Presidential Campaigns Should Welcome Counterintelligence Efforts

Back in May 2018, I wrote my piece “On Stefan Halper and Carter Page” in an effort to settle whether the FBI counterintelligence unit had been justified in keeping tabs on Page during the 2016 campaign. I concluded that they had sufficient cause to enlist Mr. Harper for the job, but I never questioned whether this amounted to spying “on the campaign” of Donald Trump. It just didn’t seem like the appropriate way of framing the matter.

The FBI hadn’t been spying on Page when he first came to their attention in 2013. They had actually been spying on two Russians: Victor Podobnyy, an SVR agent who worked a cover job as the Russian Attaché of the Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City, and Igor Sporyshev, another SVR agent whose cover was as the Trade Representative of the Russian Federation in New York City. (The SVR is Russia’s foreign intelligence service, so it’s the rough equivalent to our CIA.)

The FBI noticed that Page, a former naval intelligence officer, was interacting with Mr. Podobnyy and had handed him documents. It’s in the nature of intelligence work that, in observing the activities of adversarial intelligence agencies, you will discover Americans they have recruited or are attempting to recruit. That doesn’t mean that the FBI was directly spying on Carter Page when they noticed him make a handoff of documents, and it doesn’t mean that they were spying on him when he went to Moscow on July 7th and 8th, 2016, gave a speech critical of U.S. foreign policy at the New Economic School, and met with high-ranking Kremlin-connected figures.

Page’s actions aroused suspicions because he repeatedly walked right into routine surveillance operations. Mr. Halper, an FBI asset who lived and worked in Cambridge, England was enlisted to make contact with Page and later with George Papadopoulos only after those two gentlemen had contact with Russians officials, intelligence officers and/or assets. That’s why I don’t wholly disagree with Byron York when he defends Attorney General William Barr’s congressional testimony that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. In some limited ways, they did monitor the activities of two of the campaign’s foreign policy advisers, both of whom were traveling extensively abroad and meeting with Russians of interest.

But I think it’s highly misleading to suggest that this amounted to an effort to spy on the campaign itself. In a normal world, this kind of surveillance would be undertaken to protect a campaign. Ordinarily, a campaign team would be grateful to learn that someone they were trusting to give them foreign policy advice might have been recruited or compromised by a foreign power.

After Carter Page left the Trump campaign in September 2016, the FBI successfully obtained a warrant that allowed them to look back at communications that Page had conducted during the campaign. Mr. York uses this retroactive element in the warrant to argue that Trump’s campaign was surveilled, but that’s an incredible stretch. To the extent that the campaign was surveilled in real time, it was only through Stefan Halper developing relationships with Page and Papadopoulos to assess their intentions and the possibility that they were compromised or acting as agents of a hostile foreign power. In the former case, the FBI was investigating someone the campaign had fired precisely (or ostensibly) because of his connections to Russia. Why would the Trump campaign object to a retroactive look at his activities?

In Page’s case, he had been on their radar for three years already. In the case of Papadapoulos, he was clearly being manipulated (at best) as part of a Russian intelligence operation. At one point, Papadopoulos was wittingly and willingly engaging with a woman he falsely believed to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. Again, this kind of diligence from our counterintelligence team is something a campaign ought to be grateful for rather than something that is seen as a violation of their privacy.

I think Barr was irresponsible when he characterized this as spying on the Trump campaign, although he was careful to note that he was unaware of any inappropriate activities and merely wanted to satisfy himself that the the proper protocols had been followed. I’m not sure I trust him to keep to that, but I don’t see a problem if he wants to take a look at it.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com