VLAD’S VENGEANCE: Part of an occasional series
It’s a mystery that’s been smoldering in the back hallways of the FBI and CIA for months, quietly vexing American spies probing charges that Russia meddled in last year’s election.
How exactly did the corpse of Mikhail Lesin, Moscow’s most influential media magnate and the founder of the Kremlin-backed global satellite TV network Russia Today, or RT, wind up in a Washington hotel room just a mile from the White House almost exactly a year before voting commenced in the 2016 U.S. presidential election?
Mr. Lesin’s history with Russian President Vladimir Putin was well known to the CIA, so when The Dupont Circle Hotel discovered his battered body on its top floor in November 2015, “it got people’s radar up,” said an intelligence source who became involved in a clandestine probe into the incident.
“It’s messed up when a guy dies of unnatural causes, especially if he’s a former Kremlin guy,” said the source. “We tracked it, I remember, but it just didn’t go anywhere. It’s a weird situation.”
That so much of the Lesin case remains unexplained more than two years later underscores the deep confusion in Washington over what American spies knew and didn’t know about the depths of Russian subversion activities in 2015 and, more broadly, whether Moscow’s subsequent election-meddling exposed a major hole in American intelligence.
Behind the scenes at the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, debate is raging over the extent to which the intelligence community simply failed to identify Russia’s activities — let alone halt them or warn Congress and the American public — until after the 2016 election.
Was it an intelligence breakdown on par with the failure to stop al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack at the start of the century? In interviews The Washington Times conducted with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and U.S. intelligence officials — some at the highest levels — many said the top intelligence pros were looking under the wrong rocks.
The U.S. intelligence community over the past decade had grown so single-mindedly focused on combating Islamic extremism, according to several of the sources, that the CIA and other agencies were simply ill-equipped by 2015 to deal with the revived Cold War-era threat of manipulation by Russia.
One spoke of the “tyranny of expertise,” asserting that American spies were aware that sophisticated Kremlin-directed cyberattacks had targeted Estonia’s parliament, banks and media outlets in 2007, and that similar efforts had stung Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. But it was beyond the scope of America’s espionage agencies to imagine that the Kremlin was planning a similar operation on U.S. soil nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Look,” said the source, “we’ve been at war with jihadists for 16 years and had our noses way down the day-to-day tactical scope for the past 10 at least, with the wider intelligence community focused on counterterrorism and not much else.”
Other intelligence insiders told The Times that officials at the CIA knew full well the scope and scale of Russian cyberhacking, social media manipulation and even human intelligence operations well before American voters went to the polls — but the Obama White House mishandled the intelligence.
Former Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011 to 2015, said Mr. Obama and his inner circle developed a reputation for flat-out rejecting the idea that Russia under Mr. Putin was a resurgent and perilous adversary.
“When Mitt Romney said the Russians were making a comeback [during the 2012 presidential campaign], the Obama administration kind of yawned and said, ‘Hey, that’s old news,’” Mr. Rogers told The Times. “When you have the commander in chief say that, it — it filters its way down.”
But the intelligence reporting from deep inside the CIA and other agencies could be ignored for only so long.
Much of the reporting remains classified to this day, but “by July 2016, several agencies were getting to that ‘Holy [expletive]’ moment about the extensiveness of Russia’s campaign to undermine the U.S. public’s confidence in the democratic process,” said one former director-level official, who argued that then-CIA Director John O. Brennan and then-DNI chief James R. Clapper began paying closer attention.
Although no public congressional hearings on the situation were held and the intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” for 2016 offered no warning of potential U.S. election meddling by the Russians, the former official said Mr. Brennan and Mr. Clapper began informing parties that “needed to know.”
“If you ask Jim and John, they’ll tell you they were ringing alarm bells,” said the former official, adding that the two began giving more urgent briefings on the situation to the White House and to several high-ranking members of Congress.
Another former intelligence official — one of the few willing to speak on the record — argued that what occurred during 2015 and 2016 was not an intelligence failure, but a “political failure.”
“Based on detections of Russian hacking of the DNC, the intelligence community likely concluded as early as mid-2016 that there was a Russian campaign to cause disruption in the U.S. election,” former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman told The Times. He was referring to the massive leak of Democratic National Committee emails published by WikiLeaks in July 2016.
“So the question,” Mr. Hoffman explained, “is not whether the U.S. intelligence community failed to collect the intelligence on the Russian threat but rather the extent to which the Congress and the president paid attention to the assessment and whether our national interests would have been better served with a more transparent accounting to the American public before the election of Russia’s nefarious meddling attempts.”
‘Thumb on the scale’
Mr. Obama’s defenders argue that classified intelligence on Russian meddling activities in the midst of the 2016 campaign presented the president with a unique historical dilemma.
“Barack didn’t want to put his thumb on the scale,” said a veteran intelligence strategist who has worked directly with Republican and Democratic presidents over the past three decades. “He got a whiff of this stuff and didn’t want to touch it because it could be politically explosive.”
Mr. Obama was conscious of his standing in history as the nation’s first black president, said the strategist, adding that he had no desire to also be remembered as the first president to deliberately influence an election on his way out of office.
At the same time, the pro-Obama camp acknowledges, there was a period of confusion over the severity of the Russian threat before Mr. Obama suddenly authorized key Cabinet members to issue a series of direct — albeit back-channel — warnings to Russia to back off.
In July 2016, Secretary of State John F. Kerry engaged in what one former official told The Times was a “stern exchange” with Sergey Lavrov, warning the Russian foreign minister in a private meeting on the sidelines of a diplomatic summit in Laos that American intelligence had detected the DNC hack.
Two weeks later, Mr. Brennan pushed the message in a secure phone call with his counterpart in Moscow, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, this time warning that any further meddling could trigger a sharp response from Washington. According to a Russian diplomatic source, the threat was still being contemplated when Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama met face to face on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China.
Mr. Obama, a former law professor, later claimed that he had successfully persuaded Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, to back down.
“I felt that the most effective way to ensure that [further cyberattacks] didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t,” Mr. Obama told reporters in December. “In fact,” the former president said, “we did not see further tampering of the election process.”
‘Staring down the AQ hole’
Multiple intelligence sources told The Times that Mr. Obama’s claim was ludicrous and that the Russians instead ramped up their meddling campaign after the meeting, particularly through a sophisticated campaign to manipulate social media sites online.
Mr. Rogers, who was in the FBI before serving in Congress, suggested that Mr. Obama, like many presidents before him, had a penchant for pushing narratives even if they contradicted “what the circumstances actually are.”
“Over the course of their time in office, the Obama administration’s world got smaller and smaller. They listened to fewer and fewer different opinions. When you do that — that is how you miss things,” Mr. Rogers said.
“Intelligence does not get politicized in the agencies until it gets to a certain level,” he added. “I don’t want to badmouth [former CIA Director] Brennan personally, but I do believe he brought the politics of the Obama White House into the CIA.”
Still, one front-line intelligence operative, who said in an interview that he would rather be labeled a patriot than a partisan, put some of the blame on the intelligence community for failing to counter Russian hackers’ “digital sabotage” during the election campaign.
America’s intelligence apparatus had dramatically retooled its entire strategy since the 9/11 attacks. Although attention to cyberthreats increased, the community’s once-muscular focus on human intelligence and tradecraft fell by the wayside for most of the past decade as money went toward items such as drone surveillance over the Middle East.
In the post-9/11 period, said the operative, the tactical creativity of American spies and intelligence analysts was heavily focused on the war against al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram and other jihadi groups that just no longer made Cold War-style skulduggery a priority.
By 2015, the institutional memory of a decadeslong shadowy struggle against the Soviet Union had become hazy. “We’d stared down the AQ hole for far too long,” said the operative.
The RT universe
Competing congressional probes into Russia’s election meddling have highlighted the central role of social media manipulation operations.
The Kremlin’s campaign was simple. While American TV and print political advertising had a long history of regulation, in part to prevent the spread of obvious disinformation, the internet and social media had exploded with virtually no government oversight or truth-in-advertising standards.
Internet “trolls” — paid operatives based in Eastern Europe — seized on the situation to stir up controversy and division across the U.S. by mimicking and grossly exaggerating the society’s most sensitive social issues through advertisements — often paid for in rubles — and streams of bogus postings on Facebook, Google and Twitter.
Facebook attorneys have testified that some 126 million people could have seen ads from Russia’s sabotage campaign. Social media critics say the figure was likely many millions higher.
From mid-2015 until the presidential election, the disinformation targeted Confederate flag sympathizers and tea party activists on the right and Black Lives Matter campaigners on the left. Women wearing veils were depicted as extremist advocates of Shariah law. Bogus gay and gun rights organizations, and even a phony dog lovers group, all went to war online.
Social media news feeds pumping the disinformation often also ran alongside news reports from RT, whose somewhat credible brand added weight to the propaganda. Last month, the Trump administration Justice Department forced RT’s parent company to officially register as a foreign agent because of its links to the Kremlin.
But scant attention has been paid to RT’s wider role, or to the players behind its evolution into what one source described as a “key tenet” of Kremlin-backed human intelligence and subversion operations.
Like ‘bears on the prowl’
Enter Mikhail Lesin and his suspicious Washington death in 2015.
Depending on which U.S. agency one asks, the Lesin case either is the key to unlocking the mysteries of Russia’s labyrinthine effort to undermine confidence in U.S. democracy — including the suspected blackmail of former Trump administration National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — or is just a gruesome distraction.
Among the most charismatic post-Soviet oligarchs, Lesin served as a top press aide to Mr. Putin for a decade until 2009, when he created Russia Today, later renamed RT.
Along the way, the Jewish operator with soulful blue eyes and a love of hard liquor and good cigars earned the nickname “The Bulldozer” for masterminding a crackdown that brought the freewheeling post-Cold War media landscape in Russia under Mr. Putin’s control.
On establishing RT, Lesin said he sought to create not a Soviet-style propaganda machine but a “channel that would counter CNN and BBC with a Moscow spin” and promote Russia internationally.
“Otherwise,” he joked, “we’d just look like roaring bears on the prowl.”
But that vision began to blur as RT expanded. “We know he had a falling-out with Putin,” said one American intelligence source.
By 2011, Lesin had departed Moscow and moved his family to Beverly Hills, California, where he pursued a passion for fishing in the Pacific and explored another world of media. He helped his son Anton become a film financier, who eventually produced pictures starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Woody Allen and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Lesin also began spreading money into the U.S. property market, buying a 13,000-square-foot Beverly Hills mansion in August 2011 for $13.8 million and a 10,600-square-foot property in Brentwood in 2012 for $9 million.
In 2013, he suddenly returned to Moscow to lead Russia’s state-controlled media giant, Gazprom-Media. His movements and spending in the U.S. had caught the attention of some in Washington. Sen. Roger F. Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, who chairs the U.S. branch of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, called on the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Lesin for suspected money laundering.
Little came of the request, although its existence would later vex intelligence officials scouring for clues to whether Mr. Lesin’s death two years later was a result of foul play.
Mob hit or political assassination?
The first reports said the 57-year-old Lesin was in Washington in November 2015 to attend a gala hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
RT initially said he had died of a heart attack, but a D.C. medical examiner’s report later said Lesin’s death was caused by “blunt force injuries of the head neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities.”
However, the medical examiner’s report also concluded that the “manner of death” was undetermined. A redacted police report first obtained by The Washington Post found Lesin had been drinking heavily and met with an unidentified “friend” in the days before his death. Authorities now say it is believed Lesin was intoxicated and hit his head as he fell.
Questions about the whole incident deepened in April 2016 when the publication of the “Panama Papers” — a leak of records from offshore companies and secret bank accounts recorded a Panama-based law firm — revealed a history of dubious dealings between Lesin and a circle of Mr. Putin’s closest friends.
But intelligence sources told The Times that officials looked at all aspects of the case, including theories that Lesin may have been killed by organized criminals working for other Russian oligarchs who were angry with his movements and financial activities. “There was never any hard evidence to back that theory up,” one of the sources said.
BuzzFeed News reported that Lesin was in Washington at the invitation of Justice Department officials who wanted to interview him about the inner workings of RT. Citing two anonymous FBI agents, the website said Lesin never made it to the interview because he died the night before it was scheduled to take place.
But multiple intelligence sources who spoke with The Times dismissed the BuzzFeed report. “It’s not true,” said one who was directly involved in a clandestine probe of the incident. “If the FBI had been involved, you would have seen a lot more reporting from a lot of different sources on it.
“Is it possible the Kremlin would have whacked him to send a message to other RT people? Maybe. It’s [expletive] up,” said the source. Investigators also never settled on that as a viable conclusion because, again, there was no hard evidence to prove it, the source said.
Whatever the ultimate cause of Lesin’s demise, his death inspired some in the U.S. intelligence community to heighten their scrutiny of RT — and its suspected use by the Kremlin as a vehicle for subterfuge.
The other Michael
It was on Oct. 19, 2015, roughly three weeks before Mr. Lesin’s death, that retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn — a man whose irritation with the Washington establishment was well known in intelligence circles — received an email inviting him to deliver a speech at an opulent black-tie gala hosted by the Kremlin-backed television network.
A hatchet-faced Irishman, the general gained fame for his successful counterinsurgency tactics in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. But he also had an unusually messy relationship with the Obama administration. Although Mr. Obama appointed him to head the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012, what followed was an acrimonious reorganization battle that left him embittered at what he saw as the White House’s risk aversion and penchant for bending intelligence to fit political goals.
By August 2014, President Obama had fired him.
In the months that followed, Mr. Flynn pursued a new path as an international security and intelligence consultant, as well as an outspoken talking head on television, eager to air grievances with what he saw as his former boss’ foreign policy failures.
Although Mr. Flynn was soon making appearances as a pundit on RT, the network’s Dec. 10 gala was a whole other battlefield.
The gala dinner
The ballroom in Moscow’s most prestigious hotel was packed with tuxedo-clad Putin aides and allies, former spies, political operatives and international celebrities, including Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch who owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader.
In the star-studded crowd, Mr. Flynn found himself seated at the table of honor, which included a centerpiece of white roses, smoked fish, savory shaved beet and mayonnaise salads, goblets of wine and TV studio-bright lighting because the affair celebrating RT’s 10th birthday was being broadcast live around the world. Intelligence professionals in Washington were watching as Mr. Putin sat directly beside Mr. Flynn, joining chief of staff and former KGB general Sergei Ivanov, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and presidential deputy chief of staff Alexey Gromov.
The former DIA chief told The Washington Post months later that he hadn’t asked to be seated beside Mr. Putin but that his Russian hosts sat him there. “I found it a great learning opportunity,” the retired general said. “One of the things I learned was that Putin has no respect for the United States leadership. Not for the United States, but the leadership.”
Pictures of Mr. Flynn from that night show the strained smile of a man conscious of the spotlight. Shots of Mr. Putin display a sleepy expression that one body language analyst later summed up as a zenlike — “Should I skin him now, or skin him later?”
For many U.S. intelligence officials, the sight of one their own starring in the biggest party ever thrown by what has long been known at the CIA as the “Kremlin propaganda bullhorn” was shocking.
But it was only the start.
In the early months of 2016, Mr. Flynn became increasingly fascinated with Donald Trump’s outsider candidacy. By February, he had joined the campaign as an adviser and was even briefly considered as a running mate. During the summer’s Republican National Convention, he delivered one of the rowdiest speeches, leading the delegates in an anti-Hillary Clinton chant of “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
After a stunning election victory, Mr. Trump offered Mr. Flynn the post of national security adviser, a position he held for less than a month. He was forced to resign after reports surfaced that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials about his conversations with Russian officials and his contacts with Russia and foreign companies.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has since outlined how Mr. Flynn received more than $65,000 by companies linked to Russia in 2015. Some of the payments came from a cargo airline implicated in a U.N. bribery scheme and the cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, which is believed to have ties to Russian intelligence.
The committee also revealed that he received $45,000 for his appearance at the RT gala, suggesting a Russian government campaign to curry favor with a potentially influential U.S. national security voice.
“In addition to weaponizing disinformation via U.S. social media and networking sites with what amounted to discoverable influence cyberoperations, Russian intelligence also sought to lure U.S. officials and members of the campaigns into traps, where they would compromise themselves,” Mr. Hoffman, the former CIA Moscow station chief, told The Times.
Mr. Hoffman explained that the Kremlin’s blackmail culture has always been about calculated smear operations in which agents collect “kompromat,” or “compromising material,” that can be used later. Unsuspecting targets who forget the Russian adage that “free cheese can be found only in a mousetrap” are vulnerable to blackmail, he said.
As for Mr. Putin, he played coy when asked last summer about his experience at the RT gala.
“I made my speech. Then we talked about some other stuff, and I got up and left,” the Russian president told NBC’s Megyn Kelly. “Then afterwards I was told, ‘You know there was an American gentleman, he was involved in some things. He used to be in the security services.’
“That’s it. I didn’t even really talk to him,” Mr. Putin said. “That’s the extent of my acquaintance with Mr. Flynn.”
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