National Security

Warming U.S. ties with Russia may spook friendly spy agencies abroad

President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May walk along the colonnades of the White House, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017.
President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May walk along the colonnades of the White House, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. AP

Any significant opening with Russia by the Trump administration will put at risk a broad program of intelligence sharing between U.S. spy agencies and their closest English-speaking foreign counterparts, experts say.

Britain, in particular, with its famed MI6 secret intelligence service, is watching carefully to see whether the U.S. government remains a reliable partner in spying on Russia, a traditional adversary since Cold War days.

“If they begin to think there are serious leaks from our side to the Russians, they will shut things down, as they should,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a conservative strategic security expert who has served in posts in the State and Defense departments.

The visit to the White House on Friday of British Prime Minister Theresa May underscored the close ties between the United States and United Kingdom. With Trump at her side, May said security cooperation was the “broadest, deepest and most advanced of any two countries.”

For his part, in response to a question at a short news conference, Trump declined to repeat past praise of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying he didn’t know if their relationship would be “good, bad or indifferent. I don’t know the gentleman.” To laughter, he added: “I’ve had many times when I thought I’d get along with people, and I don’t like them at all.”

Despite such assurances, European allies and their intelligence agencies are increasingly asking a question: Can the U.S. government be trusted with secrets about Russia?

“President Trump is, in fact, tilting towards Russia, towards Moscow. He speaks very highly of Russian leadership, of President Putin personally,” said Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

“This is creating tremendous alarm among our European allies. They are worried about intelligence sharing with us. They are worried about how far they can trust the United States in protecting them and meeting security commitments across the continent,” she said.

U.S. intelligence agencies have no closer allies than their counterparts in Britain, which include MI6, the secret intelligence service – employer of the fictional James Bond – and the Government Communications Headquarters, known as the GCHQ, which sweeps the skies for electronic signals.

It is a fraternity at the core of a slightly broader, but little known alliance known as the Five Eyes, which groups intelligence agencies of the U.S. and Britain with agencies in the English-speaking nations of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The alliance is “phenomenally important,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is ranking member of the House Intelligence panel.

“Each of these countries has insights to parts of the world that we don’t have,” Schiff said. “We don’t have the capacity to duplicate some of the abilities of our Five Eyes partners.”

The Australian and New Zealand intelligence agencies are good at covering Asia with both human and signals intelligence, while Britain is strong in the Middle East and Russia, experts said. Canadian intelligence is also considered highly professional.

Once a year, the heads of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies gather, and usually they have a long agenda on matters of global concern to discuss. At other times, the agencies share information through secret communications channels that are interoperable.

Britain, in particular, is a trusted powerhouse in grabbing electronic communications.

“GCHQ in the U.K. is very formidable as a signals intelligence agency,” Cohen said.

But greater value may come from human spies run out of Sydney, Ottawa or elsewhere.

“In the intelligence business, you are always involved in trying to be able to put people in some very sensitive positions,” said Leon Panetta, a former CIA director. “The reality is that sometimes these countries are more effective in placing individuals in certain countries . . . It’s particularly human intelligence because everybody has a lot of the same technical intelligence capabilities.”

Experts concur that intelligence-sharing among the Five Eyes and key European allies is not at risk on counter-terrorism matters and Islamic extremism.

The risk revolves around Russia, the former Cold War foe whose security services still reward agents who manage to flip U.S. or other Western intelligence agents to become moles.

Some of the most renowned Russian spies included Aldrich Ames, the former CIA counterintelligence agent who was unmasked and arrested in 1994, and Robert Hanssen, the FBI spy hunter who was caught in 2001 at a drop spot in Virginia.

Given the Trump administration’s reticence to criticize anything Russian, a retired senior U.S. intelligence officer said allied services are likely evaluating what information to provide the CIA.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they were reviewing what information they share,” the person said, adding that the concern goes beyond actual collaboration with Russia to potential careless handling of secret information.

“They could also have the concern that it would be handled improperly, like Trump would blurt out something that would somehow suggest he knew something. You know how he says, ‘This isn’t going to be a problem. I know that for a fact,’ ” said the retired officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity since the agency strongly discourages public remarks.

Fueling British unease is that a respected former MI6 spy, Christopher Steele, who British media say served in Moscow in the 1990s for the secret intelligence service, is the author of a 35-page dossier that surfaced this month with lurid allegations about Trump’s activities during visits to Russia.

News organizations that have had access to the dossier for months have verified little of the dossier, and Trump has called the allegations fake. Steele, who compiled the reports under contract with a Washington consulting firm, has gone into hiding. British media have treated Steele’s work as likely credible.

Adding to uncertainty about U.S.-Russian relations, a senior officer of the cyber intelligence department of the FSB, successor of Russia’s KGB, was arrested in December on treason charges, according to a report in the Kommersant newspaper on Wednesday.

Another Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported that Sergei Mikhailov, was taken from a room in the imposing nine-story FSB headquarters in Moscow with a bag over his head.

News of the arrest ignited speculation that Mikhailov was a U.S. intelligence asset who had provided crucial information that led to the release Dec. 29 of a U.S. intelligence document on alleged malicious Russian hacking into the U.S. electoral process. Trump has acknowledged that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee but urged people “to move on to bigger and better things.”

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4