Why Americans Should Care About Mueller’s Counterintelligence Probe—Aside from any Criminal or Political Implications

The primary mandate of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is to determine if there are “any links between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” That specific task has nothing directly to do with criminal liability for any Americans or Russians, nor anything to do with the potential political implications for the President whether in the form of an impeachment report or something else. The primary mandate of the Special Counsel is, instead, a counterintelligence investigation. With all the media focus on potential criminal and political implications, we often forget this critically important, core mission for Mueller.  We should concentrate far more on that dimension—the counterintelligence effort–as the country prepares for the release of the Special Counsel’s report.

Mueller’s counterintelligence effort can answer nationally important questions like: Why were the Russians so successful in impacting the 2016 presidential election? For the last year and half, the Special Counsel has undertaken a broad scoped investigation into allegations regarding “collusion” on the part of then candidate Donald Trump’s campaign and matters that arise from that investigation. While the political and criminal investigative efforts make for great media, the critically important counterintelligence part of the Special Counsel’s investigation is being undertaken much more discretely. Of course, the Special Counsel is looking to determine if criminal wrongdoing happened, but he will be working to identify and understand the more complex intentions and actions undertaken at the direction or, at the least, with the concurrence of one of America’s most significant adversaries, the Russian government.

We are all hopeful that the counterintelligence investigation will not only identify the actions undertake by the Russians but why they were so successful. Knowing this more than anything else is needed to guard against future effective efforts by either the Russians or other intelligence services.

In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report documenting what the US intelligence community considered to be a dramatic and intentional effort by Russian intelligence to impact the 2016 Presidential election including distribution of stolen emails, social media campaigns, and compromising state and local electoral systems. For the most part, this report was well received by the public and within the U.S. government. However, there were those who were hesitant to fully accept the findings and called into question the integrity and the process of underlying US Intelligence Community members including the CIA, FBI, and NSC. While the report was the public “tip of the iceberg” relative to recent Russian interference, the US Intelligence Community also conceded that this was not the first time Russia had undertaken efforts to influence the US political system. Regardless, the “push back” against the intelligence agencies was one of Russia’s public victories.

So, what makes this counterintelligence effort by the Russians different from previous efforts and why was it so successful? It may be best to start with just a simple understanding of the basics of an intelligence operation and what Mueller’s counterintelligence investigation may be looking for and finding along the way.

Russian intelligence’s modus operandi

An intelligence effort usually has a clear goal of acquiring information, access or influence. With the goal identified, a multi-pronged strategy can be used to accomplish the goal. Individuals and organizations can be targeted with hopes of acquiring specific outcomes. Operations generally begin with a significant amount of research and a solid understanding of the targets. If a specific outcome is the primary goal, a number of individuals may be targeted because of their connection to or influence relating to the ultimate goal.

In this effort, tools deployed by an intelligence service may include: the use of recruited or coerced individuals, the undermining and exploitation of systems for conveying information, and the propagation of false information to paint an alternate narrative which benefits the goals of the intelligence effort. These are time tested tools and not new or unique to the Russian services.

Even in the most technical of intelligence operations, individuals are often targeted. Knowing an individual’s or an institution’s history is foundational to assessing a target’s anticipated action and responses. As information is developed, the target’s weaknesses come to light. With people, these vulnerabilities can be very personal in nature, such as a desire or need for acclaim or an appreciation of certain things whether that’s money or something less tangible. Personal weaknesses such as infidelity or a propensity for criminal behavior can also be useful when considering vulnerabilities of a target. Greed and arrogance are traits which are incredibly helpful when assessing a target’s weaknesses as they often provide an opening to lure a target into a mutually agreed or coerced relationship. As a result, intelligence operations are generally tailored to maximize and exploit such weaknesses.

Russian intelligence’s success: access

Let’s face it. The Russians were effective. They not only successfully engaged with individuals who lacked familiarity or sophistication in intelligence operations but also demonstrated arrogance and neediness. While I am not naming specific persons in this article, I am sure a number of familiar names and faces easily come to mind for readers as well when thinking about individuals who have been of interest to the Special Counsel.

While understanding a target of an intelligence operation is foundational, having access to the target is critical. This access can be direct access such as when intelligence services have one on one contact with a targeted individual or organization. However, the access does not always have to be direct. It can also be indirect access via someone close to the target, for instance a family member. Sometimes having access to someone else close to the target, an exploitable close associate or relative, is even better. This access can help gain cooperation of a less vulnerable target through coercion or manipulation and often to protect the family member or associate.

Plenty of information demonstrates the Russians pursued access to the Trump campaign through a variety of individuals. Going back to the summer of 2016, we see campaign affiliates having active and sometimes professional ties to both Russian business and government officials. Through meetings and other professional associations, Trump campaign officials and contacts demonstrated their lack of sophistication and potentially exposed the campaign to Russian access and exploitation.

With access to individuals, intelligence services work toward consummated relationships. These relationships can start as “all business.” Professional environments often provide good assessment opportunities for intelligence services and potential individual targets. Individuals who are prone to too much self-disclosure are of obvious interest and generally easy to exploit. Through either a friendly, mutually beneficial relationship or a manipulative and coerced one, relationships are needed to identify, disclose and acquire the sought-after information, gain access or exert influence.

With the ever-increasing reliance on technology, cyber tools and hacking are utilized broadly by intelligence services across the globe. Having information about the most intimate details of your adversary is a currency these days. According to the Special Counsel’s July 2018 indictment of 12 Russian military officials from the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff), the GRU team hacked into accounts of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and those of Clinton campaign employees and volunteers. The Russians did this, in part, through sending a convincing email to a senior Clinton campaign official with a fake security reset email. Once the bait was taken, the Russians then used his email credentials to send others inside the Clinton campaign additional fraudulent emails allowing the Russians to eventually steal their emails and credentials as well.

While obviously a U.S. criminal offense, the Russians benefited from this hack first by exposing a weakness in the campaign and the Democratic party. What’s more, they benefitted from access to “insider” information, providing them with valuable and some very embarrassing information. It also gave them an edge in feeding a purposeful narrative helpful to their goals of impacting the 2016 election. The Russians effectively used ill-gotten information and released it at a time which benefitted them the most.

Honestly, I am not sure there are many intelligence plans which work any better than this one. The Russians employed normal and everyday intelligence methods, but their success essentially cannot be overstated.  While I am hard pressed to say anything nice about the Russian intelligence services, I will say they are good at what they do. The FSB, SVR and the GRU are very worthy adversaries. The US intelligence agencies have long considered them one of the most aggressive services and have occasionally walked a fine line trying to balance US intelligence goals with US diplomatic goals.

Like most professional intelligence services, the Russians are studied and well versed in American processes and way of life. They are experts at identifying and taking advantage of weakness, arrogance and vanity. They effectively use outright manipulation, coercion and blackmail and are unafraid to deliver on their threats. With all that said, the Russians can also be incredibly charming and alluring to the naive.

Russian intelligence’s success: social and political outcomes

In addition to the manipulation of persons and the aggressive hacking and theft of personal and campaign information, the Russians have written their version of the American story from a million different perspectives. Over the last year, big tech companies have identified a host of ways the Russians have manipulated social media tools to create false identities and spread propaganda and false story lines sowing both political and social discord. These tech firms and social media outlets have been called to account and to be more transparent about their own weaknesses. Of course, this only adds to our growing distrust of another aspect of American infrastructure — this time one of the largest economic sectors of the US economy.

The Russian influence campaign has caused all of us to question significant parts of trusted American processes and institutions. In hindsight, however, much of that trust was already waning. The Russians just made the most of it. I wonder how successful the Russians would have been, had we been more willing to have civil discussions over issues as opposed to eagerly fueling political rancor and partisan drama. They took advantage of us fully and the effectiveness of their efforts is much broader than even they could have imagined. Some Americans distrust our intelligence community and law enforcement. Some distrust a prior presidential campaign and a current White House administration. Some distrust our media and our technology sector. We have allowed Russian created false narratives to stoke racial and political discord. Most of all, the Russians have been successful at causing us to distrust each other.

I hope at the end of the day, the Special Counsel will reveal as much as possible about how the Russians plotted and manipulated individuals in campaigns and government, stole sensitive information, and created false identities and narratives, all to satisfy their US election goals for their good not ours. The unfortunate reality is that probably near 50% of the country will believe it and another near 50% will not. 

About the Author(s)

Stephanie Douglas

Senior Managing Director at Guidepost Solutions, formerly served in the FBI for almost 24 years before retiring in 2013 as Executive Assistant Director for the National Security Branch