As new questions arise about the Trump Administration’s contacts with Russian officials, one man has been caught in the political maelstrom: Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
The most recent allegations surround Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is said to have met with Kislyak last year —in July and September. Separately, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn were reported to have met with Kislyak in December.
These reports come amid an FBI investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. So what role, if any, did Kislyak play?
Russia expert and former CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty tells The Cipher Brief she has met Kislyak many times. “He is a very experienced diplomat. He also was the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, former rep to NATO, so he is a heavyweight,” she says.
“He always was looking for contacts with powerful, influential people. I think he would have sought out Trump folks,” she adds. “But I don’t think it took Russian intelligence for him to know who to talk with. All he had to do is read the papers.”
The White House has dismissed some of the revelations as a media witch hunt, so The Cipher Brief’s Managing Editor Pam Benson and Executive Producer Leone Lakhani asked Network members and contributors – former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service Michael Sulick, and former members of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service John Sipher and Steven Hall – whether the questions around Trump’s team are just politics or if there are deeper national security concerns.
The Cipher Brief: Are we losing focus here? We’re getting into the minutiae of who said what to whom, but what’s the bigger picture in terms of how Russia could have potentially threatened national security?
Michael Sulick: The scandal around the Attorney General meeting with Kislyak is minutiae – the bigger issue is the hack attack and how that was exploited, the response (by the U.S.), if any, and the investigation of possible collusion with Russian officials during the campaign.
John Sipher: To those of us who have lived in Washington for a long time, the perceived focus on minutia is not a surprise. It has less to do with national security than the sense that the Administration is involved in a cover-up. The Administration’s inability to explain why its operatives were in touch with Russian officials during the campaign ensures that each new piece of information that fits the pattern will be obsessed upon by the press and partisan officials. For my part, I cannot imagine a benign reason why a U.S. presidential campaign would need to be in touch with Russian operatives, and until the Administration explains its actions and intentions, this problem will only get worse and the focus on minutia will grow. The question I would ask the campaign would be, did your operatives have contact with French operatives, Italian, Japanese, Indian, for instance?
Steve Hall: There’s always the possibility of getting too far in the details, but when I worked at the CIA on Russian issues, we spent a lot of time on counterintelligence. So, at the end of the day, this is a counterintelligence question. It’s therefore going to be very, very detailed and in the weeds.
We do need to go back and look at all the contacts that senior Americans had with the Russian government because, while you can make the argument that it’s no big deal if a senator meets with the Russian ambassador or perhaps it’s no big deal if members of a campaign meet with the Russian government, you have to put it in the context of what we know to be the case, which is that the Russians were indeed engaged in an influence operation during the U.S. presidential election. The goal of that was to increase the likelihood that Donald Trump would be elected president. So you do have to get in the weeds to get at that very critical question.
TCB: How would Russian operatives navigate in the U.S.? Would the Russian ambassador meeting with Trump officials, be an example? Or would there be a more direct approach from Russian intelligence?
MS: It’s unusual, though it sometimes occurs, that Russian KGB, SVR, FSB officers are given ambassador posts. [Ambassador] Kislyak’s career trajectory doesn’t fit. He has held some of the highest posts both overseas and in Moscow that are mostly reserved for career Foreign Ministry officials: ambassador to NATO, deputy director and then director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Scientific and Technical Cooperation, director of Foreign Ministry’s Department of Security Affairs and Disarmament. These are real jobs, not cover positions that an intel officer occupies, does no Foreign Ministry work and just uses the title to gain entrée.
However, I think it’s important to note that Russian ambassadors do fulfill intel tasks.
JS: The recent focus on the Russian Ambassador is far less important than looking at the campaign operatives like Paul Manafort and Carter Page. The Russian Ambassador is a career foreign affairs professional and not an intelligence operative. He is certainly an important player in reporting back to Moscow on how their active measures efforts are playing out in the U.S. He is a focus now only due to the failures of Mr. Flynn and Sessions to report their contacts. Again, this just fits into a pattern that may suggest a cover-up. The likely substance of the discussions is probably of less interest.
SH: First of all, I don’t think Ambassador Kislyak is actually a formal staff intelligence officer of the Russian special services. I don’t think he’s an SVR officer. I don’t think he’s an FSB officer. I think he’s a good, aggressive ambassador. That said, it doesn’t necessarily lessen what he was up to. The Russians enjoy a unity of government approach that few in the West – and certainly not the United States – can appreciate. When [Russian President] Vladimir Putin wants something done, it doesn’t matter what organization you work for – the FSB, the SVR or the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – you do what President Putin wants you to do. In this particular case, Putin wanted to try to influence the American elections, and I’m sure Kislyak, as the most senior diplomat in the United States, had a role in that.
TCB: Does it matter to national security that campaign officials may have met with Russian officials?
MS: Russian ambassadors as well as other embassy officials and their counterparts from other countries routinely meet with officials from a host of government agencies, political parties and campaigns … why do you think intel officers have diplomatic cover? It provides excellent access to officials of a foreign country.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the meetings themselves. It depends what’s discussed – covert foreign support of a U.S. political campaign would obviously be taboo. As far as I understand, even Democrats aren’t challenging the fact of meetings themselves, but are expressing concern about the substance of discussions and high-level officials prevaricating about them, both to Congress and their own superiors.
JS: I don’t think the public is aware of just how differently Washington treats Russian officials as compared to those from other countries. All U.S. officials follow a set of rules related to their contact with foreign officials. There are strict rules and prohibitions against contact with officials from countries with which we do not have official relations, North Korea, Iran, for instance. There is a second set of rules surrounding contact with officials from countries with hostile intelligence services, to include Russia. If a U.S. diplomat or military official meets a Russian, they have to report it immediately and engage with their office of security and counterintelligence. They are required to document each meeting and may have to engage with the FBI, CIA, or others to discuss the actions and intentions of the Russian official. Frankly, most diplomats and others would prefer to avoid Russians altogether, rather than risk getting caught up in a potential counterintelligence or security investigation. It is a hassle that they would rather avoid. There is no such pain related to contact with officials from other countries. Therefore, when professionals see that campaign officials are engaged with Russian operatives, it is hard for them to ascribe benign intent to the contacts.
SH: In one sense, it is a normal part of doing business. There was a lot of criticism of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for having the conversations he had with Ambassador Kislyak before the inauguration. That may be a bit of a tempest in a teapot because there are normal contacts that senior American officials would have, preparing the way for the new administration. But, again, context is incredibly important here. These are not normal times. These are times when we know the Russian government was working aggressively to try to influence not only the outcome of the election, but also influence it in a way that would benefit Russia. The Russians wanted Donald Trump to be president because of the policies that he was espousing during the campaign. So you can say there is a normalcy in the course of business with the senior contacts, but the context belies what really is going on beneath the surface in terms of Russia trying to undermine U.S. democracy.