Russia’s Flipping Focus: Alexander Smirnov Is No Exception

When I started spinning the Ball of Thread out of which I hoped to explain how Trump trained Republicans to hate rule of law, this post was described, “The FBI keeps getting pwned.”

The bullet point was, perhaps, a misnomer.

What I had planned to talk about, two months ago and some forty days before David Weiss accused a 14-year FBI informant of framing Joe Biden in 2020, was the way that Russia has long exploited one-time FBI informants as part of their operations against the US.

Since then, we’ve learned that a guy who first established contact with Russian spies, way back in 2002, by helping another intelligence service (likely Israel’s) flip a low-level Russian spy, and who would therefore have been readily identifiable as an asset of intelligence services throughout that period, attempted to frame Joe Biden in 2020. If you can believe his reporting, Alexander Smirnov has since established contact with four to six high level Russian spies.

Russia’s focus on using informants was readily apparent in the results of the Mueller investigation. Key players in the Russian attack who were or had previously been informants include:

This was nothing new then. This Emma Best piece describes how a former FBI informant, Maxsim Popov, played a key role in Anonymous; they suggest Popov made have been a model for the Guccifer 2.0 persona.

Nor has Russia’s focus on informants diminished. In addition to Alexander Smirnov, informants dealing dirt on the Bidens leading up to 2020 include Ukrainians Rollie and The Economist and Peter Schweizer.

Sometimes, Russia’s identification of FBI informants may have been facilitated by hacking. In the lead-up to the 2016 operation, the Crackas with Attitude hackers — who got far more attention for hacking John Brennan’s AOL account — stole some lists of law enforcement partners and accessed FBI’s Joint Automated Booking System, which might provide a way to identify hackers the FBI was in the process of flipping. The Solar Winds hack compromised DOJ six months before the department figured out what was happening; it also targeted PACER, another source of information on sealed plea deals usually associated with cooperating witnesses. To this day, I’m furious that when DOJ IG discovered what amounts to a backdoor in the system used to archive texts sent on FBI devices — including those on which Peter Strzok and Lisa Page conducted an affair — there wasn’t a more focused effort to find out whether anyone had found and used that back door. And the reason US spooks changed their understanding of WikiLeaks is that, after burning State’s partners worldwide and DOD’s partners in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, WikiLeaks went on to make CIA’s local assets readily identifiable in 2017.

None of this is surprising or unique to Russia. It’s good spycraft.

But the targeting of informants, particularly FBI informants, has been a central part of Russia’s recent campaign against the US. There are all sorts of sound operational reasons for Russia to do that. It probably helps to evade certain kinds of counter-surveillance. It’s a good way to inject information directly into investigative hands.

Just as importantly, by making it clear how shoddy FBI’s management of informants is, it discredits the Bureau more generally.

23 replies
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  2. scroogemcduck says:

    Of course Russia will try to exploit FBI informants to plant disinformation, and of course the FBI should try to prevent that from happening. But much more scandalous is the willingness of a major US political party to encourage and seek to exploit these disinformation campaigns, while simultaneously downplaying their importance or denying their existence.

    • Robot-seventeen says:

      Yeah, it’s parlor game. The IC has been using them to stitch together their own narratives for their customers and the press/public for decades. CHS’s, whether legitimate or not, come in very handy at times.

  3. Upisdown says:

    This is the one example that stayed with me the most.

    June 3, 2016 email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr:

    “Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.

    The Crown prosecutor of Russia[a] met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

    This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin.”

    I don’t know what could be more obvious than that?

  4. BobBobCon says:

    The Peter Schweizer reference is telling because it points out how it’s a multipronged approach. Some of the informant flipping is aimed at official government investigations, but other parts are clearly aimed at the press.

    There’s a potential twofer in flipping an informant – not only can that lead to the government chasing a false story, but the informant can also be used to tip off a gullible reporter that an investigation is in the works. And I think the I think it’s pretty clear the Russians have figured out which outlets and reporters are willing to play this game. The NY Times and Washington Post fell over themselves in 2015 to get early access to Clinton Cash (Margaret Sullivan has detailed how top politics editor Carolyn Ryan was personally negotiating), and I think Russia had reason for optimism that outlets would chase another fake pile of Schweizer.

  5. freebird says:

    I just read the AP article about Smirnov regarding his financial machinations among other articles that I have read. A Lexis/Nexis or a Lien Solutions article and lien search would have uncovered all of this dodgy data.

    Relying on this character without verification is stultifying toward the FBI .

    • emptywheel says:

      Right, but as I said the other day, a big part of this is that he was permitted to be shady by FBI. Note, I added a table of all the admonishments he received when.

      • freebird says:

        This is where it is more sinister. It means Trump, through Giuliani, Barr, Brady, the DOJ and the FBI set the wheels in motion to frame Biden. Then when it did not work the first time they rehashed the story. Now, they are backfilling the hole they dug. I think you are right about Weiss having to disclose this stuff in discovery on why he indicted Smirnov.

        They let the Republicans repeat knowingly false information where the lie becomes the truth.

  6. Tburgler says:

    Sorry if his is clear to everyone but me, but I had a disagreement with someone who ought to know better than I do.

    At the time of the original allegations in the 1023 that republicans touted, was Smirnov certainly/likely/maybe/not passing this information as part of the Russian disinformation op against Biden?

    I know it’s stated that he’s had contact with Russian intelligence since then, but I’ve read quite a few articles that don’t quite make this point about the 1023 clear.


  7. LaMissy! says:

    “…making it clear how shoddy FBI’s management of informants is…”

    Waving hello from 80’s Boston on behalf of Whitey Bulger, a lot of dead young people, and the FBI’s John Connolly.

    There was also quite the odd connection after the Marathon Bombing of 2013 when a suspect, held under questioning by FBI agents and other law enforcement in Orlando ended up dead. Ibragim Todashev had been friends with the deceased bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev; both were Chechen immigrants.

    Not funky at all.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      I have long (since it first happened) wondered about that mysterious death. Fascinating how Bulger’s name keeps popping up in comments here on Russian influence op topics.

  8. Savage Librarian says:

    So, we know Smirnov’s cousin, Linor Shefer, works for the Dezers (who are or have been a in partnership with Trump.) And we know Neomi Dezer contributed to Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 Presidential Campaign.

    Now, referring back to Glenn Simpson’s House interview on November 14, 2017 beginning on p.63 (where I believe the phonetic spelling “Diazers (ph)” should actually be Dezers,) we come across some other interesting and relevant names:
    Elena Baronoff, Dino Papale, Jorge Perez, and Sergei Millian.

    What, I wonder, does Sicilian businessman, Dino Papale know about that notorious trip to Italy that Bill Barr took with John Durham? And what really happened with that investigation into Trump’s suspicious financial transactions there? Will we ever know?

    “MR. SCHIFF: And the title companies?

    MR. SIMPSON: Yeah. And then you would — you know, ultimately you would find — I mean, in the case of Florida, which is the one where we spent an enormous amount of time on, you know, I would subpoena the Diazers (ph). And I would subpoena the company that was run by Elena Baronoff, who was the true person behind a lot of those deals. And she’s an Uzbek immigrant, suspected organized crime figure, who took the Trumps on various tours to Russia, brokered a lot of those deals.
    She died of cancer, but — in 2015 — but her husband and son still run that company and I suspect they still have those records. And that would tell you a lot.

    And in general, I would look at Elena Baronoff’s operation. She also had a lot of curious involvement with a businessman in Sicily named Dino Papale, who we think has organized crime ties as well, and has a lot of interesting relationships with the Russians as well, and has hinted strongly that he organized secret meetings between Donald Trump and the Russians in Sicily.

    We spent a lot of time looking at that particular network. And I think you would ultimately get to the financial institutions by looking at the actual real estate transactions.

    MR. SCHIFF: And that particular family, were they involved in the flipping of that house with the —

    MR. SIMPSON: No. No, the Rybolovlev deal, I’m not sure I know that much about the brokering of the Rybolovlev deal. The other one that I would subpoena is the related group, and they were the ones that were involved with the Trump Hollywood. And there was a lot of interesting transactions involving the Trump Hollywood. And that was — that’s a guy named Jorge Perez, who’s a major developer who was in the picture with Sergi Millian and Donald Trump that I was talking about previously.”

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