Vladimir Putin
Credit: Remy Steinegger/Wikimedia Commons

Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police – the Cheka – said, “The fact that you are free is not your achievement, but rather a failure on our side.”  A clear-eyed killer responsible for the summary executions of tens of thousands during the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror, Dzerzhinsky knew of what he spoke and he didn’t mince words. Fortunately, a heart attack took him down at 49, but his ilk lives on. We Americans should never let our guard down in face of freedom-phobic adversaries like Vladimir Putin. But I fear we are now doing so.

The United States has just endured a carefully planned, well-orchestrated assault against its democratic form of government in the form of a grand cyber-theft of information and targeted release of that information. After a thorough scrub of available intelligence, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies concluded unanimously that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

In my twenty-five years in the service of Uncle Sam as a diplomat, I was a daily consumer of intelligence reporting. Information produced by spies is just one stream in a flood of facts, speculation and analyses that cross the desks of policymakers, others being press reports, think tank pieces, university research papers and personal conversations. All sources have their flaws as well as their benefits. Key to a report’s value is corroboration from other sources and reliability of the sources of the information being given.

While I have not had the privilege of reading the classified version of the report by the Director of National Intelligence on the Russians’ active measures, it is clear to me from the conclusions that corroboration and source reliability are at a very high level given CIA’s, NSA’s and the FBI’s stated “high confidence” or “moderate confidence” in their conclusions. This is “intellese” meaning reliable multi-source information has been corroborated at multiple levels, leading the vast majority of analysts to conclude with little doubt that Moscow launched an influence campaign against the U.S.

But if Russia’s role in the 2016 election is basically undisputed, we’re still left with a separate, more troubling question for which there isn’t yet a clear answer: Could Donald Trump actually be a Russian intel asset?

The U.S. intelligence chiefs steered clear of this hot potato conjecture. Supporting the case in favor is Trump’s bizarre screeds against the U.S. intelligence community and his equally head-scratching and consistent praise of Vladimir Putin even as his nominees to head the CIA and Defense Department describe Moscow as a threat. “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” former acting CIA Director Michael Morell wrote in the New York Times. An “unwitting agent” or “asset” in spy parlance is an individual who serves the interests of a foreign government without fully realizing it, or, what Lenin liked to call, a “useful idiot.” A “witting” asset is one who knows fully what he is doing.

This gets us to the other report making waves. The self-described “social news and entertainment company” BuzzFeed released an opposition research report on Donald Trump that has been in the possession of many journalists, members of Congress and executive Branch agencies for weeks now. Its leakage was inevitable. The 35-page document is a compendium of spot reports put together from June to December 2016 by a former British MI-6 officer named Christopher Steele. Former American intelligence officers who know Mr. Steele describe him in favorable terms, a well-connected case officer with years of service inside Russia. Steele now heads a private intelligence firm in London. A retired CIA officer who knows Steele told a Russian journalist contact of mine, “It is probably not all accurate but there is clearly some real information there.”

Well, real or not, there sure is. Steele reports a methodical effort by Putin’s intelligence operatives to suborn and recruit Trump over a period of years by means of surveillance, sex and lucrative business offerings. For the salacious details, read the document yourself. But here’s my take.

While news reporters fault the reports based mostly on superficial minor errors, e.g., English spelling of Russian names; proper description of a certain affluent Moscow neighborhood, my problems with Steele’s account go deeper, that is, into how they are formulated. The most egregious flaw in Steele’s reporting is that he appears to rely on a single Russian source for most of his dirt on Trump and official Russian players –  a certain “trusted compatriot.” This is a Russian who claims to be in contact with various Putin officials, what is termed in the espionage business an “access agent.” I discern no corroborating sources, which is central to solid intel reporting. Equally troublesome is Steele’s failure to “rate” his source. Standard procedure in any spot reporting is to briefly describe a source’s past reliability: “Source whose information has been confirmed in past reporting,” or “who has a record of providing reliable information over years.” Steele’s single “trusted compatriot” source can conjure up the notorious Ahmed Chalabi, whose bogus reporting on non-existent weapons of mass destruction fooled U.S. policymakers into invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

In some of his reporting, Steele fails to identify any sources for his information. For example, in “A Synopsis of Russian State Sponsored and Other Cyber Offensive (Criminal) Operations,” he writes, “The former intelligence officer reported…” and “a senior government figure reported…” with no elaboration. “Reported” to whom? Himself? The ethereal “trusted compatriot”? A news reporter? Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost)? In any intelligence agency worth its name, an officer would be sent back to the drawing board by his or her supervisor after turning in such reporting. It is for all of these reasons that news organizations, except for BuzzFeed, chose to sit on Steele’s unverified allegations. A final question is whether Steele paid for his information, which is what spies often do. Cash for information too often provides incentives for sources to fabricate. Hence, the need to rate their past reporting.

Nonetheless, Russian intelligence routinely surveilles even low-ranking U.S. diplomats in their country. At a minimum, I would assume that the Russians targeted prominent American Trump for surveillance during his visits to their country. This is standard operating procedure for them. One goal is to acquire kompromat, or compromising material potentially to use against a subject. Whether the material Russian intelligence might have on Trump is the kompromat Steele describes in his dossier, it’s a good bet Russian intelligence has something.

Years ago, ex-KGB operative Vladimir Putin told a Russian journalist, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.” That journalist, incidentally, died in a still unresolved plane accident shortly after writing a scathing expose on the Russian leader. Over the years, others would meet similarly untimely deaths after crossing Putin. He and his kind play for keeps.

Whether therefore Trump is a witting or unwitting asset of the Russian Federation, the bottom line is this: by turning away intelligence briefings, by inexplicably attacking his country’s intelligence agencies and by his open bromance with Putin, the President-elect is putting the nation’s national security at grave risk. Or, as “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinsky said, “Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows.”

James Bruno

Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.