The CIA spent decades cultivating an informant who became so close to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the individual could photograph documents on his desk and send them back to U.S. intelligence officials, according to a series of shocking reports published by CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post on Monday.
The unnamed source quickly became one of the CIA’s most important assets as the informant rose through the ranks of Russian politics, providing essential information for decades, including intelligence about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. But the spy agency became worried about the informant’s safety shortly after Trump was elected and ultimately waged a secret mission in 2017 to extract the source from Russia, CNN’s Jim Sciutto first reported on Monday.
CNN noted that the extraction was carried out in part because of Trump’s fondness for Russian officials, including a meeting in May 2017 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. During that meeting, Trump shared highly classified information with the Russians, jeopardizing an intelligence source working on matters related to Islamic State.
While the information shared didn’t relate to the Russian source in question, CNN noted that CIA officials began to worry the informant close to Putin could be compromised. The New York Times reported that former intelligence officials disputed that characterization, saying instead that media coverage of the Russian asset was the main reason the CIA staged the extraction operation.
The source’s name and current location have not been revealed, and the Times sources said the person’s life remains in danger.
The White House disputed CNN’s reporting in a statement to the news organization, saying it was “not only incorrect, it has the potential to put lives in danger.”
The informant was not in Putin’s inner circle but regularly interacted with the Russian leader and was involved in high-level decision-making. The source initially refused to leave the country but agreed after the CIA asked a second time several months later, according to both CNN and the Times.
The Times noted that since the person’s departure, U.S. intelligence inside the Kremlin has largely gone dark about any ongoing Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics.
The FBI issued a bleak warning to Americans earlier this year about such meddling, saying that the threat from Moscow remained a “significant counterintelligence threat” and that the agency recognized “our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game.”
“We are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers in April.
Those concerns were echoed in July by former special counsel Robert Mueller during his dramatic testimony about his investigation into the 2016 election. Mueller repeatedly said Russia was continuing to interfere in American elections and worried that foreign powers waging influence campaign could become the “new normal.”
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” he told lawmakers at the time.