As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, I know what Trump apparently does not: Counterintelligence investigations have a different purpose than their criminal counterparts. Rather than trying to find evidence of a crime, the FBI’s counterintelligence goal is to identify, monitor and neutralize foreign intelligence activity in the United States. In short, this entails identifying foreign intelligence officers and their network of agents; uncovering their motives and methods; and ultimately rendering their operations ineffective — either by clandestinely thwarting them (say, by feeding back misinformation or “flipping” their sources into double agents) or by exposing them.
By early summer 2016, according to the New York Times, the FBI had already identified at least four members of the Trump campaign with significant ties to or contacts with Russian intelligence. The next logical step in a counterintelligence investigation would be to discern what Russia was trying to do with those people. Sending a source to talk to suspected foreign agents such as campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos could illuminate whether these individuals were being developed — or even tasked — as intelligence assets for Russia. And that could have served to generate even more information: If the U.S. intelligence community had later picked up “chatter” on Russia’s end following these interactions, the FBI could have verified that these individuals were, in fact, in communication with Russian operatives.
Understanding that the FBI may have been using an intelligence source — not a criminal “informant” — also explains the Justice Department’s concern about the purported source’s safety. To obtain information about Russia’s intentions and methods, the FBI would have had to use someone who would not raise red flags if their interactions with campaign officials got back to Russia. So there is a high likelihood that this person is someone already familiar to Russian intelligence, and possibly someone who was already in Russian business or organized crime circles, which all have links back to Russian President Vladimir Putin — which means the source would be in potential danger if discovered. The Washington Post reports that the FBI is working to protect the purported source in light of Nunes’s request and to “mitigate the damage” if his or her identity is disclosed, which suggests that this individual may be currently providing law enforcement authorities with intelligence and will need to cease if made public. [Continue reading…]