F.B.I. Cuts Ties with Informants Linked to Russian Influence Operations

F.B.I. Cuts Ties with Informants Linked to Russian Influence Operations
@TheStevenAlber “TransNarrative Artistry”

The F.B.I. has cut ties with several informants and issued warnings about dozens more following an internal review that raised concerns about their links to Russian disinformation. This significant move was confirmed by current and former U.S. officials.

The Internal Review and Its Findings

The review was conducted in 2020 and 2021 by a small team within the F.B.I.'s counterintelligence division. The findings were then disseminated to field offices, which handle informants. This review led to the termination of several sources, some of whom had provided valuable information about Russia-aligned oligarchs, political leaders, and other influential figures. This action came at a critical time when the bureau was intensifying efforts to gather intelligence on these networks, especially during and after the 2020 election, amidst heightened concerns about Russian meddling.

Balancing Intelligence and Disinformation

This episode underscores the delicate balance the F.B.I. must maintain: the more access informants have to valuable intelligence, the greater the risk they might be compromised. This risk is particularly pronounced in post-Soviet states, where shifting alliances among oligarchs, politicians, and intelligence services create a complex and often opaque landscape for Western governments.

Even in an age dominated by high-tech intelligence gathering, human sources remain crucial for law enforcement and national security. They offer insights and perspectives that cannot always be gleaned from intercepted communications.

The Informants and Their Impact

The New York Times independently confirmed, but did not disclose, the identities of several F.B.I. informants cut off during the review. These informants had provided information about Russia and Ukraine. Johnathan C. Buma, an F.B.I. agent who managed at least four of the informants, suggested in a written statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that law enforcement should embrace the complexity and murkiness of working in the shadows. Buma opposed the terminations, arguing that typical disinformation operations are based on partial truths, and the only way to verify allegations is through independent investigation.

Buma's statements, which included a whistleblower complaint accusing the F.B.I. of suppressing intelligence and retaliating against him, have sparked further scrutiny. The F.B.I. is now investigating Buma's dealings with an informant he continued to work with after the bureau cut off others identified in the counterintelligence review.

The F.B.I. had long been aware of Russian disinformation efforts and became increasingly concerned that these campaigns extended to their own informants. Informants across different divisions of the bureau began peddling politically explosive information, including reports about President Biden's family and former President Donald Trump.

In one notable case, longtime informant Alexander Smirnov was indicted for lying to the F.B.I. about bribes allegedly paid to the Bidens by a Ukrainian energy company. Despite being flagged in the F.B.I. review, Smirnov was not immediately shut down due to the ongoing use of his information in other investigations.

The Struggle Within the F.B.I.

Internal F.B.I. memos from the time of the review revealed a struggle between competing priorities: agents were instructed to gather more intelligence about Russian efforts to meddle in U.S. politics and retaliate against the U.S. for its support of Ukraine, while simultaneously being cautioned against disinformation from foreign governments.

Field agents were warned to handle their informants with extra care, as there was concern that Russian operatives might be aware of their contact with U.S. agencies. This effort was described internally as an "awareness campaign."

The termination of informants in early 2022, classified as precautionary rather than for cause, highlighted the ongoing challenges faced by the F.B.I. in balancing intelligence gathering with the risk of disinformation. The decisions to sever these ties were based on the potential for unwitting involvement in spreading false information rather than specific evidence of deliberate deception.

Buma's resistance to terminating certain informants, based on their critical insights into Russian and Ukrainian networks, underscores the ongoing debate within the bureau. The closures were seen by some as an attempt to shut down investigations that might implicate Trump allies, adding another layer of political complexity.

The F.B.I.'s efforts to navigate the murky waters of international espionage and domestic politics continue to evolve, highlighting the critical importance of integrity, vigilance, and careful management of human intelligence sources.