Spy swap puts halt to fact finding
The Obama administration’s rapid release of 10 Russian intelligence officers removed the prospect of a public trial revealing embarrassing facts about Russian influence operations, like the targeting of a key Democratic Party financier close to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Current and former national security officials critical of the speedy exchange with Moscow also said trading the 10 spies for four Russians less than two weeks after their arrest also limited U.S. counterspies from learning important details of Russian espionage and influence operations.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned the unprecedented speed used by the administration in moving the spies out of the country.
“We gave up the opportunity,” he said. “Now that these people are out of the country, it’s game off, not game on. We will get no additional insights or information from them.”
Mr. Hoekstra said the House intelligence oversight panel will be briefed on the case this week and “tough questions” will be raised about the swap. “Right now, it looks like this is one time the government should have been a little more deliberate and taken its time before acting in haste,” he said.
The swap of the 10 “illegals,” or deep-cover agents, last week — 12 days after their arrest — also prevented trial disclosures of other potentially embarrassing details, like the identities of what an FBI criminal complaint described as a “former legislative counsel for the U.S. Congress” and “former high-ranking United States government national security official” both of whom provided information to two Boston-based Russians in the case. Both officials’ names were omitted from the complaint.
The Russian SVR foreign intelligence service also asked its spies to provide information on the new strategic arms treaty, the war in Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program, indications that Moscow is working covertly against U.S. efforts on those issues, despite efforts by President Obama and Mrs. Clinton to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials close to the case said politics did not play a role in the decision to quickly swap the spies for the four Russians held on intelligence-related charges by Moscow. They also dismissed the idea that more information would have been gained from holding the spies longer. The exchange took place Saturday in Vienna, Austria.
“You’re positing some sort of conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact,” he said. “Any insinuation that [CIA] Director [Leon E.] Panetta or anyone else was influenced here by the alleged interests of the Democratic Party is both absurd and insulting.”
“The notion that there was some sort of conspiracy to limit our counterintelligence efforts in this case is baffling and misplaced. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Widespread news reports over the past week, quoting anonymous U.S. officials, uncritically described the handling of the spy case as an unqualified success.
Several former intelligence and national security officials, however, challenged that perception.
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