For the past six months, I’ve been quietly asking current and former counterintelligence professionals, “Who is making sure Russia doesn't undermine our democracy?” The answer has always been the same: “I don’t know, but I hope somebody is.” But since President Donald Trump refuses to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, I'm not sure anybody is.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe is heating up. And the potential criminal charges against the president and his team has become the biggest story in the country. That’s partly because Trump is so polarizing. But the criminal probe and the growing public anger won’t do anything to stop the wider threat posed by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
The threat from Moscow is not an idle one. It appears to have resulted in a successful operation against the United States, one that likely began long before Trump became president. The Russians not only penetrated the president’s inner circle but also used social media to spread fake news and may have even targeted voting systems.
In the aftermath of this campaign, the U.S. has done too little to harden its defenses against this kind of operation. There have been no demands to increase the budget of the intelligence community to counter Russia and other intelligence threats to the U.S. Many seem to think that we can defeat Moscow simply by throwing Trump out of office. That’s a dangerous idea.
The Russian threat is one I understand well. In 1989, a Soviet intelligence officer walked into my father’s office in New York City. The man, a military officer assigned to the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, wanted to do legitimate business—or so my dad thought. My father, a Pakistani immigrant, was running a small defense contracting company that supplied the U.S. government with books and research material. So while a Soviet standing in my dad’s office was abnormal, what he asked for—information on nuclear nonproliferation and weapons control—was not. Yet within 20 minutes, two FBI special agents were asking for my father’s help in keeping tabs on the Soviets. With their approval, my dad was to continue doing business with the enemy and share what information he learned with the bureau. It was the beginning of a decades-long relationship among the Soviets/Russians, the FBI and my family that continued until 2009.
My father saw firsthand how the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had no impact on the Russian spy game. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., intelligence officers from the Russian Mission to the United Nations very quickly began showing up at the family office, picking up where the Soviets left off, looking for the same information. They continued to view the United States through the Cold War lens. We were still the enemy.
But U.S. intelligence viewed the Russians a bit differently. In 2005, I began working for the FBI against the Russians as a double agent. While my handlers and I were completely focused on our old Cold War adversary, the rest of America was worried about terrorism and Al-Qaeda. The agents I worked with were dedicated and professional patriots, but they had little support or resources. I would often joke with them about the hand-me-down cars they drove, and they would chuckle and groan. The agents were fighting a battle the American people thought was over. So how could the FBI spend more money on it when we had just been attacked by a different enemy? They couldn’t.
The bureau was committed to counterintelligence, but it was far from a top priority. During my operation, I was contacted by a military attaché from another country and invited to meet with him. As I sat in his consulate in Manhattan, drinking tea, the attaché told me he was looking “for somebody in D.C. to put me in contact with,” a positive and intriguing sign. Excited about the meeting, I reported the details of my discussion to the FBI and then waited for instructions as to what to do next. Weeks rolled by without any further direction from the bureau. Finally, one of the agents dejectedly told me that “the agent responsible for that country won’t return my calls.” I never spoke to the attaché again and never learned who in D.C. I was to contact. It was a missed opportunity.
Moscow rarely misses opportunities. Talking with a Russian intelligence officer was always an intense, sobering experience. The Russians were distrustful of everyone and everything. The tactics they employed to avoid FBI surveillance were simple but highly effective. For example, the Russians would conclude each meeting with me by handing over a menu or a business card of another restaurant. Then, a week or so later, I would receive a short call inviting me to lunch. At the end of the meeting, the process would repeat. There was never any discussion by phone or email. Their disciplined devotion to security dictated that all communication occurred in person. This meant that unless the FBI knew where I was meeting my “handlers,” they would have struggled to know how to monitor us. The Russians had honed their craft, while the FBI agents were struggling to keep up.
As my days working undercover against the Russians came to an end, I worried more and more about this mismatch. In a post–Cold War world, it’s easy to understand how justifying the cost of counterintelligence may have become politically difficult. But nobody told that to the Russians. With FBI counterintelligence efforts languishing, they found the perfect opportunity to attack us.
In the aftermath of that assault, the U.S. has still not acknowledged any counterintelligence failure, nor has it adequately sought to fix it. As long as the president of the United States continues to call Russian interference a “hoax” and “fake news,” the weaknesses the Russians exploited to successfully undermine our democracy will never be strengthened. If the 2016 Russian election interference has taught us anything, it is that we must hold FBI counterintelligence to the standard they held in 1989 when they walked into my dad’s office: to be able to detect and counter a Russian recruitment effort in 20 minutes.
Naveed Jamali is the author of How to Catch a Russian Spy, a memoir about working undercover as a double agent for the FBI. He continues to serve as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve and is a senior fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His views are his own.
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