The House Intel Committee may force the FBI to tip its hand to Russia
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In three days, the director of the FBI and the attorney general are required to come before the House Intelligence Committee under the threat of being held in contempt.

Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has issued a subpoena to both agencies to provide information on how the FBI has utilized a controversial opposition research dossier compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, in its investigation into Russian election interference. Neither responded by the Sept. 1 deadline.  

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According to the highest ranking Democrat on the committee Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Democrat: Trump only loyal to the 'pro-Trump' party Sunday shows preview: Trump officials gear up for UN assembly MORE (D-Calif.), the subpoena is a partisan effort. Schiff argues it undercuts the basis of the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s active measures by discrediting the dossier and thereby any further intelligence the FBI may have derived from it. If this is true, the Republicans, in their attempt to help the president, may end up helping Russia as well.

 

The Steele dossier is essentially a series of intelligence reports compiled by the former British MI6 officer on behalf of the intelligence firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. 

Former CIA officer and Russian intelligence expert John Sipher has analyzed the dossier and notes that it is, in intelligence parlance, “generally credible.” Sipher acknowledges that the dossier may contain factual inaccuracies but emphasizes that, as “raw intelligence,” this is to be expected. What matters is how much of the report can be corroborated, and significant portions, in Sipher’s review, have been. 

For the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s active measures, the Steele dossier — even taking into account its fallibility in some respects — is an important document. To the extent that the FBI believes that the author of the report — a career British intelligence officer who served in Moscow — is credible, the dossier offers a “roadmap” that would be useful to the FBI in both corroborating intelligence it has already obtained from other sources and in creating new leads that it might pursue. In other words, the dossier is a way to supplement — not replace — its own independent investigation.

The “independence” of the FBI’s investigation is key here. The Steele dossier is now a public document. The Russians know what has been alleged. But they don’t yet know what the FBI has independently verified and what it hasn’t. It’s crucial that the FBI keeps it that way. 

In counterintelligence, the most important leverage you have over your adversary is making sure they don’t know what you know. By allowing your opponent to believe that they are operating undetected, you can keep tabs on what they are doing and take steps to make their activities ineffective. A good example of this is the FBI’s investigation into ten Russian “illegals” — spies posing as Americans — which lasted 10 years. Until the FBI eventually arrested the illegals in 2010, it was to the United States’ benefit to allow the Russians to continue to spend money and resources on an operation the FBI had already discovered and was monitoring. This kept the Russians from trying something new and more effective.

Similarly, Russia’s active measures against the United States are ongoing. Even if the Russians had a goal of swaying the election in a particular direction, it was likely one of many long-term goals, including delegitimizing our faith in our institutions and compromising the integrity of our democratic processes. 

From releasing emails stolen from the DNC to hacking attempts on local voting machines to disseminating fake ads through Facebook, Russia has mounted an unprecedented covert operation on many fronts, some of which may still be active. If Russia gets any whiff of what specific avenues the FBI has managed to uncover, it can quickly shut them down and divert its efforts elsewhere, drying up sources and forcing the FBI to start from scratch. What’s more, it can seek to cover its tracks, to ensure its plausible deniability and undermine the progress the FBI has made thus far. 

Which brings us back to the House Intelligence Committee subpoena. Ostensibly, the committee can have a closed hearing, which would ensure that any classified information remains so. But almost every closed-door hearing connected to the Russia matter to date has had leaks. 

The House Intelligence Committee, in particular, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence: After all, we are talking about a committee whose chairman, based on an “anonymous tip,” suddenly hopped out of his car and took an Uber to the White House in the middle of the night to review classified documents provided by unnamed sources — and then held a press conference the next day on what he found — without informing the rest of his committee. In addition to being just plain bizarre, this is what in the intelligence world would be called “poor operational security.” If this cavalier behavior is repeated with regard to intelligence that may get to the heart of one of the worst attacks by a hostile power on American democracy, our national security is at risk.

Revealing our hand to Russia at this stage of the investigation could significantly jeopardize the FBI’s efforts. In receiving a subpoena from a committee that is rife with partisan infighting and where the information may be sought for political, rather than national security purposes, the FBI is right to be concerned about sharing its methods and sources. Perhaps in not responding to the request, they are simply putting their country first — for once, the committee should do the same. 

Asha Rangappa is a former special agent in the Counterintelligence Division of the FBI in New York City. She is currently an associate dean at Yale Law School. Follow her on Twitter @AshaRangappa_.


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