Once again, a disclaimer. This post isn't political comment, but thinking out loud about the spycraft involved. Nor do I claim special knowledge. It's pure speculation.
If you're one of the people following what Rick Wilson of The Daily Beast has characterized as "the Trump-Russia intelligence and influence scandal," you can be forgiven for experiencing a certain bemusement. The story keeps wandering off-narrative, the cast doesn't know their lines, the whole thing is like a dress rehearsal for the school play. Lucian K. Truscott IV, writing for SALON, sounds a note of gleeful despair, trying to strike a balance between the giddy anarchy of a Three Stooges routine and the jaws of darkness yawning open beneath our feet. You don't have to take sides to take it seriously, but it has an unreal quality. Farce, caricature, exaggeration of effect, clown noses and oversized shoes.
What would a working intelligence professional make of all this? If we discount the attitude, and the partisanship, and the Whose-Ox-Is-Being-Gored, and focus on the basic operational dynamics - the tradecraft of recruitment, the servicing of resources, the value of the product - does it show any return on the investment? What's our cost-benefit ratio?
Security operations are often graded on the curve. You might have a downside risk, but if you're blown, the exposure is quantifiable. It's worth losing X to acquire Y. Penetrations are always high-value. Getting someone inside. Philby and Blake. Gunter Guillaume. Alger Hiss. Penkovsky. It's a tightrope act for the spy, of course. For his handlers, not so much. Embarrassment, contrition, crocodile tears. Deep-cover assets understand their vulnerability. It's a buyer's market. You're only as good as your last picture. So forth and so on. The point here being that a penetration is usually considered well worth the money, the extra effort, the aggravation. Any rewards justify the sweat equity. But defectors are known to inflate their resumes. They give themselves better credentials, they claim better access. Another thing to remember is that the more difficult the courtship, and the more it costs, the more highly you value the object of your desire. In other words, we both want to close the sale. It's to our mutual advantage. And who's to say there isn't as much wishful thinking on the one side as on the other?
Intelligence consumers want what's known in the trade as collateral, telling detail that gives your product a material weight, the force of gravity. What we've got here is disconnect. Peripheral vision, low light. Manafort is compromised because he was a bagman for Yanukovych. Kushner met with VneshEconomBank chair Gorkov, and VEB launders dirty money for the Kremlin. Flynn broke bread with Putin at a meet-and-greet sponsored by RT. Page and Stone were coat-trailed by SVR. All of it suggestive, none of it at all imperative.
There's a moment in Smiley's People, about a third of the way through, when George learns that Karla is "looking for a legend, for a girl." This is the place where the story - the story within, the hidden narrative - begins to shape itself. George first hears that voice, and we're taken into his confidence, and feel its muscularity, and the book turns a corner (its secret just around the next one).
How do we apply the comforts of a fiction? We suppose not, but hold the phone. The absence of structure tells us something. We're used to the idea of conspiracy, plots laid, inductions devious. I'd suggest this wasn't a concerted effort. Not at either end. I think the Russian services went after targets of opportunity. Putin's an old KGB guy of course, but he seems to have buried the hatchet with GRU. He's made extensive use of both, in Crimea and the Donbass. Russian information warfare strategy has also been formalized. Kaspersky Lab, which on paper is private sector, works in cybersecurity. Once upon a time, this was all under the authority of the Organs, the state apparat, but the chain of command is more flexible. I'm guessing an approach to an American or European businessman could be made by anybody, sanctioned or not. Is it corporate espionage, or government? What's the difference? you might ask. If you're shaking hands with the siloviki, the oligarchs, you're already in bed with the Mafia and state security. It's not at all difficult to imagine a guy like Paul Manafort being recruited, because he'd be recruiting talent himself, working both sides of the street. He's cultivating influence, that's his currency. So let's say we see this happen with other examples. No grand design or discipline, just low-hanging fruit.
Moving ahead, we get to the past summer of an election year, 2016, and evidence of Russian e-mail hacking. We know the FBI opened their investigation in July, and it's now being reported that CIA began briefing the Gang of Eight - the senior majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate, and on the intelligence committees - in mid-August. Slight cognitive dissonance, as the Bureau believed the Russian threat was meant only to disrupt the political process in general, CIA believed it was specifically focused on sabotaging the Clinton campaign and electing Trump. CIA suspects active collusion.
What are the basics? We know any intelligence community is top-heavy with turf warriors. MI5 and MI6. FBI and CIA. SVR and FSB and GRU. But there was a trigger mechanism. My guess is that a ranking somebody in the Russian spy orbits took notice and pulled the various threads together. We imagine frustrations expressed at the top of the food chain, "Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest?" And the barons mount up. I'm also thinking this was as much accident as anything else. The necessary tools were ready to hand. All it required was an organizing principle. The rest is housekeeping, who carried the water.
One last observation. The feckless and the foolish are easily led. You play to their vanities, their limitless self-regard. it's never truer than in the spook trade that you can't cheat an honest man.
Lucian K. Truscott IV in SALON