Reports late last week revealed that the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya also included a Russian-American lobbyist named Rinat Akhmetshin, a former member of the Soviet military who may have ties to Russian counterintelligence. The Cipher Brief asked Steve Hall, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, to help put the methods used to arrange this meeting in the larger context of Russian intelligence tradecraft and influence operations against the United States. In his view, Russian intentions and goals remain the same as they ever were – “the question now is simply: how are [they] going to do it?”
The Cipher Brief: Is this meeting, in your opinion, an example of intelligence collection tradecraft?
Steve Hall, Former Member, CIA Senior Intelligence Service: My thinking is most likely yes, but that’s not an absolute yes. [Rinat Akhmetshin] is somebody who I think would be attractive for the Russians to use; specifically, the Russian intelligence services.
In one sense, it’s almost moot whether he was a Soviet or Russian intelligence officer. Here’s why: the Russians executed this massive active measures operation – which is what we saw from Sputnik and RT, bots, and hacking of U.S. databases to include the DNC. While doing so, the Russians probably saw the second half of that operation as adding a human angle – human collection or a human influence operation, which meant they had to get in touch with somebody on the Trump team.
The Russians had to find out whether [the Trump campaign] was amenable to just having a conversation – they don’t have to commit to anything. The Russians are very good at saying: okay, let’s just take the first, tiny baby step: “would you be willing to at least discuss if we had information or a way to help you?”
They wouldn’t want to send a senior intelligence officer or diplomat – somebody like a Russian ambassador. They would want to send somebody who gives them operational distance from the Kremlin.
At the same time, and this is what makes Akhmetshin interesting, it would be nice to have somebody who had some experience in how to be discreet – be just a little clandestine, and take some security measures.
So that would make sense to me as to why he would have been in the room. He was also – at least in my impression – the Russian Paul Manafort. He was a lobbyist, trafficking in information and influence and in people that he knows.
Whether he was a formal intelligence officer is moot because he would have been useful in providing a ‘cut out’ – providing distance between an actual human operation trying to penetrate the Trump campaign and the actual hand that’s controlling it – the Russians.
TCB: So, you think the goal, if this was Kremlin directed, was to penetrate the campaign? Some people have said that the goal was rather to create an illusion of collusion – without exchanging any actual information.
Hall: In what we call ‘covert action’ – what the Russians call ‘active measures’ – it’s a big operation. You have to define initial goals. I think the goal of the Russian active measures was to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump.
But, having seen covert action executed in the past, they are organic. They start going in different and interesting directions simply because of the broad nature of the operation. Good intelligence services and good operations officers will identify those opportunities that come up – almost out of happenstance – and say: okay, we can do that as well.
If I was the Russian operations officer running the HUMINT piece of trying to get into the Trump campaign, my first goal would have been to identify people inside the campaign who were willing to talk. If, as a secondary one off, that interaction also gave the appearance of collusion somewhere down the road, and that’s damaging to the American democracy, then that’s just great. That’s something that you take as part of the operation.
I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
TCB: Is this type of HUMINT collection specific to Russia? Is the meeting between the Russian individuals and Donald Trump Jr., for example, something that’s fairly common for intelligence services around the world?
Hall: It’s probably a general theme that most good intelligence services will try to practice, with, of course, a little bit of their own style and tradition involved.
The Russians have a bit different of an approach then, say, a Western intel service might. But, at the end of the day, this is why intelligence is called the second-oldest profession in the world: there’s really only so many ways that you can do this.
Any good intelligence service would say, “look, if I’m trying to execute an active measures campaign and I want agents of influence – as opposed to just collectors – I want people on the inside who can help me formulate U.S. policy that will be helpful to Russia.” That’s the real brass ring. That’s something that I think every intelligence service in the world would want to have.
TCB: With that in mind, do you think it’s likely that there were more meetings like this with Kremlin-affiliated people?
Hall: It would not surprise me at all if there were additional meetings that come to light. Part of that is just intelligence analysis: if they tried to do it once, they’ll try to do it again. But part of that is also these data points that keep emerging out of the Trump campaign, where they keep saying “no that didn’t happen, no those weren’t discussed” and they have to come back and revise it.
So, it wouldn’t surprise me if in the future, we learn of additional meetings. It also would not surprise me at all if Donald Trump Jr. was not the only target.
TCB: When do meetings like this cross the line from an attempt by Russia to gain access to the campaign to actual criminal conspiracy cases that can be legally prosecuted?
Hall: That’s an excellent question that probably needs an answer from an intelligence person like me but also someone with experience prosecuting these cases.
But I’ll tell you, the Russians are absolutely expert at this. As former CIA Director John Brennan said, “frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.”
The Russians are excellent at doing this, and I think it’s something very foreign to the Western mindset. We have a tendency to say “sure, I’ll take a meeting” and “yeah, I’ll have a conversation with anybody. I have Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association with anyone.”
The Russians take that to the bank every time. So now, if they can get a foot in the door and have an initial conversation – “are you willing to meet with me?”
And they start there. And then it’s “maybe you agree with me that the Magnitsky Act is unfair, and the U.S. isn’t doing the right thing.” Then, it’s “let’s talk about some other ways the United States isn’t doing the right thing, and if we’re all in agreement that sometimes the United States doesn’t do the right thing, let’s talk about ways to fix that.” And finally, “let’s talk about ways to get Donald Trump elected and Hillary Clinton not elected.”
They’re very good at taking very tiny baby steps until you get to the point of “how did we get here?”
TCB: What does the breadth of different Russian attack methods – meetings, fake news, hacking – tell us about the depth and determination of the Russian efforts against the United States? What can we expect in future elections? Do you expect to see future Russian activities?
Hall: The answer is yes, yes and yes.
The Russians and Vladimir Putin find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Putin realizes that he cannot win a conventional war with Europe or with NATO. He can have a successful conflict with Georgia or in the Eastern Ukraine. But those are regional conflicts. With the exception of that, plus his military action – which I think is actually kind of modest – in Syria, he realizes that he cannot go up against his main foes, NATO and the U.S.
No one wants a nuclear war – at least yet – so nuclear weapons are out of the question. So, he was forced to look for other options. The other option that he and his team came up with was hybrid warfare: influence operations, human operations, cyber operations – not just hacking databases to get embarrassing information but hacking data systems that control water, electric, air traffic control. If you can do that kind of damage to your main enemy (which is what we are to them), then you’re talking about a capability that makes up for, and in many ways surpasses, your conventional warfare capability.
We’re going to see more of it, and not just for political purposes in elections, but also as a nuclear deterrent force. I can see U.S. policymakers saying, “we’ve got to be careful, we don’t want all of our electrical systems to go down.”
It’s similar to the mutually assured destruction of the bad old days. We’re going to see more of it.
TCB: Is there historical precedent for this type of hybrid warfare? Is this a case of new tools in the old framework of mutually assured destruction? Or, is this a new concept?
Hall: Certainly, the idea of influence operations is not new. That goes back to before Lenin’s time. Though, Lenin in 1917 created the newspaper Pravda, which means truth, which was itself an active measures campaign to convince people that whatever they read was truth.
What’s new is the methodologies – social media, the internet. You have a massive capability to influence people and get information out there in a very different way. 30 or 40 years ago you had bunker busting rockets and bombs that could take out nuclear silos and command and control nodes. If you can do all of that now, with a cyber attack, then you have a whole new set of tools.
The intentions and goals are the same. You want to incapacitate your enemy. The question now is simply: how are you going to do it?