Relations between Russia and the US have been hit by yet another spy scandal, and this one is rather unusual. It is not only remarkable in that it was brought to light by the US press rather than US officials, but also in its likely consequences. The news that a US spy was operating in the bowels of the Russian government and evacuated back to the US in the nick of time is unlikely to seriously affect relations between the two countries.
But it could create problems for Donald Trump, who is currently in the middle of his re-election campaign.
A member of the US House of Representatives, Republican Doug Collins, has called for an investigation into CNN. On September 9, the television channel – citing anonymous sources, of course – caused a stir by reporting that the CIA had a “mole” in the highest echelons of the Russian government who was allegedly spirited back to the US in 2017. The story was picked up by several media outlets. Before long, he was identified in the media (both in Russia and the US) as Oleg Smolenkov, a former employee of the presidential executive office who mysteriously disappeared during a family holiday in Montenegro two years ago.
Statements and denials by government officials then followed. Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press spokesman, confirmed that Smolenkov had once worked for the presidential executive office, but said that he had been dismissed some time ago and he doesn’t know whether he was a spy or not. Meanwhile, Trump, the CIA and Mike Pompeo, who was head of the CIA in 2017, unanimously refuted the CNN story, with the US secretary of state saying diplomatically that “the reporting there is factually wrong”. As is usually the case with spy scandals, the public has more or less been given the impression that the governments of both countries are once again hiding something.
CNN, on the other hand, certainly cannot be accused of double dealing. The target of its spy scandal is abundantly clear – it’s Donald Trump. A long-time enemy of US liberals, whose mouthpiece is CNN, Trump is apparently to blame for the CIA having to urgently recall its valuable agent back to the United States. According to journalists, the idea of evacuating Smolenkov was a private initiative of US intelligence officers, without consultation with the president, because they apparently started to suspect that Trump might betray the “mole” to the Russians either knowingly or through ignorance. It is not difficult to see that this interpretation of events is in close keeping with the Robert Mueller investigation. Despite his best efforts, the special prosecutor has not found any evidence that Trump won the 2016 election thanks to help from Russia. So people have once again been reminded of “the hand of Moscow”, and the timing couldn’t have been better. After the apparent failure of the Mueller investigation, Democratic opponents of the president, who have still not given up hope of removing the head of state from power, are suffering from a lack of creativity. Trump has been vilified for infidelity, racism, financial irregularities and much, much more, but none of this has lead to serious accusations.
Now, however, they have carefully come up with just the right scandal. The story of a US spy who was very nearly exposed by the US president is also unlikely to lead to impeachment, of course, but, with the right spin, it could do a fair amount of damage. This is apparently what the people behind the scandal are counting on. Or person.
While speculating on who exactly leaked the information about the events of 2017, the press invariably mentions the name of former CIA director John Brennan. It would be difficult to find anyone in the US government less favourably disposed towards Trump. Brennan has actively cooperated with the Mueller Commission and has publicly accused the head of state of treason. Giving as good as he gets, Trump called the former CIA director nothing more than a psycho.
The fact that Brennan could be behind the current spy scandal is also supported by US news reports during the Obama presidency that US intelligence agencies allegedly had a “mole” in Russia. It was said that the information handed over by this source was so valuable that Brennan didn’t include it in the special reports for the president, but passed it on to him face to face to avoid leaks.
If it’s true that CNN “helped” the former CIA head and he decides to confirm this publicly, then the investigation being called for by Collins will be sensational. After losing with the whole Mueller Commission thing, Trump’s opponents will get the chance to take revenge. Especially as time will be on their side, for once, rather than the president’s – the US election is just a year away.