Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has commented on reports that an alleged highly valuable U.S. Central Intelligence Agency source inside the Russian government was extracted from Russia in 2017 following fears he would be outed.
The New York Times reported that the intelligence asset provided information critical to the CIA’s assessment that President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a covert operation to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant identified the alleged spy as former Russian presidential staffer Oleg Smolenkov.
On September 11, Peskov said the Kremlin did not know if Smolenkov was a spy, adding that it was a question for Russia’s security services to sort out.
A day earlier, Peskov had played down the alleged value of Smolenknov, saying he had not held a senior position and had been dismissed several years ago.
That is misleading.
In 2010, by decree of then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Smolenkov was assigned the rank of 3rd Class Acting State Advisor to the Russian Federation, which is equivalent to the military rank of major general, Kommersant reported.
As spelled out in a February 2005 presidential decree, that rank put Smolenkov’s position in the “top group” of civil service posts.
According to the New York Times, the alleged CIA informant “was outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making — easily making the source one of the agency’s most valuable assets.”
Washington has not confirmed media reports of Smolenkov’s role, or even the initial reports that the U.S. had to exfiltrate a Russian spy. On September 10, the Trump administration denounced the reports as “inaccurate” and “dangerous.”
Smolenkov served as an adviser to Yuri Ushakov, a former Deputy Chief of the Government Staff of the Russian Federation, who, since 2012, has served as the Russian president’s foreign policy aide.
Smolenkov also served under Ushakov during the latter’s nearly decade-long tenure as Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. There has been media speculation that the alleged CIA asset in Russia had been providing information to the U.S. for decades.
New York Times journalist Ivan Nechepurenko wrote on Twitter that being the chief adviser to Putin’s top foreign policy aide makes Smolenkov “sound more important than some Kremlin-friendly papers are trying to portray.”
Ushakov declined to comment when asked if he knew who Smolenkov was.
‘This is serious’
Much remains unknown about Smolenkov’s alleged activities.
Ilya Shumanov, deputy director of Transparency International, wrote on the Telegram messaging service that Smolenkov was not merely “some government clerk who managed the President’s affairs,” but had “been in Ushakov’s inner circle for at least fifteen years.”
The Russian business daily Vedomosti quoted an unnamed source as saying that Smolenkov, while serving under Ushakov, did not have access to information on Russia’s election interference operation against the U.S., but did have access to “sensitive information,” including intelligence information.
The source added that even without direct access to secret data, Smolenkov could have received it through conversations with colleagues.
CNN sources also claimed Smolenkov had access to Putin and had been able to provide images of documents on Putin’s desk.
However, writing for Bloomberg, Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky speculated that plans for any intelligence operation to disrupt the U.S. 2016 election would not have gone through Ushakov, and that he would not have been privy to them
“In 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller produced a surprisingly detailed indictment of specific Russian military intelligence officers who allegedly hacked U.S. Democrats’ computer networks and disseminated the stolen material. Data on the names, ranks and specific activities of the Russian officers wouldn’t have landed anywhere near Ushakov’s desk, and there would be no obvious way for an Ushakov aide like Smolenkov to obtain it in the line of his normal work,” Bershidsky wrote.
Kommersant quoted another source as saying that Smolenkov was engaged in technical work like procurement and travel arrangements.
“I don’t think he could have told the Americans anything but rumors,” the source told the Russian business daily.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted another source who claimed to have worked with Smolenkov at the Russian Embassy in Washington as also downplaying his role as simply a technical one, adding that the alleged CIA asset was a frequent drinker.
Smolenkov has also been accused of abandoning his ailing mother.
The New York Times, citing current and former officials, said the bulk of Russian state media reports amounted to government-directed disinformation, adding information about Smolenkov “could not be trusted.”
The newspaper noted that playing down Smolenkov’s importance was just as much a part of spycraft as exaggerating the importance of Russia’s own recruits.
Kommersant quoted a government official as saying Smolenkov had continued to work with Ushakov after the latter’s return to Moscow from the U.S., enjoying the trust of a senior official “with direct access to Putin.”
“This is serious,” the official said.
Is this ‘the guy?’
Meanwhile, Peskov’s claim that Smolenkov was fired several years ago might be based on a technicality. As reported by the Russian-language news outlet Daily Storm, when Smolenkov, his wife (also a civil servant) and three children went to Montenegro on vacation in June 2017 and never returned, a murder investigation was opened several months later at the behest of Russia’s Investigative Committee (a body analogous to the U.S. F.B.I.).
Smolenkov was still identified as an employee of the Russian presidential administration at the time of his disappearance, which corresponds with the period that the CIA allegedly “exfiltrated” Smolenkov and his family.
Kommersant reported that the investigation was stopped and resumed several times. However, according to Kommersant, the Investigative Committee, in conjunction with Russia’s Federal Security Service, ultimately determined that the alleged victims were alive and residing abroad.
Smolenkov and his family are now believed to be living in Stafford, Virginia, some 40 miles south of Washington, DC. However, reports that Smolenkov has been living openly in the United States in a luxury house purchased under his own name have raised questions about why U.S. authorities did not take greater steps to protect the identity and ensure the security of a putative high-level CIA asset.
An NBC News reporter visited the Stafford home said to belong to Oleg Smolenkov, and the American news outlet published a story on September 9 about a “former senior Russian official” who it said was living near Washington “living openly under his true name,” but “under U.S. government protection.” NBC News did not name him.
The Washington Post also sent reporters to the Stafford home, and on September 10, it published a story stating that a “former Russian government official thought to have spied for the United States was hiding in plain sight, living in a suburban neighborhood an hour outside of Washington.” The newspaper reported that Oleg Smolenkov was listed in public records as owning a home in Stafford.
“It is not clear that Smolenkov is the source who provided the United States with details on Russia’s election interference,” the newspaper reported. “But he was almost certainly a valuable CIA asset, according to current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.”
For its part, the Associated Press noted in a piece concerning press coverage of the spy story that both the Washington Post and NBC News were unable to “confirm that the person whose home they visited was the spy who gave the CIA information about election interference.”
AP also noted that other news organizations, including AP itself and National Public Radio (NPR), “cited the inability to definitively tie the spy to the CIA’s extraction mission as the reason why they have not used the person’s name. NPR said the name was mistakenly used once in a report filed from Moscow, but wasn’t repeated.”
“Everyone has left the impression that this is the guy,” Tom Bettag, former producer of ABC’s “Nightline” program and now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, told AP. “It would be a terrible thing if it turns out that he’s not. I think you have to be super-careful.”
According to the New York Times, Russian social media users have speculated that Smolenkov was nothing more than a “courier” for information provided to the CIA, while a more highly placed agent obtaining that information “has yet to be exposed.”
The only certainty in the ongoing Smolenkov spying saga, the New York Times concluded, is that “he and his family has disappeared.”
Amid contradictory media reports, much remains unknown about Smolenkov’s alleged role as a U.S. spy. Polygraph.info, however, finds Russian government efforts to downplay his potential importance to be misleading.