By John Sipher (a former chief of station for the C.I.A. who worked for over 27 years in Russia, Europe and Asia and now writes for The Cipher Brief and works for CrossLead, a consulting company) and Steve Hall (a former C.I.A. chief of Russian operations and a CNN national security analyst), for The New York Times
Did the Trump campaign collude with Russian agents trying to manipulate the course of the 2016 election? Some analysts have argued that the media has made too much of the collusion narrative; that Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Kremlin-linked Russians last year was probably innocent (if ill-advised); or that Russian operatives probably meant for the meeting to be discovered because they were not trying to recruit Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump as agents, but mainly trying to undermine the American political system.
We disagree with these arguments. We like to think of ourselves as fair-minded and knowledgeable, having between us many years of experience with the C.I.A. dealing with Russian intelligence services. It is our view not only that the Russian government was running some sort of intelligence operation involving the Trump campaign, but also that it is impossible to rule out the possibility of collusion between the two.
The original plan drawn up by the Russian intelligence services was probably multilayered. They could have begun an operation intended to disrupt the presidential campaign, as well as an effort to recruit insiders to help them over time — the two are not mutually exclusive. It is the nature of Russian covert actions (or as the Russians would call them, “active measures”) to adapt over time, providing opportunities for other actions that extend beyond the original intent.
It is entirely plausible, for example, that the original Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers was an effort simply to collect intelligence and get an idea of the plans of the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate. Once derogatory information emerged from that operation, the Russians might then have seen an opportunity for a campaign to influence or disrupt the election. When Donald Trump Jr. responded “I love it” to proffers from a Kremlin-linked intermediary to provide derogatory information obtained by Russia on Hillary Clinton, the Russians might well have thought that they had found an inside source, an ally, a potential agent of influence on the election.
The goal of the Russian spy game is to nudge a person to step over the line into an increasingly conspiratorial relationship. First, for a Russian intelligence recruitment operation to work, they would have had some sense that Donald Trump Jr. was a promising target. Next, as the Russians often do, they made a “soft” approach, setting the bait for their target via the June email sent by Rob Goldstone, a British publicist, on behalf of a Russian pop star, Emin Agalarov.
They then employed a cover story — adoptions — to make it believable to the outside world that there was nothing amiss with the proposed meetings. They bolstered this idea by using cutouts, nonofficial Russians, for the actual meeting, enabling the Trump team to claim — truthfully — that there were no Russian government employees at the meeting and that it was just former business contacts of the Trump empire who were present.
When the Trump associates failed to do the right thing by informing the F.B.I., the Russians probably understood that they could take the next step toward a more conspiratorial relationship. They knew what bait to use and had a plan to reel in the fish once it bit.
While we don’t know for sure whether the email solicitation was part of an intelligence ploy, there are some clues. A month after the June meeting at Trump Tower, WikiLeaks, a veritable Russian front, released a dump of stolen D.N.C. emails. The candidate and campaign surrogates increasingly mouthed talking points that seemed taken directly from Russian propaganda outlets, such as that there had been a terrorist attack on a Turkish military base, when no such attack had occurred. Also, at this time United States intelligence reportedly received indications from European intelligence counterparts about odd meetings between Russians and Trump campaign representatives overseas.
Of course, to determine whether collusion occurred, we would have to know whether the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting. The early “courting” stage is almost always somewhat open and discoverable. Only after the Russian intelligence officer develops a level of control can the relationship be moved out of the public eye. John Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., recently testified, “Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.”
Even intelligence professionals who respect one another and who understand the Russians can and often do disagree. On the Trump collusion question, the difference of opinion comes down to this: Would the Russians use someone like Mr. Goldstone to approach the Trump campaign? Our friend and former colleague Daniel Hoffman argued in this paper that this is unlikely — that the Russians would have relied on trained agents. We respectfully disagree. We believe that the Russians might well have used Mr. Goldstone. We also believe the Russians would have seen very little downside to trying to recruit someone on the Trump team — a big fish. If the fish bit and they were able to reel it in, the email from Mr. Goldstone could remain hidden and, since it was from an acquaintance, would be deniable if found. (Exactly what the Trump team is doing now.)
If the fish didn’t take the bait, the Russians would always have had the option to weaponize the information later to embarrass the Trump team. In addition, if the Russians’ first objective was chaos and disruption, the best way to accomplish that would have been to have someone on the inside helping. It is unlikely that the Russians would not use all the traditional espionage tools available to them.
However, perhaps the most telling piece of information may be the most obvious. Donald Trump himself made numerous statements in support of Russia, Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks during the campaign. At the same time, Mr. Trump and his team have gone out of their way to hide contacts with Russians and lied to the public about it. Likewise, Mr. Trump has attacked those people and institutions that could get to the bottom of the affair. He fired his F.B.I. director James Comey, criticized and bullied his attorney general and deputy attorney general, denigrated the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., and assails the news media, labeling anything he dislikes “fake news.” Innocent people don’t tend to behave this way.
The overall Russian intent is clear: disruption of the United States political system and society, a goal that in the Russian view was best served by a Trump presidency. What remains to be determined is whether the Russians also attempted to suborn members of the Trump team in an effort to gain their cooperation. This is why the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is so important. It is why the F.B.I. counterintelligence investigation, also quietly progressing in the background, is critical. Because while a Russian disruption operation is certainly plausible, it is not inconsistent with a much darker Russian goal: gaining an insider ally at the highest levels of the United States government.
In short, and regrettably, collusion is not off the table.