President Donald Trump’s campaign and its alleged ties to Russia has been a big part of the political conversation this week.
There are new reports that Trump’s associates may have coordinated with Russians before releasing information to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year. FBI director James Comey told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the FBI is investigating alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign and the extent of Russian involvement in the American election.
Russia’s interest in the United States is not new. During the Cold War, Russian agents were planted on US soil to spy on the country, and many of them were caught by the FBI. CNN spoke to KGB and FBI agents about the Russia hacking allegations and how espionage has changed over the years.
Jack Barsky is a former KGB agent who was caught by the FBI and is now a US citizen. Born Albrecht Dittrich in 1949 in East Germany, he was recruited in 1970 by the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.
He was part of the Soviet Union’s “illegals program,” KGB spies planted in the United States with fake American identities. His primary task as an undercover agent was to get to know and report on interesting people in the United States – people with access to secrets, decision makers – and gather political intelligence. He is also author of the new book: “Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America.”
Barsky said, “What is clear is that email accounts of Democrat operatives were hacked and those hacks originated in Russia. Anything beyond that is pure speculation. As such, my bias is to believe information that originates with the FBI, CIA, etc. with one caveat: political pressure, which may quite possibly move the needle away from the truth. I do not like the current situation where intelligence has become a political football subject to a great amount of speculation without a foundation in fact.”
He added that Russia’s end goal is to foment chaos in the country. “Historically, the KGB has always tried to influence and destabilize events all around the world. The explicitly stated goal of the Soviet Union was world communism organized in a Soviet-like system. Therefore, anything that could destabilize free and democratic nations was fair game. The KGB were champions in the game of ‘fake news,’ which was called ‘disinformation’ in the old days. While Russia’s goals are not as ambitious as those of the Soviet Union, it is quite clear that the Russian leadership desperately wants to re-establish a strong Russia, on par with the United States. Therefore, anything that helps destabilize the US and other Western countries, anything that turns the focus of those countries inward rather than at the real outward threats would benefit Russia. In my view, it is not possible for a foreign nation to have a significant impact on the outcome of elections in this country. Try as they might, all they will be able to do is nibble around the edges.”
Barsky said he doesn’t think espionage or intelligence gathering has changed as much as people think. He said electronic spying and wiretapping has been replaced by hacking: “Because of the ubiquity of the Internet and the lax attitude towards data security by the majority of the American public, it has become much easier to obtain information electronically. However, the most valuable information is still what professionals call ‘humint,’ human intelligence. After all, it is humans that make decisions, not computers or drones. Getting to know decision makers and trying to understand what makes them tick is still at the pinnacle of intelligence gathering. This is also the toughest job in all of intelligence work. It is so much easier to sit at your desk and troll the Internet than cultivate a valuable source.”
Eric O’Neill is a former FBI operative and currently the national security strategist for Carbon Black. As an FBI operative he helped to capture one of the most notorious spies in US history: Robert Hanssen. Hanssen, an FBI agent himself, had penetrated the FBI’s computer systems for years under the radar and fooled the FBI for over 20 years while spying for the Soviet Union and later Russia.
According to O’Neill, “Russia has always engaged in espionage in our elections, so have China, Iran and North Korea. They want to know the particular policies and plans that any new President is going to have so that they can get ahead of it. That’s what spies are supposed to do, they’re supposed to gain information against rival countries and states, to present to their own government with a better opportunity to beat them. I think Russia was able to get very deep into the Democratic National Committee, into the Hillary Clinton campaign, because of phishing attacks. In the beginning, my guess is, Russia, like the rest of the world, thought Clinton would win. Soon it became ‘let’s embarrass her’ as they certainly did by leaking information on WikiLeaks, and then a little bit of ‘let’s see if we can completely meddle in this election.’ I don’t think it was as much ‘let’s get Trump elected,’ as ‘let’s make the American people not trust their own election systems.’ And they used a playbook they had used already in Ukraine.”
He added, “Spies don’t just steal. Spies also sabotage and disrupt. And this is espionage 101: disruption of a political process that puts the US and the West on poor footing and allows Russia to meet its goal, which is to gain more dominance globally. I think what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin was doing was setting up a lot of mistrust in the American people of their next President, which Putin thought at the time was going to be Hillary Clinton.”
O’Neill said Hanssen was the first cyberspy and espionage has changed over the years. “We don’t store things on paper anymore. We store things digitally. And so, spies have had to evolve. Spies would traditionally try to recruit people, would try to get people from the inside to pull paper out. Now they have evolved to become hackers. The majority of breaches we’re seeing are happening because spies are penetrating systems using cyberattacks. A successful phishing attack is where people are tricked into clicking on things they shouldn’t in their email. This helps the spy to virtually recruit a source, someone from the inside, a mole. You’re turning someone into a mole in their organization and they don’t even know it.”
Oleg Kalugin was a major general in the 1st Chief Directorate of the KGB and an elected member of the Soviet Parliament during former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration. He is now on the advisory board of directors of the International Spy Museum.
Kalugin said, “Russia is not what it used to be under the former Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s political goal was expansion, eventual defeat of the Western world and imposing a Soviet style communist ideology. As you know this all failed, the Soviet Union fell apart and as current Russian President Mr. Putin said, that was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Ever since then, Russia is primarily interested in preserving what it has. It lost so much politically, geographically, economically. So for Putin’s team to stay in power, and to keep Russia more or less united and not split up. … Mr. Putin is trying to not just surpass the United States and Europe but catch up and maintain an economic situation.”
He added, “President Trump has made some friendly gestures toward Russia and I think Russian-American relations will probably be more relaxed in the coming years. Again, you never know, things happen. But there is no ideological struggle anymore, which used to be the Soviet Union’s difference with the Western world.”
According to Kalugin, cultivating human resources is key in espionage, not electronic surveillance, “I was always involved in recruiting people, taking advantage of their weaknesses.” And he said behind every computer is a person, “I am an old-fashioned guy, and I say as long as you have human sources, human friends inside foreign organizations, that’s No. 1.”