Is Trump a Russian Agent?: Explaining Terms of Art and Examining the Facts
A number of commentators and critics have labeled President Trump an Agent of the Russian Federation. It is often not clear if they mean that he is unwittingly adopting Russian propaganda, knowingly doing the bidding of the Kremlin or is an out-and-out controlled secret asset of the Russian intelligence services. All are sordid. Some are merely repulsive while others are illegal and even treasonous (in the common though not legal understanding of that term). Even former FBI acting Director Andrew McCabe answered, “I think it’s possible” when asked if President Trump might be an asset of Russian intelligence.
I think it is entirely plausible that Mr. Trump is somehow compromised by his personal and financial dealings with Russia and Russians, but I do not think he is an “agent” in the sense that intelligence professionals use the term. Let me explain.
Intelligence and law enforcement professionals ascribe specific meanings to those who work on their behalf. Unfortunately, the term “agent” is less clear than some others. For example, the FBI calls its officers agents, while CIA officers never refer to themselves as agents, and instead reserve the term for those foreigners who spy on its behalf. The Russian services, on the other hand, approach human espionage operations differently from intelligence services in the West.
So, let’s take a quick look at how the U.S. and Russia think about human intelligence and espionage. And, just to be clear, I am not sharing any information that is secret, sensitive or detrimental to the U.S. intelligence community (IC). The details are available on IC websites.
The CIA’s view of agents
The CIA’s Clandestine Service (now called the Directorate of Operations) is the primary organization tasked with collecting human intelligence on behalf of the United States. That is, their job is to find spies with access to information that the U.S. government cannot collect in any other way. Academic experts, diplomats, military attaches, business people and journalists all gather overt or open information. Overhead satellites and other means to intercept communications is done by a variety of agencies. However, if the Administration believes that it needs additional information that it cannot acquire through these means (called intelligence gaps), it asks the CIA’s clandestine service to steal it.
The great bulk of the CIA’s collection stems from developing relationships with people who have access to the information and secrets we need and appealing to them to provide it. The process of collecting intelligence from personal relationships is called HUMINT in U.S. intelligence circles. In most cases, those people who agree to assist the U.S. and CIA are breaking laws in their own countries and would be treated as traitors if discovered. In our lingo these brave and important people are called agents, assets, or sources.
Agents come in a few different flavors. Those who are fully aware of what they are doing and are following the directions of their CIA handler are called “controlled agents.” They are met secretly and are the jewels of the CIA. We do everything we can to protect and take care of these people who risk everything by helping us. Many provide information that helps save American lives.
Although important, human intelligence is an inefficient business. Gaining access to the right people is hard, and most people do not want to spy. Cajoling or blackmailing people to share information is rarely undertaken because it is usually self-defeating over the long haul. The espionage game is a slow, often dangerous business that mixes deep trust with personal needs, aggrievements and betrayal. When it works, however, a human source can provide insight and information that we cannot gain through a computer hack, satellite collection or phone intercept.
The FBI and law enforcement organizations also rely on human sources. They use the terms “informant” or “confidential informant (CI)” to describe their human sources. An informant is different from a CI in that he/she can be called upon to testify in court. A CI source can provide information to help steer an investigation but their identity should always remain secret. These are but two tools in a much larger investigative toolbox. We in CIA view the term informant as somewhat demeaning. Our entire business revolves around sources. Everything we do – our hiring practices, training, policies and procedures are all designed to develop, recruit, protect, and nurture our sources so that we can rely on their insights and information for years to come. Agents are not snitches providing gossip and snippets of information. We seek to develop bonds of trust and do all we can to protect their identity. The loss of an agent is a devastating blow to the institution. Without our sources, CIA’s clandestine service wouldn’t exist in its present form. Contrast these relationships with law enforcement. While many law enforcement professionals are personally dedicated to the protection of their informants, human sources represent just one tool supporting their investigative priorities and are not as central to the institutions in which they work.
There are a few different types of CIA agents. Most are secret, controlled penetrations of governments or groups that are working against the U.S. and its allies. They report on the inner workings of their institutions or groups. Think of a scientist in Iran’s secret nuclear program, a terrorist facilitator or an officer in the Chinese Ministry of State Security. If an asset is in a position to change or impact the policies of their workplace or government on the U.S.’s behalf, he/she is called an “agent-of-influence.” A foreign minister who meets regularly with the President of his/her country and can subtly help direct policy to support U.S. goals is an agent-of-influence as well as a clandestine source of intelligence. The term “double agent” is often misused, and is something entirely different but is not relevant to this discussion.
The process of hunting for potential spies is called “targeting.” Determining who is in a position of access to information and influence, and how the U.S. might make contact is a necessary step in finding potential candidates for recruitment. In the targeting process, officers sometimes need eyes and ears inside an organization that can provide personal and behavioral information on people of interest. These are called “access agents” – they help officers sift through potential targets so that when an officer looks to recruit a new agent, they have a better chance of success. Maria Butina may have been providing this type of service to the Russian intelligence agencies.
For U.S. intelligence, the key component of agent handling is control. We want unique information from secret sources who we can protect over the long-haul. Our agents have to have access to unique intelligence, be willing to provide it and follow our direction in order to keep the relationship secret and safe. We are less interested in relationships that are not fully on-board. Sources that report gossip two steps removed, or whose motivations are not clear are not good candidates to produce secret intelligence reporting to senior policymakers. In certain circumstances, however, CIA officers overseas have relationships that are of some use, even if not fully clandestine. We call these people “witting collaborators.” In a perfect world, we would prefer to have no collaborators, and only recruited, controlled, witting sources.
Russia’s view of agents
The Russians have a much more expansive and nuanced view of who is an agent working on behalf of their system. Whereas the U.S. mainly relies on a relatively small cadre of fully-controlled and tested secret sources, Russia sees their foreign intelligence role in a much broader way. They too seek fully vetted and controlled sources with access to unique reporting, but they are also more comfortable with sources who can help them in some manner or other even if they are not fully recruited spies. Throughout the Cold War the Kremlin relied on a wide variety of sources, some witting and some not – from fully recruited spies to semi-witting people willing to spout their nonsense. The Russian services would be comfortable building a relationship with a journalist who accepts background material but does not take specific direction, while the CIA would most likely have no interest in that sort of connection.
The Russians – like the Soviets before them – generally have a much larger stable of assets. They utilize fellow travelers, terrorists, and members of fringe groups as well as maintaining friendships with people who either knowingly or unknowingly accept their propaganda. They call these people “useful idiots.” We have accordingly seen that the Russians use all sorts of people for their benefit – propagandists, useful idiots, witting collaborators, sympathizers, hackers, students, recruited spies, and oligarchs who do the bidding of the Kremlin. A good example of the latter is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire restauranteur close to Putin. Although he has no formal role or experience in intelligence, diplomacy or military affairs, the Kremlin uses him when it is in Moscow’s interest. He is the owner of the now-famous St. Petersburg troll factory, and he also runs paramilitary units in Syria and Ukraine. To maintain your wealth and social status in Russia, it makes sense to say yes when the Kremlin comes calling.
One reason the intelligence services in Russia are more comfortable with sources that have not signed on the dotted line is that the Kremlin uses itsintelligence services for more purposes than western counterparts. Western services collect information and analyze it largely to help better inform policymakers. Russian intelligence services play a more central role in carrying out their foreign policy objectives. It plays an active and offensive role. They use their services to engage in information warfare, disseminate disinformation, support propaganda, engage in perception management and sow chaos abroad. They also play a role domestically helping to keep the population in line with the Kremlin. Their President is a former KGB officer who is comfortable using espionage and subversion as a primary tool of foreign policy and internal control. Indeed, unlike the United States, the Kremlin can pressure its citizens to support intelligence requirements. Using criminals, computer hackers or billionaire businessmen are examples of how the Kremlin engages in a public-private sharing of foreign policy.
Turning to Trump
Based on the U.S. definition of an agent, it is unlikely that President Trump is a recruited and controlled source of the Russian intelligence services. To a professional he is nightmare. Yes, he is a cauldron of potentially exploitable vulnerabilities. He is greedy, has lax morals and shame, isn’t particularly patriotic, has a difficult time with right and wrong and is easy to manipulate. He would be easy to exploit and entice into stepping over the line into a conspiratorial relationship. However, he would be essentially impossible to control. His narcissism, poor memory and ego would make it all but impossible for him to follow directions and keep a secret. He would be a nightmare to debrief. He blathers about things he doesn’t understand, never admits that he is not an expert, is loathe to admit mistakes, lies constantly and is barely intelligible. Nor would he be willing to provide intimate details of his life. A recruited source cannot hide important personal details from his handler. Surprises don’t mix well with the need to keep a relationship wholly secret.
Additionally, it is hard to see private citizen Trump or President Trump following a sophisticated communication plan. The most vulnerable and dangerous part of any espionage relationship is the communication between the officer and his/her asset. If local authorities witness even a single meeting or intercept an isolated communication between a foreign intelligence officer and his/her agent, it could lead to the end of the operation, the arrest or death of the asset, and a geopolitical scandal. If the asset even comes under routine review for some unconnected reason, any number of things could lead to the discovery of the covert relationship. Thus, the clandestine nature of meetings is preserved through meticulously planned concealed meetings at pre-arranged times or with signals via sophisticated technical covert communication means. A source needs to be able to make time for a secret meeting or communication, and do so without witnesses or leaving a trace. It is not a relationship that can be managed casually, and all but impossible for someone in a highly visible role like that of the President. A spy handler would not look kindly on the Secret Service showing up at a covert meeting.
Perhaps more importantly, Trump thrives on public praise (however inauthentic). He is not the type of person who would be satisfied with secret knowledge of success. Agents of an intelligence service must generally believe their secret relationship is in service of something bigger than themselves and accept that success will never be made public. Instead, they must be satisfied with private praise and the knowledge that they have had an impact, albeit in the shadows. The best cases are never known publicly. A narcissist who craves public fawning and constant flattery while rejecting constructive feedback would make a terrible agent.
However, aside from Trump’s flawed personality, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that Trump is nonetheless acting counter to U.S. interests in a conspiratorial manner. For an intelligence service to consummate a covert relationship there needs to be confluence of events. There must be interest from the recruiting service, willingness and intent to conspire from the target, an opportunity to develop a relationship, a reason to risk a secret relationship (quid pro quo), and a shared aptitude to manage an undercover liaison. While Trump’s competence may not suggest him as a natural spy candidate, the other requirements have been met. The Russians certainly had an interest in cultivating Trump prior to 2016, and much to gain as he moved toward the Republican convention in July. Prior to Trump’s ascent, Putin could never have conceived that any U.S. Administration would acquiesce to Moscow’s policy interests and participate in its own retreat from the world stage. Among other things, Trump has attacked the FBI and U.S. foreign policy establishment, driven a wedge between NATO and the U.S., and delivered Russia a free hand in Syria. He willingly enabled the very damage that the Russians were promoting. If not for significant political resistance (including from his own Party), he may well have also provided sanctions relief, recognized Russia’s seizure of Crimea, returned Russian diplomatic residences, and weakened the enforcement of the Magnitsky Act. Needless to say, for his part Trump gained an ally in his effort to damage Hillary Clinton, benefited from Russian disinformation, and explored personal financial rewards. He clearly crossed a line and can be objectively labeled an agent of a foreign power in the standard definition of the word. From the Russian perspective, it is a win-win even if the relationship doesn’t meet the cloak-and-dagger definition of a wholly clandestine espionage agent.
As noted above, the Russian services are not as stuck on the issue of control as are the American services. They are more comfortable managing an stable of controlled assets, witting collaborators, useful idiots and loosely-connected people who can promote Russian narratives and propaganda. In this sense. Trump’s dishonesty and disloyalty to American interests would have served the Russians well even if he couldn’t be counted on to show up on time on a dark street corner.
The Kremlin may well have nurtured a private but non-secret relationship with Trump over the years and developed a fairly deep understanding of his mindset and psychology. They may have determined that although he would be unsuitable as a controlled spy, he could well serve the role of a useful idiot or someone they could meet from time to time to put ideas into his head. They would not see him as a reporting source to provide insight into the functioning of the Administration or other institutions of power, but as someone willing to engage in semi-legal activities and willingly spout Russian narratives. Over time, they may have learned that he listens to the last person with whom he has spoken and found a way to get information in front of him.
Even more likely, they may see him as similar to the corrupt oligarchs around Putin. In many ways, Putin has built a mafia/gangster state reliant on a powerful intelligence apparatus. There is no serious distinction between the public and private spheres, and those oligarchs who wish to safeguard their riches need to answer the Kremlin when called. Knowing they cannot rely on the legal system or an ethos of protecting the individual against the state, they’ve created a system akin to the mafia in which those with money and power play along for fear that the Kremlin or others have compromising material that could undermine them – a form of Slavic mutual assured destruction. It is not beyond the pale that Trump’s decades of shady business dealings may have landed him smack in the middle of the Russian system of “kompromat” whereby he is unsure of who holds what compromising information on him. He may suspect the Kremlin has access to past misdeeds in Russia, or knowledge of financial shenanigans elsewhere. Once you swim in the pool of dirty money, corruption, blackmail and espionage, you need to play by the unwritten rules in order to keep your head above water. Mr. Trump therefore may seek to maintain a good relationship with the Kremlin as a matter of practicality. Indeed, these types of corrupt alliances are nothing new to the Kremlin. Russia provides both outright and covert support to a variety of political and fringe groups in Europe. It is hard to imagine that they would exclude the United States or that the highly transactional Trump would resist offers of assistance.
President Trump’s inner circle
While President Trump is unlikely to be a full-blown recruited and controlled source, there may be those around him who are.
As noted above, the intelligence recruitment cycle involves the collection of targeting information about a potential source’s personality, psychology and vulnerabilities. Intelligence professionals engage in a step-by-step process to determine if a target will step over the line, display a willingness to share protected information, and become complicit in a conspiratorial relationship. A target who passes those tests then needs to prove their access to protected information, prove their loyalty, and meticulously follow directions designed to keep the relationship secret. As we preach in CIA, an agent handler needs to be correct 100% of the time, while a counterintelligence service only needs to get lucky once. A single slip-up could endanger a source’s life.
From what little public information is available, it appears the Russians were targeting a number of people in the Trump campaign. They may not have succeeded in bringing new agents on-board but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. At the same time, a number of members and associates of the Trump campaign displayed a clear willingness to engage in shady behavior and cover-ups. From what we’ve seen publicly (and remember, this activity was carried out by a secret intelligence service who knows how to hide the details of their work) Russia made multiple attempts to penetrate the U.S. presidential campaign. The approaches were not rebuffed. Members of the Trump campaign showed a willingness to collude and conspire. They welcomed receipt of materials stolen from Americans by a hostile intelligence agency and apparently never reported the fact to the FBI. Then, all of those contacted concealed the contacts and repeatedly lied about them. After all that, they added insult to injury by repeatedly attacking the credibility of those professionals empowered by the American people to investigate foreign intelligence attacks and hold wrongdoers accountable.
The chance that any of the people in the campaign were recruited as Russian agents is slim. Indeed, most attempts to suborn a contact go nowhere. However, willingly engaging with Russians with ties to the Kremlin is like playing a game of Russian roulette (sorry). Naïve Americans were putting themselves in the line of fire. It is still not clear why they saw a need to meet with Russians for any purpose and indeed, nobody associated with the campaign has even tried to explain the intent. In any event, playing footsie with a hostile intelligence service may not be illegal but it is unpatriotic, unwise and dangerous.
In my opinion, if anyone associated with the campaign may have been a witting source for the Kremlin it was either Carter Page or Paul Manafort. Page’s history with the FBI and Russian services is fairly well known. If the Russians didn’t pitch him to become an agent it was because they determined he wasn’t worth the effort.
Manafort is a different story. Manafort’s out-of-control ego and greed were apparent to everyone he met. He spent years conspiring with and enabling war criminals, undermining U.S. policy and looking to make a buck anywhere he could. He enriched himself while engaged with Russians and Russian-linked Ukrainians. Anyone who has spent years making money on the fringes of Russian politics has rubbed up against the cesspool of Russian intelligence, criminality and corruption. He appears to have been comfortable in that world. At the very least, the Russian services certainly had years of access to Manafort. His position as the Trump campaign chair would have also made him a top target of interest for Russian intelligence (and the services of China, Iran etc.). Failure to proposition him would have been an act of professional negligence by the Russian services. It was just too easy.
Additionally, recent information from the Mueller team suggests Manafort was trying to use his position on the Trump campaign to pay back debts to Russian oligarchs. He reportedly met with former Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik, who had continuing ties to Russian intelligence, to share campaign polling data (why?) and discuss a Ukraine peace plan that would have been of great interest to the Kremlin. Further, the one campaign official who participated in the infamous June 9, 2016 meeting who certainly had enough experience to understand how the Kremlin would seek to exploit that meeting was Manafort. The fact that he accepted the meeting and failed to report Russian efforts to fence stolen data suggest that he was comfortable engaging in illicit, subversive, and potentially criminal behavior. He surely knew how the Russians operate, what was on offer and the stakes involved. He displayed top-level access and a clear willingness to conspire. Anyone in government who behaved as he did would be investigated and fired. He failed to put his country first.
So, while I do not believe that Trump to be a controlled agent of the Russian government in the CIA sense of the term, he is clearly a useful tool to promote their interests. The Russians want to weaken the U.S. and sow chaos. Trump was the chaos candidate. Even if his assistance has been unintentional, his lies and cover-up provide the Kremlin leverage it could use at a later date. Likewise, many of the meetings between Trump associates and Russians appear to have been part of the early courtship phase of classic espionage gamesmanship. We don’t yet have enough evidence to conclude that any of these relationships were consummated.
What to expect from Mueller and any ongoing counterintelligence probe
While there is hope in many circles that the Mueller investigation will provide a clear answer to the question of whether the Trump campaign was complicit in colluding with the Kremlin, it is unlikely to be so unambiguous. Russia’s intent, ability and relentlessness are clear. Likewise, the willingness of members of the Trump campaign to conspire is equally clear. However, as I outlined in “Just Security,” many counterintelligence cases fail to go to trial. We rarely catch spies by detection or good investigative work but instead by learning of them by our own moles/spies inside of our adversaries. Such sources cannot testify in court or elsewhere in public. For this reason, usually spies need to be caught red-handed since it is often impossible to satisfy the high legal definition of evidence and “smoking gun” proof may be locked away in the secret files of the Kremlin. In the world of counterintelligence there is a big difference between knowing something and being able to prove it in a court of law.
Given these variables, I consider it unlikely that any legal judgment or other formal, public determination will prove Trump or his associates sold out their country to the Russian intelligence services. Their clear willingness to do so, however, demands at least a political reckoning, as provided for in the U.S. Constitution.