Was the Real Target of the Spy Sting Russian Official #1?

It appears the White House may have gotten itself caught in the kabuki it played with the press on the Russian spies now swapped for some spies in Russian custody. But the timing of the kabuki suggests the target of the spy sting may not have been the illegals, but two Russian officials working under official cover.

Here’s the relevant chronology:

January 20: Surveillance against Anna Chapman starts

February: NSC, possibly including Obama, briefed on evidence against Russian spies

February 9: On orders from Russia Center, Richard Murphy purchases laptop to bring to Moscow

February 21: Murphy departs for Russia

March 3: Murphy returns from Russia, having swapped laptop for an identical one

March 7: Murphy hands off laptop to Michael Zottoli

April 7: Russian Official #1 aborts laptop chat with Chapman because he identifies surveillance

June 5: Mikhail Semenko’s laptop chats with Russian Official #2 surveilled

June 9: Chapman’s laptop chats with Russian Official #1 surveilled

June 11: Obama briefed about Russian spy swap

June 16: Chapman’s laptop chats with Russian Official #1 surveilled

June 18: Obama chairs NSC meeting on Russian spy swap

June 24: Obama and Dmitri Medvedev go to Ray’s Hell Burger

June 25: Complaint against 9 spies dated

June 26: FBI collects evidence against last two remaining spies; FBI agent says to Chapman, “I know you are going back to Moscow in two weeks.”

June 27: Spies arrested

June 29: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complains about timing of arrest; Obama reported to be miffed about timing of arrest; DOJ attributes timing to pending travel–presumably Chapman’s

Week of July 5: White House almost cancels spy swap because names of proposed spies in Russia leaked

July 10: Two weeks after FBI Agent said Chapman would be traveling to Russian in two weeks

Now, as I noted when the DOJ first pushed the excuse of–presumably–Chapman’s pending travel for the timing of the arrest, the excuse doesn’t seem to make any sense given that FBI had knowingly allowed Murphy to travel to Russia back in February. The excuse is even weirder now given that we know NSC was briefed about the investigation at that time.

Add in the fact that Obama knew of the prisoner swap when he met with Medvedev, and the fact that the complaints against most of the spies were written the day after that meeting, it sure looks like the timing had more to do with Medvedev than anything else.

Now, on Thursday, Rahm pushed back against any indication that Obama might have been involved in the decision to roll up the spies. First, Rahm claims that the decision to arrest the spies now was entirely that of law enforcement and intelligence.

JIM LEHRER: Was the decision on this spy swap the president’s?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, first of all, what the president does appreciate is the work of the law enforcement community, as well as the intelligence community for their hard work in this case.

It wasn’t the decision of the president. It was the decision, obviously, of the law enforcement community and the intelligence community. But he does appreciate what they did and making America safer and the hard work that they did to get this done.

JIM LEHRER: Did the president — let me rephrase it then. Did the president sign off on this spy swap?

RAHM EMANUEL: The president was briefed about it.

Then when Lehrer presses (sort of), Rahm goes all spooky on his.

JIM LEHRER: Was the president aware that this spy ring existed before it was revealed publicly and these guys — these people were arrested?

RAHM EMANUEL: I think, Jim, it’s important — there will be a lot of postscripts on this.


RAHM EMANUEL: And I think that what you should take away from this, obviously, the president was informed appropriately, known what was going on.

And they made the decision to go forward on this action. There will be a lot of writing about it, but I think, at this time, let me just say the cautionary note, the less said, the better.



RAHM EMANUEL: Or how about, as I always like to say, less is more?

JIM LEHRER: Less is more.


JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir, whatever you say.

Ix-Nay on the Resident-Pay’s involvement in spy Wap-Say!

But the news of the June meetings was revealed in a background briefing to reporters yesterday–which may suggest Rahm was hushing talk of Obama’s involvement until the swap had been completed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of timing, though, has to do with the surveillance on Russian Official #1. Two times, two days after he conducted a laptop chat with Chapman, the NSC met and discussed a spy swap.

June 5: Mikhail Semenko’s laptop chats with Russian Official #2 surveilled

June 9: Chapman’s laptop chats with Russian Official #1 surveilled

June 11: Obama briefed about Russian spy swap

June 16: Chapman’s laptop chats with Russian Official #1 surveilled

June 18: Obama chairs NSC meeting on Russian spy swap

So the meetings at which NSC first got briefed and then discussed in detail a spy swap occurred just after FBI caught Russians working spies in the US.

And while we’re at it, presumably we’ve not just expelled these 10 minor spies, right? We’ve expelled Russian Official #1 and Russian Official #2, right? The ones who were handling Chapman and Semenko directly (Russian Official #2, official the “second secretary” of the Russian UN Mission, has been involved in handling some of the illegals as far back as 2004)?

That is, was it Russian Official #1–who would be working under official cover and therefore be immune from arrest but would nevertheless be identified as a Russian spy through this investigation–that was the target of this kabuki, and not the illegals?

  1. emptywheel says:

    Here’s one more question.

    First, notice how Putin responded to the arrests: joking with Clinton about them, but emphasizing that the arrests wouldn’t hurt relations.

    “You have come to Moscow at the exact right time,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Clinton. “Your police have gotten carried away, putting people in jail.”


    “I really expect that the positive achievements that have been made in our intergovernmental relations lately will not be damaged by the latest events,” he said. “We really hope that the people who value Russian-American relations understand this.”

    Instead, it was Lavrov and the Foreign Ministry who was snitty about the arrests.

    But by the end of the day, the Foreign Ministry was issuing more appropriate statements–watching out for the interest of its citizens.

    On Tuesday night, the Foreign Ministry issued another statement acknowledging that the suspects were Russian citizens.

    “They have not conducted any activities directed against the interests of the United States,” the statement said.

    Of course, presumably Russian Official #1 and #2 were working at Russia’s UN mission in NY. So they’d be under Lavrov’s purview, at least on paper.

  2. fatster says:

    At this point it looks pretty pitiful to me. And somehow I keep thinking of Alvin Greene.

    • fatster says:

      And here’s an update on another pathetic mess (though this one had ugly consequences–collapse of ACORN):

      San Diego ACORN Worker Suing ‘Undercover Pimp’ James O’Keefe and Pals


  3. scribe says:

    I think Russian Officials # 1 and #2 are pretty much useless now, other than to keep US counterintel surveillance folks following them around, because the Russians know we know who they are and that they are spies and that we’re watching their every move. They’re not going to hit any dead drops because that will identify the locations of the drops and, possibly, who dropped stuff off in them or who comes to pick up the stuff, and they’re not going to be logging in through a wifi hotspot without everything going through that hotspot being hoovered and parsed, and everyone using it hitting a list somewhere (at least for a while). These guys are useless to the Russians to even go down to the deli to get lunch for the office, and will stay that way for a long while, probably permanently.

  4. HanTran says:

    Its a bit odd, no?, that we announced the existence of #1 and #2, I think usually we like to keep spies around when we know who they are. I would suspect that 1 and 2 were known spies for a long time, in fact I would assume that we consider all embassy personnel to be spies and to surveil them. It would seem more likely to me that watching 1 and 2 led to the discovery of the spy ring, especially since the ring apparently did almost nothing that might get it noticed.

    So far, it seems to me, that nothing has shown up publicly to suggest why we rolled this up except perhaps #1 identifying surveillance on April 7th. I suppose another possibility is that there is some reason we suddenly really wanted to get the swap done to get the spies working for the US out of Russia.

    I think its also possible that we had turned some of the spies long ago and Russia finally figured it out.

    Ultimately we have to remember that, time lines included, we are only being told what US Intel wants to tell us and there is really no reason to assume any of it is accurate or that it is in any way a full accounting of what actually was going on. So its also possible that the spies were much more effective they we have been told. Its also possible that they had gotten into a relationship with a powerful person who might eventually become embarrassed for spilling stuff he/she should not have spilled.

    Bottom line, we have no clue and probably won’t in our lifetimes.

  5. dude says:

    Well, what I find fascinating is the fact we were eavesdropping on laptop chat sessions. And apparently over the defenses a Russian, special-built computer. Maybe all that is going on here is the Russians were testing their laptop against our surveillance techniques, and now the Russians have what they need: they know our methods work!

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, remember, all the laptops were having problems. And when Anna Chapman was about to go to Russia with hers, the FBI intervened and convinced her (rather amazingly), to give it to them.

      I’ve long suspected that one of the timing issues is a desire on our part to prevent the Russians from seeing the sabotage we had carried out on these laptops. Though that still sounds like we wouldn’t have gotten much.

  6. klynn says:

    Wonder if official #1 is a double agent? Question would be, “Double for which countries?”

  7. klynn says:

    I would add to your timeline the cancelled sale of drones from Israel to Russia back on June 15.

    The sale was set to go through on June 11.

    Then Russia started becoming critical of Gaza and Iran.

    Remember, Russian is the third most spoken language in Israel.

    Someone in this appears to be a Russia-Israel-US spy.

  8. klynn says:

    Odd, the four double agents we got were all pardoned and welcome to return to Russia. All provided arms intel to a Brit cover for CIA.


  9. BoxTurtle says:

    There are only a few reasons you roll up a spy sting:

    1) A target would escape.

    2) Information of value would be compromised.

    3) The sting was discovered.

    4) The other side just busted some of your spys.

    5) External politics.

    6) Internal politics.

    We can eliminate 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. Sooo….whats Russia doing that we’d like them to reconsider?

    The thee thoughts that come to mind are anti-aircraft systems to Iran, sanctions on Iran, and our Military bases in the old Soviet republics.

    Let’s watch and see what happen there in the next few weeks.

    Boxturtle (Personal bet is AA to Iran)

      • BoxTurtle says:

        What is it that Russia is going to do with Israeli drones that they can’t do already that upsets us to the point we’d roll up a sting to try to stop it?

        Boxturtle (What are we worried they’d see that they can’t already see?)

  10. klynn says:

    They could do back us what we did to them in Af. Lots of drone strikes made to look like US strikes would do the trick.

  11. fatster says:

    Wikileaks Website is Being Abandoned

    “An insider source says that whistleblower site Wikileaks.org is being deserted entirely, according to anti-secrecy site Cryptome. Reclusive founder Julian Assange will reportedly no longer “commit … time and effort into restoring our website,” the tipster writes, and instead plans to launch an entirely new website based in Iceland, though only ostensibly.”


    • tejanarusa says:

      Update at your link: supposed insider stating abandonment of wikileaks website is a “troll,” and the site will not be abandoned, or move to Iceland.

      Stay tuned…

      • fatster says:

        Oh, good. Many thanks. WIsh there were a way to erase the entire comment. Hopefully everybody will see yours so they won’t be misled.

  12. Scarecrow says:

    Oh Dear! This episode has managed to divert Marcy’s valuable mind into figuring out kabuki involving a swap of people who are all basically on the same side in the great war of civilization vs the barbarians. Very clever scheme, but I can’t believe there is actually anyone in the current Administration smart enough to have thought of this. It must be a Russian plot, but to do what?

  13. eCAHNomics says:

    I think this is about getting the CIA spies back from Russia, and not about what any of these Russians were doing in the U.S., but I haven’t paid much attention to any of it. Seems all FUBAR to me.