Here is how a malevolent leaker compromised a high-level CIA spy in the Kremlin.
CNN got the ball rolling on Sept. 9, reporting that the CIA exfiltrated a Russian asset close to Vladimir Putin in 2017 because “President Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.”
The White House, Secretary of State, and the CIA slammed the story, characterizing it as “simply false,” misguided speculation,” and “materially inaccurate.” Most major media contradicted CNN’s story, agreeing with the intelligence community, that the spy was compromised by media speculation in 2016 — before Trump took office.
The seminal event was a CIA intelligence report, dated early August 2016, sent “eyes only” to President Obama and three top aides and published by the Washington Post on June 23, 2017. It was described as an “intelligence bombshell” . . . “drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government [and] detailed President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.” What’s more, the report “captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives.”
The Washington Post could only have received this report from a leaker in either the Obama or Trump administration and it was probably the reason for the spy’s exfiltration. One might wonder how the Post could publish it with a clear conscience in view of the possible disastrous ramifications for the spy.
However, CNN’s story energized the media and coverage grew like kudzu. A quiet exfiltration that took place in 2017 became a high-impact event in 2019. The upheaval in the FSB hierarchy would be frenetic. Russian officials close to Putin would hear footsteps and lower their profile, fearing an invasive counterintelligence investigation into their personal lives and career.
Fortunately, it was too late. Because on June 14, 2017, perhaps receiving advance notice of the Post’s story and hearing footsteps himself, Oleg Smolenkov, a senior official in the Putin government, his wife and three children, flew from Moscow to Tivat, Montenegro, a coastal holiday resort, and disappeared.
Multiple sources reported that Oleg Smolenkov, age 50, previously served as second secretary at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. under Ambassador Yuri Ushakov. Ushakov returned to Moscow in 2008 and became Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy aide. Smolenkov also returned to Moscow in 2008 and, according to a phone listing, became chief advisor to Ushakov, enabling him to piggy-back his relationship and gain access to details of the election hacking operation.
In 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev awarded Smolenkov the civil service rank equivalent to Major General in the military. Predictably, the Kremlin down-played Smolenkov’s importance, confirming that he worked inside the presidential administrative directorate, but was a “boozy nobody” who was fired several years ago and had no access to Putin.
In June 2018, real estate records disclosed that Smolenkov and wife bought a six-bedroom house in Stafford, Virginia, for $925,000. Soon after CNN’s story broke, an NBC News reporter rushed to the house, was greeted by security personnel, and found the occupants departed for parts unknown.
All of this may have a smooth ending for the Smolenkovs. But, the public should be outraged that a malevolent leaker compromised a significant and not easily replaceable clandestine source high up in the Kremlin. Furthermore, media hype puts the Smolenkovs in the bulls-eye for potential revenge operations, ala the Skripal and Litvinenko “wet” affairs in the UK.