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.
Questions about the handling of the case were raised Tuesday during a closed-door briefing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
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.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano dismissed as a “bizarre notion” that there was an effort to “cover up Russian influence operations” in the case, something he said was “never part of the picture.”
“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.”
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the multiyear probe of the Russian illegals “fully exploited this network from a counterintelligence perspective.”
“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.
For example, the ring’s presumed spymaster, Christopher R. Metsos, escaped arrest in the U.S. either because he was overseas or was tipped off to the others’ imminent arrests. Had Mr. Metsos been caught, the administration would have had more leverage on the Russians for a deal and might have obtained additional details on Russian intelligence networks, according to specialists.
“We have to do a damage assessment, and when you do a damage assessment, you want to have access to the individuals involved for an extended period of time so you can get new leads and ask questions,” said Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, a senior counterspy policymaking post.
“We lost all that. We lost a clear window into Russian espionage, and my question is: What was the rush?”
One of the figures to emerge from the case is Alan Patricof, director of the venture capital firm Graycroft LLC and a donor to Democratic candidates, including Mrs. Clinton when she was a senator from New York.
Mr. Patricof acknowledged in a statement that he was the person outlined in the FBI criminal complaint who met several times with one of the Russian spies and who was targeted by the SVR in their efforts to skew U.S. policies in favor of Moscow.
The Russians spies, according to the FBI complaint, were tasked with developing sources in government, the business community and academia who could provide secrets and other information useful to Moscow.
The criminal complaint stated that in February 2009 a New Jersey-based Russian, who posed as Cynthia Murphy and was later identified as SVR officer Lydia Guryev, met several times with a “prominent New York-based financier” who was active in politics and a “active fundraiser” for a “major political party, name omitted.” He also was described as a “personal friend of [a current Cabinet official, name omitted].”
In response, the SVR wrote back to Guryev in a message intercepted by the FBI that the financier was checked in the Russian intelligence database and found to be “clean,” or free from intelligence connections.
“Of course he is very interesting ‘target,’” the SVR said. “Try to build up little by little relations with him moving beyond just [work] framework,” the intercepted SVR message said. “Maybe he can provide [Murphy] with remarks re: US foreign policy ‘rumors’ [sic] about White House internal ‘kitchen’, invite her to venues (to major political party HQ in NYC, for instance). … In short, consider carefully all options in regard to [financier].”
In a statement issued June 30, Mr. Patricof said he met Guryev, whom he knew as “Cindy Murphy,” after retaining a financial service to handle his personal bookkeeping, bill paying, accounting and tax services.
“During the course of that time, I met with her a limited number of times and spoke with her frequently on the phone on matters relating to my personal finances,” Mr. Patricof said. “We never — not once — discussed any matter other than my finances and certainly she never inquired about, nor did we ever discuss, any matters relating to politics, the government, or world affairs.”
Mr. Patricof said she had been employed by the company some 10 years before he became a client. “I highly doubt that I could have been an intended target by her.”
Mr. Patricof, through a spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about whether the FBI investigated the intelligence targeting or whether other Russians or their agents may have been involved in seeking information from him.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, asked whether Mrs. Clinton was the Cabinet official mentioned in the complaint, said in an e-mail that “there is no reason to believe that the Secretary of State was a special target of this spy ring.”
Ms. Van Cleave and other former counterintelligence and intelligence officials questioned whether the quick spy exchange hampered efforts to fully unravel Russian espionage and influence efforts in the United States, information that is needed for a damage assessment and other information needed for stopping other, unidentified spies.
“I am concerned that [the swap] happened so quickly and that we’ll pay a price,” said Ms. Van Cleave said.
Kenneth E. deGraffenreid, Ms. Van Cleave’s former deputy at the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, also criticized the rapid spy exchange.
“Although many tried to make a celebrity joke out of the recent stunning spy case, the danger for American security from Russian and other ‘illegals,’ ‘sleepers’ and clandestine influence operations, remains real and strategic,” he said, adding that the rush to complete a deal “may reflect far more than an attempt to kiss up to them in the name of detente reset.”
Past difficulties with the FBI’s Chinagate investigation of Beijing’s U.S. political influence operation, and politically charged disclosures from the current trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagoevich “may have been primary reasons that the subject of influence operations was hustled off stage so quickly,” Mr. deGraffenreid said.
Former CIA officer S. Eugene Poteat said that from his perspective outside government the spy investigation apparently was rolled up quickly for unknown reasons. As a result, a “political decision” likely was made by senior Obama administration officials to make a quick trade, he said.
“The intelligence community that I’m familiar with would never have gone along with dumping them so quick,” said Mr. Poteat, now head of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
Former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney said releasing the spies so quickly prevented full learning about Moscow’s influence operations and its targets. “I was very troubled when the administration moved so swiftly to shut the whole thing down and send these people to where they could no longer be debriefed,” he said.
The administration was either trying to prevent damage to U.S.-Russia relations by making the swap, or the administration wanted to avoid disclosures about Russian influence targets and their ties to people like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gaffney said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican who was in the Senate briefing, said he is satisfied with the administration’s handling of the case. Without providing details, he said critical questions were answered.
“This is one of the best operations the CIA and FBI cooperated on,” he said. “They’ve been monitoring these folks for a long time. They knew what was going on, they knew as much as the individuals did on their own.”