarrassing questions about the Trump campaign’s players keep coming up: Does the fact that Paul Manafort appears to have used Bond007 as his Dropbox password not make him seem kind of silly? Were people like George Papadopoulos and Carter Page sophisticated enough for a foreign intelligence service to bother targeting?
Too unsophisticated? No, says CIA clandestine service veteran John Sipher. As an intelligence officer, “it’s my job to recruit sources who have access to gaps in knowledge,” he says. “And I’m getting promoted for finding new sources.”
It’s not about intelligence, it’s about information: Information that is foreign, of interest, new, clandestine, and authoritative—FINCA, to intel pros.
Sources who travel extensively and criticize the U.S. government while working for a major political campaign—like Page and Papadopoulos—are sending clear signals to Sipher: “They’re showing leg, essentially,” he told TPM. Manafort had already taken millions to work for foreign governments before signing on to the Trump campaign. None of these things by themselves make these men traitors—they just suggest to people looking for traitors that it might be a good idea to talk to them.
Page has said often that he spoke regularly on the international circuit, sometimes deploring the hidebound nature of American authorities from the podium. Papadopoulos spoke more than once in Greece, TPM’s Tierney Sneed wrote last week, preaching the gospel of improved international relations between the U.S. and Cyprus, the Mos Eisley Cantina of international finance for Russian oligarchs.
Some people betray their employer or government out of genuine conviction, says David Chasteen, a former CIA clandestine service officer, but that’s not necessarily the rule. “People are confused: What people think of as a spy is actually an intelligence officer, an IO, an employee of the CIA […] or the SVR.” An asset, Chasteen explains, is more properly a spy—a person who is already inside an institution and has agreed to work with a CIA officer. Some act on principle, but as a class they’re similar to criminal informants.
Or, as Chasteen puts it, “Most assets are Fredos.”
What’s usually true of those kinds of sources, Sipher said, is that they rarely have much that is valuable to an intelligence officer. The reason the Trump campaign staffers under investigation are being scrutinized so carefully, Sipher said, is that “those guys also happened to have access. They were working for the Trump campaign.”
Page in particular has found himself coincidentally meeting with at least one very august Russian official. At Moscow’s New Economic School, Page gave a talk in July 2016 critical of the US establishment; also on the bill was Russian deputy prime minister Arkadiy Dvorkovich, Page testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee under questioning by Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-FL).
“He was also speaking,” Page explained to Rooney, emphasizing that he perceived the meeting to be a simple exchange of pleasantries. “He had been delayed because he had meetings with the government. And he came in, gave a brief speech. As he was walking out, I said hello to him.” That he and the Russian deputy PM were on the same bill in the first place could be the red flag.
Intelligence officers use the acrostic MICE to describe the primary ways to manipulate potential assets: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. “The big one, frankly, is ego,” says Sipher.
Sipher says that were he to approach Page for recruitment he would seek to flatter him. “[You would] talk to him and say ‘Oh my god, you can play a role in international affairs. You can get your information to the top levels of the Russian government,'” he hypothesized. “Honestly, I’d be worried it was too easy. ‘Your insights are really interesting! If you’ll give me a paper that’s just for me, I’ll take it back to the highest levels.'”
This is part of gathering information, Sipher says; after that comes recruitment. “Next step is getting them to follow directions: ‘Next time meet me in public.’ ‘Don’t take papers from the office, but memorize stuff and we’ll talk about it.’ [Your source] thinks he can play footsie with the Russians without stepping over the line.”
Page refused to answer specific questions from TPM, saying he had “more important things to work on today;” besides, he said, “I have extensive experience with the U.S. intelligence community making false assessments throughout its history.” Sipher’s judgment that he might be likely to be approached by Russian agents constituted “ignorant comments to you based on false or no evidence, a la Sleazeball Steele,” he told TPM, apparently referring to Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Trump dossier.
As far back as May, intelligence professionals from the top tier of CIA have been publicly warning Congress, not merely about the danger of espionage, but about the danger of people who had committed espionage without knowing it. The former head of the CIA, John Brennan, told Congress that Russian intelligence was working to recruit spies within the Trump campaign “either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”
“Frequently,” Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee, “individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.”
Sipher said Brenann’s line “jumped out at [intelligence professionals] like a bolt from the blue. He had crafted that.”
As for the president himself, Sipher said, would probably not make a good asset. “Trump is the perfect mark in the sense that his ego is totally out of control and sleazy and willing to cut corners to make money,” Sipher said. “But you can’t control him. He doesn’t follow orders.”