It was just a week after my return from Spies, Lies & Nukes, a weekend espionage seminar hosted by former CIA agent Valerie Plame in November at a hotel in downtown Santa Fe, when one of the conference attendees — let’s call him Snow Goose — buzzed my cell with some urgent news.
He wanted me to know that, based on his professional judgment, honed over decades in covert intelligence, one of our fellow guests at the conference was now playing for Moscow. His evidence was far from conclusive: Now officially retired, the other spy — call him Copernicus — had simply stated the opinion, to anyone who would listen, that presumed Russian meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Trump campaign was overblown. He’d pushed the same line in a private conversation with me.
To Snow Goose, Copernicus’ arguments hewed suspiciously close to Kremlin spin.
“I know what it looks like because I used to to do it myself, for our side, ” he told me on the phone. He said he planned to alert the FBI, just to be prudent, and warned me not to be surprised if I got a call from the bureau asking about my one-on-one chats with Copernicus.
I thanked him for the warning.
The conference had drawn an audience of 175 academics, historians, and espionage groupies, each of whom had paid up to $500, not including hotel rooms, for a series of presentations and panels bearing titles like “Terrorism, Intelligence, and the Paradigms of Perception” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Secret Intelligence Perspective.”
One of the final panels, featuring a group of ex-spies, examined the question: “Was There Russian Interference in U.S. Elections?” Nearly all of the participants answered in the affirmative, but they disagreed, sometimes vehemently, on the effects. (This predated a report last month that the FBI had, in fact, investigated whether Trump was working for the Kremlin.)
“The Russians did what they always do and what we frankly do, too,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, including Russia station chief, told attendees. “They went to active measures. They wanted to hurt Hillary and help Trump. There is no question they tried to influence voters.”
“If any of us did not try to remove this man [Trump] from office, we would be derelict. It is absolutely clear that Russian intelligence manipulated him.”
While Mary Beth Long, a former CIA agent and assistant secretary of defense, defended the president as the duly elected commander-in-chief and slammed former intelligence chiefs John Brennan and James Clapper for publicly criticizing Trump, she also admitted he might well have been compromised. “I would be shocked if it was not the case that, while Trump was a businessman, he was approached by Russians,” she said, “and I have no doubt he was sexually entrapped and he had arrangements, for business purposes. But that doesn’t make him a traitor.”
Then again, it certainly might, insisted Glenn Carle, who worked for the Agency for more than two decades on four continents before retiring in 2007. “This is the greatest threat to our country since 1861,” he said. “Not even Watergate, not World War II — there was never any real danger Hitler would walk down Constitution Avenue. But I think there is substantive, overwhelming evidence, and that if any of us did not try to remove this man [Trump] from office, we would be derelict. It is absolutely clear that Russian intelligence manipulated him.”
“I strongly disagree,” countered Larry Johnson, former staffer at the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism and ex-CIA agent, who now runs his own private investigation and security consulting firm. “Is there gambling at the casino?” he asked. “Yes, Russians have been intervening here for years. I harbor no illusions about that. But we do it, too.”
Johnson added that the “level of Russian hysteria” directed at the Trump election “is jeopardizing our ability to actually work with Russia, in places like the International Space Station.” “If they’re so damn bad,” he wondered, “why are we trusting our astronauts to them?”