Senate report points to counterintelligence risk from ties between Trump campaign and Russia
WASHINGTON — Less than three months before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Senate Intelligence Committee published its fifth and final volume comprising over three and a half years of investigation, offering a rare bipartisan look at the sitting president’s exposure and vulnerability to compromise by foreign intelligence agencies through his campaign and connections.
The nearly 1,000-page report, based on hundreds of interviews and more than a million documents, is titled “Russian efforts to influence the Trump Campaign and the 2016 election.”
While former special counsel Robert Mueller and other prosecutors have laid out the possible legal case against Trump’s associates and their activities during the 2016 campaign, the Senate report dives into the murkier world of counterintelligence. This “wilderness of mirrors,” as former top CIA spy hunter James Jesus Angleton described counterintelligence, is where spies seek to influence, deceive, infiltrate and compromise their opponents while defending themselves against similar penetration.
The Senate report, a subject of contention between the lawmakers and the White House, does not necessarily extend as far as the FBI investigation — and senators were not always able to get access to all the information they asked for, according to its authors. “The result is that the American people still do not, and may never, have all the facts necessary to determine the full extent of cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016,” they write.
However, the Senate report does include several new and illuminating takeaways.
Perhaps most damaging is the conclusion by the Senate Intelligence Committee that Paul Manafort himself, President Trump’s former campaign chair, may have been directly connected to the hack-and-leak operations conducted by Russian hackers, which ultimately exposed large tranches of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). While the report is heavily redacted and doesn’t explain the “two pieces of information” that led to that conclusion, the authors went into further detail on Manafort’s longtime business associate Konstantin Kilimnik. The Intelligence Committee identifies Kilimnik as a Russian intelligence officer and concludes he may also have ties to the operation by the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency, to expose the DNC’s emails. Kilimnik, according to the committee, also “almost certainly helped arrange some of the first public messaging that Ukraine had interfered in the U.S. election” to distract from Russia’s involvement.
The Senate’s report also includes details about WikiLeaks, an online publisher founded by Julian Assange that first gained prominence after it published thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2010. The summer before the 2016 election, WikiLeaks published a large trove of emails tied to the DNC, purporting not to know any details about the source that provided them — an assertion the committee has now contradicted.
“WikiLeaks actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian influence campaign and very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort,” concluded the Senate Intelligence Committee. Relatedly, the committee said the Trump campaign “undermined” claims of connections between the DNC dumps and Russia, and “was indifferent” to whether or not it was furthering Russian interests by promoting the dumps’ contents to help Trump win.
The senators also reviewed the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, in which members of the Trump campaign sat down with several Russians, including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin. The committee said the campaign was seeking negative information about then Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton “that would be of benefit to the [Trump] campaign.” However, the committee “found no reliable evidence that information of benefit to the campaign was transmitted at the meeting, or that then-candidate Trump had foreknowledge of the meeting.”
Additionally, the committee dismissed the conclusion that the Trump campaign had significant contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an April foreign policy Trump speech held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
While the committee also concluded that Trump’s foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos “presented a prime intelligence target and potential vector for malign Russian influence,” it assessed he wasn’t a “witting” servant of Russian interests. He also, the committee wrote, failed to achieve some of his loftier goals, such as a face-to-face meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump, despite the campaign’s support of such efforts.
Overall, Russian officials managed to connect with and influence several Trump campaign officials — a reality the Senate committee attributed to their relative openness, lack of experience and disorganization.
“Russia took advantage of members of the Transition Team’s relative inexperience in government, opposition to Obama Administration policies, and Trump’s desire to deepen ties with Russia to pursue unofficial channels through which Russia could conduct diplomacy,” concluded the committee.
In addition to probing evidence that Trump’s associates were influenced by Russia, the committee also explored the failings of the U.S. government to respond to the threat.
The committee concluded that the FBI “lacked a formal or considered process for escalating its warnings about the DNC hack within the organization of the DNC,” and noted that the FBI gave “unjustified credence” to an unverified document circulating in 2016 concerning the Trump campaign’s compromise by the Russians known as the Steele dossier, written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
As with the first four volumes of the committee’s reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election, this final chapter was bipartisan, though its authors emphasized different key conclusions. The committee was united in instructing the public to take its conclusions to heart in advance of the 2020 election so that Russian officials cannot so easily return to their old playbooks.
Announcing the release of the new report, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chair of the committee, emphasized first and foremost the conclusion that the committee found no evidence the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia in 2016, and pointed to the FBI’s mistakes in investigating the campaign.
In a recorded video message, Rubio warned that “Russia’s still meddling” and that the report “shows us how to protect our country from these kinds of efforts.”
In a statement, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chair of the committee, pointed to the “breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives,” which poses a “very real counterintelligence threat to our elections.”
“As we head into the heat of the 2020 campaign season, I strongly urge campaigns, the executive branch, Congress, and the American people to heed the lessons of this report in order to protect our democracy,” Warner wrote.
At the conclusion of the report, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden argued for declassifying and releasing more information to the public because “this report includes redacted information that is directly relevant to Russia’s interference in the 2020 election.” One subject in particular that Wyden felt deserved more sunlight is Manafort’s deep ties to Kilimnik, including their potential link to the Russian hack-and-leak operation.
For former senior intelligence officials who confronted the threat posed by Russian influence in the U.S. head-on, the report is a long time coming and gives concrete details about the true national security threat that Russia posed in 2016, rather than simply the criminal activity of the Trump campaign.
“The report lays bare to the American public what all of us in the [intelligence community] felt all along,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year veteran of the CIA who retired in June 2019. He pointed specifically to the report’s conclusions about contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
“I’ve always talked about the sleepless nights we all had,” he said. “Now it’s obvious why.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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