Since last week’s revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and several of her associates, much of the legal focus has been on which crimes, if any, Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort may have committed. But this analysis is looking at the wrong people (for now). As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, I’d start with Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian émigré and naturalized U.S. citizen of over ten years, who may offer the lowest-hanging fruit in the next phase of the investigation.
Right now, the “It’s Not Illegal!” defense is based primarily on the assertion that in merely accepting the meeting, Don Jr. and his two Trump campaign compadres did not violate any laws. But we still don’t know what happened in the meeting, or if any subsequent meetings took place. The answers to both of these questions might provide more clarity into whether the Trump campaign “colluded” with the Russians in the months leading up to the election. That’s because depending on what was discussed, agreed to, exchanged, or developed in further meetings, various crimes may have, in fact, occurred. The key is to get someone to cough up the details.
Here’s where Akhmetshin comes in. Akhmetshin is a former Soviet military counterintelligence agent who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009. Therein lies an opportunity for investigators: More on this in a moment. First, let’s look at his value as a source of information. I’ll leave aside for now the possibility (and indeed the probability) that as a trained counterintelligence agent, Akhmetshin might have recorded the meeting, either for his own protection or as kompromat against the Trump campaign. Even if he didn’t, he will have important information to offer about what took place at the meeting and what led up to it – including whether it was directed by the Russian government. So being able to squeeze Akhmetshin for information could be very helpful for the investigators on this case.
When I had a case with a naturalized U.S. citizen who was potentially working on behalf of a foreign intelligence service, I found that a good place to go digging was their U.S. citizenship application. The naturalization form, called the N-400, is a lengthy document with detailed questions covering all aspects of a person’s background. Poring over a subject’s answers to all the questions provided a useful starting point for conducting an interview with them. More importantly, it offered the possibility to leverage any information that came to light during the interview that was inconsistent with their application, since intentionally lying about material facts on the N-400 opens an individual up to charges of fraud or false statements and can even be the basis for revoking their U.S. citizenship. Needless-to-say, people who “forgot” to mention some important things on their N-400 would often become very cooperative sources for the U.S. government.
If I were going to interview Akhmetshin, I’d zone in on a few areas of his N-400. First, Part 8 of the naturalization form asks about previous employment. Importantly, the instructions for this part asks for “all military, police, and/or intelligence service” in the previous five years. Akhmetshin’s intelligence affiliation was ostensibly several decades ago, but I might check to see what he wrote down as his employment immediately before 2009 and verify it. I’d also cross check to see if any intelligence connections exist with his previous employment. Further, because Akhmetshin was a member of the Red Army during its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he would have still been required to disclose any official Communist affiliation, prior military and/or police affiliation, as well as any weapons training in Part 12 of the application. These are just some of the obvious places that I’d expect to find discrepancies, but the entire form is fair game.
It’s entirely possible that Akhmetshin was completely truthful on his N-400. After all, he speaks pretty freely about his Red Army past. But given the delays that would likely have resulted on his application by disclosing any or all of the above, he may have believed – as some people unwisely do – that the eyebrow-raising answers were far enough in the past not to be relevant, or he may have had continuing contacts with Russian intelligence that he wanted to keep off the radar of immigration authorities and the FBI. Either way, Akhmetshin may be the only one in the Russia meeting, apart from Kushner, who has already provided statements under penalty of perjury. He may also be the one most likely give Mueller and his team the information they need — especially if he finds himself on the brink of losing his comfortable new life here in America.
Image credit: Bill Browder