Russian Spies, Part 3: Getting Too Close to Hillary

Ramil Sitdikov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

See part 2 of this series for further background to the case.

In June 2010, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev paid a state visit to the United States and met with President Obama.  Medvedev wanted to coordinate a multi-billion dollar deal with Kremlin-associated businesses.  Obama wanted to discuss working on a deal to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  During this time frame, the State Department was still reviewing another deal- Uranium One.  The FBI at this time, realizing that Cynthia Murphy had gotten close to Patricof, a close associate of Clinton, wanted to execute arrest warrants.  There were two major problems: the original source within the Russian intelligence service would be placed at risk, and it was against protocol to arrest Russian spies while the Russian president was in the United States.

It was later revealed that the CIA mole working within the Russian SVR was Aleksandr Poteyev and he had been recruited in 1999 when he began supplying the FBI with information about sleeper cells of SVR spies in the United States.  The CIA is said to have paid him $2-5 million for his services.  

Sometime in 2010, Russian intelligence began to suspect there was a mole operational in their services.  In May, he was denied a visa to visit his sick mother in Odessa.  Then sometime in June, 2010 he was notified by the FBI in Moscow that the arrests of the spies in the United States was imminent.  On June 24, three days before the arrests, he and his wife purchased a rail ticket and arrived in Minsk, Belarus.  

With Poteyev safely out of Russia, the FBI had to wait for Medvedev to leave the US.  This occurred on June 27th as he headed to an economic conference in Ottawa.  The US then executed the arrest warrants.  Later, Poteyev was tried for treason in Moscow in absentia and found guilty.  During the trial, Anna Chapman had identified him as a man she met in New York while he was on a trip there.

After the arrests, the defendants were charged with being unregistered agents of the Russian government and a host of money laundering and identity theft charges.  They all pleaded guilty and became part of a spy swap where they were returned to Russia in exchange for four Western “spies” held in Russian prisons.   

Why should this be of concern and what does this have to do with Spygate?    What did the FBI know about the SVR targeting Hillary Clinton as early as 2008 and definitely in 2009?  Through a spokesman, Clinton denied being a target- why?  What role did Hillary Clinton play in the spy swap?  Why was the FBI not playing up their biggest counterintelligence coup against Russia since 1985?  Why was this incident not investigated in 2016 as part of the Russian election meddling probe?

To recap, here is what we know.  A deep cover spy ring has been in the country since at least 1999.  By 2008, they had targeted Hillary Clinton as an easy mark for some reason and specifically stated on coded messages that they had identified Clinton, four deputies, and a major financier and donor.  Meanwhile, the FBI- under another investigation- is looking into Russian influence in the Uranium One deal.  

Under normal circumstances, spies are held for more information but the ten spies are flown out of the country for Vienna less than two weeks after their arrest.  Attorney General Eric Holder later announced that the FBI moved against the spies based on information that one was about to leave the country.  This was contradicted by the lead FBI agent on the case, Frank Figliuzzi, who later told reporters they were arrested because they were “getting close to a sitting cabinet member.”  Also, the day after the arrests, Bill Clinton flew to Moscow to deliver a speech at a Renaissance Capital event for which he received a $500,000 speaking fee.

In the exchange, Russia received ten spies.  The United States received four- the two most important being Gennady Vasilenko who helped the FBI in the Robert Hanssen case, and Sergei Skripal who settled in Britain and was later the target of a nerve agent poisoning attack.   

The coincidences that bring Hillary Clinton into the picture are too glaring to ignore.  So getting back to those questions, what did the FBI know about the SVR targeting Hillary Clinton?  There are 89 documents or items regarding this case on the FBI Vault website of which seven are totally redacted and eight more are heavily redacted.  Therefore, we may never know the answer to the question until those documents are declassified.  However, there was likely enough open-source information on Clinton to make her a Russian target.  We also know that the FBI moved on the arrests because Murphy was getting close to a “sitting cabinet member.”

The normal course of business when the FBI catches a spy takes a few forms.  Sometimes they like to prosecute them and knock them out of business for good.  In this case, that was not likely.  They were deep cover spies but they never received any classified material.  Prosecuting them under the Espionage Act was out of the question.  Instead, the most they could get them for was failing to register as a foreign agent.  The maximum penalty was five years in jail which is hardly taking them out for good. 

 Another possibility is for the FBI to turn them back as double agents to further uncover other possible spy networks operating in the US.  This was an investigation that lasted about 10 years.  Perhaps the Justice Department believed they could go no further with this group, but that does not excuse them from pumping them for more information.  And although Poteyev is probably the SVR official who tipped off the FBI, as the director of Section S of the SVR it is inconceivable that all he turned over was ten people in ten years while acting as a mole.  The other option is to use them as bargaining chips.  The last major spy swap occurred in 1985 when the United States offered up four Russian spies for 20 Americans and five Polish prisoners.  This was basically a ten-for-four swap and it is no wonder Russian newspapers ran a headline like, “Russia 10, USA 4.”  Joe Biden later laughed this off as declaring that Russia got back ten inconsequential spies but the US got four high-quality spies in return.  That is debatable.

Finally, there may be diplomatic reasons for the swap.  The Obama administration had entered office announcing a reset in relations with Russia.  Could this have been an olive branch extended to Russia in the spirit of resetting relations?  However, there is a rub: If these ten people were “inconsequential” as Biden said,  why the hurry to arrest and deport them?  One is left with the conclusion that the Justice Department really believed that at least one of them- Cynthia Murphy- was getting close to the unnamed “sitting cabinet member.”

It also seems strange that back in 2010 when the story of the arrests broke in the news, the State Department issued a statement saying there was “no reason to think the Secretary was a target of this spy ring.”  At this point, the specifics against the spy ring were not known.  Only after they were safely deported were redacted documents released by the FBI where, anyone with a brain, could figure out they were talking about Clinton.  Regardless, this preemptive denial of being targeted flies in the face of logic.  Whether your name is Hillary Clinton or not, any Secretary of State would be a target.  Perhaps the lady protests too much…

More importantly, the Eric Holder explanation makes little sense.  He stated the FBI moved when it did because it feared Anna Chapman was going to leave the United States.  One of the reasons they had these fears was because an FBI undercover agent had approached her in a New York Starbucks posing as a Russian agent.  She grew suspicious and contacted her father in Russia on a new untraceable cell phone who advised her not to follow through on the directions from the agent which involved the passing of a fake passport.  If these were inconsequential spies as Biden suggested, then who cared if Anna Chapman left the United States?

Finally, one cannot overlook that this occurred as the State Department was in the process of reviewing the Uranium One deal.  Already, the FBI had placed an informant into that deal and were uncovering a scheme of money laundering, bribes, and kickbacks involving Russian businessmen.  One of the banks backing the deal- Renaissance Capital- had cut that check for $500,000 for Bill Clinton to speak in Russia.  That speech also got him an audience with Vladimir Putin.

Next: A pivotal period in the Spygate saga