Exposure of Russian spy sparks concern over protecting assets in the digital age

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (2), Getty Images (2)

The public exposure of a highly placed Russian asset, which has ignited renewed debate over President Trump’s relationship with the intelligence agencies, has also highlighted the increasing challenge of rescuing and resettling foreign spies in the United States.

On Monday, CNN revealed that the CIA in 2017 decided to help a key Russian source escape Moscow, fearing his safety was in jeopardy after he’d shared secret information with U.S. spy agencies for more than a decade.

The disclosure led news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, to publish further details about the spy’s identity. Russian outlets, including business daily Kommersant, tied the exfiltration to the 2017 disappearance of a former Russian government official and his family on a vacation to Montenegro. Reporters, first from NBC, sought him out at his home in the Washington area that was purchased using his real name. Several Russian outlets as well as the Post published his name.

The disclosure of the source’s escape along with the publication of his personal details has raised concerns among current and former intelligence experts about the ease of identifying sources in the digital age, and the ability of the CIA to keep its assets safe.

Protecting assets has always been a CIA priority, but the march of technology and social media has made hiding former spies and their families vastly more complicated.

“Nowadays, there are so many electronic connections; the kids are on social media,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer stationed in Moscow. “You can’t hide someone’s complete identity anymore.”

According to Joe Augustyn, a former CIA officer who managed the agency’s resettlement program for three years, the CIA is allowed, based on the law, to extract 100 people a year “based on their contributions to U.S. security.” The agency has never reached that number, but holds it in reserve for particularly valuable and noteworthy assets who are in imminent danger of exposure.

In most cases, Augustyn told Yahoo News, the CIA strongly recommends that the source and his or her family change their names and begin new lives in the United States. However, the agency, which provides resources such as legal assistance, language education, job training and other services, has to balance the source’s need for protection with the desire to live a full life and maintain some level of freedom for his or her family. And once the source becomes an American citizen, the CIA has little authority over his or her life.

“I cannot imagine that the agency did not try to dissuade him [from] keeping his true identity,” said Augustyn. ”But when it comes down to it, it’s his decision.”

While he was not aware of the specifics, Augustyn speculated that the spy’s children and their difficulties in adjusting to a new country may have entered into the family’s decision.

Decisions to uproot a spy’s life aren’t made lightly. Former CIA officers who spoke with Yahoo News also said that the agency likely did not choose to exfiltrate the spy in 2017 based purely on the president’s handling of intelligence.

According to one former CIA officer familiar with the matter, the potential for exposing the spy was considered in January 2017, when the intelligence community decided to publicize details about the community’s assessments into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“When they decided to make the [intelligence community assessment] public, they knew it would come with a huge risk to the source,” the former officer said. “Analyzing what we would lose from collection versus threat to the source … it’s a whole process to do that analysis.”

However, if Trump’s handling of intelligence was a factor in the decision, that would be all the more troubling, experts told Yahoo. One foreign intelligence official said they would be most worried if Trump was the reason the source was exfiltrated: “If that’s true, then it’s obviously worrying for U.S. intel as well as partners.”

But the official expressed doubt that Trump’s behavior was the key factor behind the removal.

The Washington Post and the New York Times reported that the CIA became concerned for the source’s safety when media outlets began to dig into the sourcing of the intelligence community assessment, including the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee — information that likely would have come from within the Russian leader’s administration.

Even once in the United States, the asset would still be useful to U.S. intelligence, and also at continuing risk of exposure and targeting by a vindictive Russian intelligence apparatus. Like Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy poisoned by Putin’s agents in the U.K., intelligence assets who spy for another country may continue to be debriefed and consulted as subject-matter experts after leaving their home country.

“This guy was still a resource after exfiltration,” said the former CIA officer familiar with the process involved in publishing the intelligence assessment. “He was still the top source and expert on the Russian presidency.”

Peter Deriabin, a KGB officer who defected to the United States in the 1950s, worked for the CIA and wrote several books about the KGB. When he died, the CIA said he provided information that was of “incalculable value to the national security.”

Information becomes stale when someone loses routine access to it, but key insights about Putin’s personality and decision making, as well as the day-to-day bureaucracy of how the Kremlin works, remain valuable for CIA officers composing leadership profiles of Putin as well as technical officers looking for vulnerabilities in Moscow’s systems.

“There’s a whole world of atmospherics and information that somebody like this can provide,” said Sipher. “If I’m the NSA and I’m trying to think about ways to find holes in the system to exploit, we could say, ‘Tell me everything about your office — where are the computers? Where are the phones? If there’s an emergency, what phone number do you use?’” he continued. “There’s a world of stuff, day-to-day stuff, that can help future targeting.”

Additionally, even if the spy’s access to information has faded, the public embarrassment of the world knowing a source in his government escaped to the United States might anger Putin and inspire him to retaliate, now or sometime in the future.

“I’m not worried Russia is on its way here to take him out,” said Augustyn. “I’d be worried about a year, or two years, or three years out. Putin’s always regarded the U.S. as a red line,” but the spy “is now probably on Putin’s list of traitors,” he said.

Either way, both Sipher and Augustyn guessed that the Russian spy won’t be living in the Washington area for long.

“There’s no doubt they’re going to have to move this person now,” said Sipher.

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