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The New York Times Just Revealed Extremely Sensitive Intelligence. What Might That Mean?

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You’ve seen Paul’s post about yesterday’s bombshell New York Times piece. The story it reports, if true, means that Trump knew—since before his inauguration—that the US possessed unequivocal evidence that, first, Russia intervened in the 2016 election and, second, it did so with the aim of helping him win. I agree with Paul that this is just another topping on the impeachment ice-cream sundae, but there are other aspects of the article worth discussion.

To that end, there are two good threads on Twitter that you should read. The first, from Laura Walker, I reproduce in its entirety:


The second, from Pwn All The Things, starts here:

I don’t know if its possible to overemphasize the sensitivity of the human intelligence—and likely signal intelligence—revealed in the New York Times article. This is the kind of information that gets people killed, burns critical sources, and helps the target know just what information the United States likely possesses.

Now, Walker raises a really interesting question. It seems rather unlikely that the sources were compromised within the last few days (see below). As she suggests, the straightforward interpretation is that the US already lost the sources, Perhaps, say, back in early 2017. As Emily Tanken reported in Foreign Policy at the time:

A top cybersecurity specialist and his deputy in Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, are reportedly being accused by the Kremlin of “breaking their oath” by working with America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

Sergei Mikhailov, allegedly detained at a board meeting last December, and his deputy, Dmitry Dokuchaev, were arrested by the Kremlin on Jan. 27 for treason and illegal hacking. Then, on Tuesday, Russian news agency Interfax, after hearing from unidentified sources, reported that they, along with Ruslan Stoyanov, the head of cybercrime investigations at Kaspersky Labs, and a fourth, as yet unnamed person, are suspected of passing along secret information to the CIA — or of passing it to someone who passed it to the CIA. The Kremlin, for its part, has refuted such claims through spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, who said, “…we categorically deny any assertions about the possible complicity of the Russian side in any hacker attacks,” adding, “All the suspects have been charged with high treason. This is the sole count in the case. There are no other accusations.”

Per Walker, some of those mysterious deaths that happened in 2016-2017 may have been related to the intelligence just made public. But this takes us back to her query, why now?

One possibility: in contrast to what I suggested above, the key source was compromised very recently. The most tinfoil-hat version of this theory—and be warned, this post is going to be high on tinfoil-hat units—would connect the loss of the source to the Helsinki Summit, perhaps even to the Trump-Putin private meeting. I think this is unlikely. The timeline involved  seems awfully short to get from the compromise of the source, to confirmation, to leak, to vetting, to publication. But never say never.

The other, more likely, possibility: the premise that drives Walker’s speculation about timing is slightly off. Even if the source and methods are already compromised, intelligence professionals, to the best of my knowledge, retain a strong bias against leaking highly sensitive material. The CIA, for example, keeps secrets of this type away from the public for decades. Even when it releases those secrets, it still sometimes redacts information about sources long after the fact *you can take a look at documents in the National Security Archive to see what I’m talking about). This reticence to disclose information about sources and methods stems from at least two factors: first, general prudence combined with strong socialization not to reveal highly classified material and, second, the fact that even confirming such information may provide clues, or confirm suspicions, about, for instance, what information Washington possesses or the existence of still-active sources.

Given this, it seems most likely that recent events led to the publication of the story. Perhaps these developments were simply what the public already knows about the Helsinki Summit: that Trump yet again misled the American people, but this time crossed a final line by trashing the American intelligence community while standing next to Putin. It is also quite possible that the leak itself happened quite some time ago; the reporters only decided to use the information—or got the go-ahead from their source—after what went down in Finland. That’s consistent with the tenor of the piece, which reads, in some ways, more like an editorial than a straight news item.

Those are the Occam’s razor explanations.

It might also prove the case that some other developments convinced the leaker to break the metaphorical glass and either provide the information or green-light the story. Possibilities include information from Trump’s readout of his private meeting with Putin, or from his translator’s debriefing. Perhaps a third-party passed intelligence surrounding the Summit to the United States, or the American intelligence community intercepted related Russian traffic that raised major alarms.

My hope is that we learn more in the next week, and the answer is one of the simplest explanations. Still, the fact that this kind of speculation is not Alex-Jones-level insane underscores where we are. The public information we now have warrants impeachment. But the state of play could easily be much worse. Remember that Trump casually compromised Israeli intelligence sources in his first meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. In light of what we do know about Trump, he could have done profound damage to American security—or at least that of our allies—during his private meeting with Putin could be profound.

An important caveat: although I’ve worked in classified settings, I am not an expert in intelligence studies nor do I have a deep background in the subject. So treat this post accordingly.

UPDATE: edited for clarity.

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