The Memo: British spy drama echoes through Washington

The Memo: British spy drama echoes through Washington
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The reverberations of an attempted murder of a Russian double agent in Britain are reaching American shores, sharpening questions yet again about President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told the U.K. parliament on Monday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for an attack that has left Sergei Skripal and his daughter critically ill.

Skripal, a one-time Russian military intelligence officer, was an informant for British intelligence services around the turn of the century.

Skripal and his daughter appear to be have been poisoned using a nerve agent at or near his home in Salisbury, a quiet cathedral city roughly 90 miles southwest of London. May asserted in her Monday statement that the nerve agent used was “military grade” and “of a type developed by Russia.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not endorse the British government’s de facto position that Russia was responsible for the attack during Monday’s White House briefing.

Sanders did call the attack “an outrage,” “reckless” and “indiscriminate,” but did not offer clarity on whether Trump shares the British assessment of Russian responsibility.

“That’s par for the course,” said retired FBI special agent Frank Montoya Jr. "In terms of any kind of direct criticism of Putin or the Russian government, we don’t see that from this government. … There is always this deflection.”

Later Monday, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump rattles White House with Bolton shake-up Kellyanne Conway on White House departures: 'Get with the program or get out' Petraeus: Watch how Pompeo tackles lagging State Department appointments MORE was more forceful in his denunciation, saying the U.S. has "full confidence in the U.K.'s investigation and and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible."

Asha Rangappa, another former FBI special agent, said there were “definitely some implications” for the U.S. — and for the investigation of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE — in the events in the United Kingdom.

“For one thing, we know or we suspect that Russia is targeting people who are assisting western intelligence services — or basically assisting the West,” Rangappa said. She linked the issue to the efforts by the Congress, and in particular the House Intelligence Committee led by Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTop Intel Dem: Minority 'absolutely' plans to continue Russia witness interviews FEC probing Nunes for possible campaign violations Top Russia probe Republican: 'No intention' of calling Cambridge Analytica officials back MORE (R-Calif.), to make previously classified information public.

“It points to the real risks that there are when we disclose sensitive sources. They can literally be in danger,” Rangappa said. “This is real. This is actually life or death.”

A different Russian defector has told a British newspaper, The Mirror, that a secret contact he has in the FSB — the successor to the Soviet-era KGB — told him that he, Skripal and six others were on a Kremlin hit list.

The defector, Boris Karpichkov, said that Christopher Steele, author of a now-famous dossier alleging that the Kremlin held compromising information on President Trump, was among the other names targeted for assassination.

Some intelligence veterans were skeptical of the idea that the Kremlin would really take action against such a high-profile figure as Steele.

“Why would they target Steele when they could target his sub-sources who are still in Russia?” Montoya asked.

The events in Britain come against a backdrop of multiplying elements of the Mueller probe and other controversies involving Russia.

In an interview with Megyn Kelly of NBC News, broadcast on Saturday, Putin suggested that “Jews, just with Russia citizenship” could have been behind the meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) tweeted over the weekend complaining about Trump being “silent” in response to that remark. “Intolerance is intolerable,” Blumenthal wrote.

On Monday, senior Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFox News host Watters says spending bill was 'huge defeat' for Trump Amtrak to rename Rochester station after Louise Slaughter Conscience protections for health-care providers should be standard MORE (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix Congress votes to expand deficit — and many in GOP are unhappy MORE (Calif.) called on Trump to “devote all resources available” to extradite the 13 Russians who were indicted by Mueller for their role in alleged attempts to influence the election.

Experts questioned whether extradition was really a realistic possibility, however, even if Trump brought diplomatic pressure to bear. The U.S. and Russia have no formal extradition treaty and, as a rule of thumb, nations do not generally extradite citizens unless the alleged deeds are acknowledged as a crime in both jurisdictions.

But the strength of May’s statement in Britain’s House of Commons took some observers by surprise. There had been some expectations that the prime minister would have been less pointed in how she apportioned responsibility.

Instead, she said, there were only "two plausible explanations for what happened.” One was “a direct act by the Russian state against our country” and the other was that the Russian government had “lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent.”

May said that the Russian ambassador had been summoned to explain which of those scenarios had occurred. If his explanations were not considered credible, the British government would consider the poisoning “unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”

James Boys, a British historian and an associate professor of international political studies at Richmond University in London, said the strength of that language even left open the possibility of NATO’s commitment to collective defense being activated.

“At what point does this trigger Article Five of NATO — that an attack on one is an attack on all?” he said.

Montoya, the former FBI agent, said Skripal seems to have become collateral damage in a broader conflict.

"The bottom line is there is somebody lying in a hospital bed who might die,” he said. “Has he become a pawn in this global game? It’s almost like the Cold War all over again.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.