A Russian mole worked at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for more than a decade before she was caught passing information to Russian intelligence agents and quietly fired last year, according to reports Thursday.
The case emerged as top U.S. intelligence officials warned that Moscow was continuing to wage a pervasive campaign to undermine democracy in the United States ahead of November’s midterm elections. They claimed President Donald Trump had instructed them to make countering the interference a top priority, but the president’s own muddled position — often insisting that there was no Kremlin interference in 2016 — has left a big question mark over their mission.
According to the Guardian, which was first to report the embassy spying case, the Russian staff member was exposed during a routine five-yearly review by State Department security investigators, which found she was having regular, unauthorized meetings with Russia’s FSB intelligence agency.
The woman, technically employed by the State Department, was assigned to work for the U.S. Secret Service in a role that gave her access to the Secret Service’s email and intranet systems, according to the report.
“We figure that all of them are talking to the FSB, but she was giving them way more information than she should have,” an unnamed senior administration official told CNN, confirming the report.
The investigators alerted the embassy in January 2017, and the employee was eventually dismissed last summer, after being caught funneling back specific information to Russian agents.
The Secret Service, in a statement acknowledging the incident, downplayed the breach and stressed that “national security information” was never jeopardized.
“At no time, in any US Secret Service office, have (Foreign Service Nationals) been provided or placed in a position to obtain national security information,” it said.
The statement said the agency recognized that foreign nationals working for them could be subjected to foreign intelligence influence.
"This is of particular emphasis in Russia," it said, adding that as a consequence, duties for foreign nationals were “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support.”
The case emerged as a handful of top U.S. national security officials warned at a White House briefing that, Moscow was continuing its efforts to interfere in the U.S. political system.
“As I have said consistently: Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously, and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus.”
Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, also said that Russian-backed hackers, directed by the Kremlin, were attempting to sow foment division among Americans.
“What we see is the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.”
The officials said that Trump had directed them to make the issue of election meddling — and securing the integrity of the process — their top priority. But their statements provided little assurance to some observers, given Trump’s frequent assertions, contradicting the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community, that Russian meddling never happened.
Just weeks ago, following a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump told a press conference that he believed his counterpart’s claims that Russia hadn’t hacked the 2016 election. Following a domestic outcry, Trump did a stunning 180 on the remarks, saying he’d misspoken and had meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.” He added the caveat: “Could be other people also.”
Sen. James Lankford told CNN that Trump’s confused stance only made tackling the problem more difficult.
“The intelligence community has been very active on this, the Department of Homeland Security has been active on this,” he said. “While the president has been inconsistent in his tweets, and some of the messaging that he’s put on it, he’s the only one in the government that hasn’t been paying attention to this.”
Cover image: US national flag waving by the Embassy of the United States of America. (Mikhail Japaridze\TASS via Getty Images)