On Monday, CNN reported that a high-level intelligence asset was exfiltrated from Russia in 2017 after senior officials grew concerned that the president may unintentionally expose the person to Russian officials. The story, which is substantiated by CNN’s claims of anonymous informants within the White House, has yet to be corroborated by any further evidence.
The risk, CNN reports, was not that Trump would intentionally offer up clandestine operatives to Russian officials but was rather born out of Trump’s sharing of classified information with Russian counterparts during diplomatic engagements. The decision was made to remove the high-level asset, according to CNN, shortly after Trump shared Israeli-sourced classified intelligence information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak during a meeting in the Oval Office held in May of 2017.
“The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure, according to the source directly involved in the matter,” CNN Reporter Jim Sciutto wrote.
According to CNN, the decision to exfiltrate the clandestine source was made by then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo, who now serves as the Secretary of State, did not comment on the possibility, but CIA director of public affairs Brittany Bramell did not pull her punches in response to CNN’s story.
“CNN’s narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false. Misguided speculation that the President’s handling of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence—which he has access to each and every day—drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate,” She said.
The reality of covert intelligence gathering usually isn’t much like the movies, but when it comes to extracting a valuable intelligence asset from a hostile nation like Russia, the risk is every bit as high as it seems in our pop-culture spy stories. Nations like Russia and China have demonstrated no reservations regarding the killing foreign intelligence assets (though actual spies are often held on to as bargaining chips for future negotiations), so when it seems likely, or even possible, that an asset is going to be revealed, every effort is made to get that person out of danger as quickly as possible — both to protect their life, and to limit the CIA’s exposure after the asset has been captured.
Trump has been at odds with elements of the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement apparatus since before being sworn in, sometimes even suggesting that he believes information provided to him from other heads of state over his own intelligence briefings. This divide seemed to stem from the intelligence community’s continued assertions of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election that saw Trump elected. Early in his presidency, Trump refused to acknowledge that such an effort existed, though he has since publicly acknowledged that it did while still downplaying its potential effect on voters.
Trump has made headlines repeatedly throughout his presidency for violating norms in regard to classified information and intelligence briefings, often putting him at odds with former officials in the press. Most recently, Trump posted an image to his Twitter account that many believe was taken by a classified spy satellite — prompting outrage from some intelligence officials that fear Trump may be showing America’s hand.
CNN did state that concerns about the safety of the asset in question began far earlier — under Obama’s administration, due to the length of time the person had been working with the United States, suggesting that the concerns that led to the assets exfiltration (if indeed the story is true) may not all belong at Trump’s feet.
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