WASHINGTON — In 2016, American intelligence agencies delivered urgent and explicit warnings about Russia’s intentions to try to tip the American presidential election — and a detailed assessment of the operation afterward — thanks in large part to informants close to President Vladimir V. Putin and in the Kremlin who provided crucial details.
But two years later, the vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent, leaving the C.I.A. and other spy agencies in the dark about precisely what Mr. Putin’s intentions are for November’s midterm elections, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence.
The officials do not believe the sources have been compromised or killed. Instead, they have concluded they have gone to ground amid more aggressive counterintelligence by Moscow, including efforts to kill spies, like the poisoning in March in Britain of a former Russian intelligence officer that utilized a rare Russian-made nerve agent.
Current and former officials also said the expulsion of American intelligence officers from Moscow has hurt collection efforts. And officials also raised the possibility that the outing of an F.B.I. informant under scrutiny by the House intelligence committee — an examination encouraged by President Trump — has had a chilling effect on intelligence collection.
Technology companies and political campaigns in recent weeks have detected a plethora of political interference efforts originating overseas, including hacks of Republican think tanks and fake liberal grass-roots organizations created on Facebook. Senior intelligence officials, including Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, have warned that Russians are intent on subverting American democratic institutions.
But American intelligence agencies have not been able to say precisely what are Mr. Putin’s intentions: He could be trying to tilt the midterm elections, simply sow chaos or generally undermine trust in the democratic process.
The officials, seeking to protect methods of collection from Russia, would not provide details about lost sources, but acknowledged the degradation in the information collected from Russia. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal classified information. A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment.
To determine what the Russian government is up to, the United States employs multiple forms of intelligence, including intercepted communications and penetrated computer networks.
The United States continues to intercept Russian communication, and the flow of that intelligence remains strong, said current and former officials. And Russian informants could still meet their C.I.A. handlers outside Russia, further from Moscow’s counterintelligence apparatus.
But people inside or close to the Kremlin remain critical to divining whether there is a strategy behind seemingly scattershot efforts to undermine American institutions.
Spies and informants overseas also give American intelligence agencies early warning about influence campaigns, interference operations or other attempts to compromise the United States. That information, in turn, can improve the ability of domestic agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I., to quickly identify and attempt to stop those efforts.
Because clandestine meetings can take months to set up and complete, a lengthy lag can pass before the C.I.A. realizes a key source has gone silent, according to former officials. It is rare for the agency to discover immediately that informants have eroded or are running scared. Only after several missed meetings might C.I.A. officers and analysts conclude that a source has decided it is too dangerous to pass information.
In 2016, American intelligence officials began to realize the scope of Russia’s efforts when they gathered intelligence suggesting that Moscow wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help sow chaos. John O. Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., testified before the House Intelligence Committee in May 2017 about a tense period a year earlier when he came to believe that Mr. Putin was trying to steer the outcome toward a victory for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Brennan described the broad outlines of the intelligence in his congressional testimony, and his disclosures backed up the accounts of the information provided by the current and former officials. “I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election. And they were very aggressive,” Mr. Brennan told lawmakers.
This year, Mr. Coats issued a series of warnings saying the Russian government, and Mr. Putin in particular, is intent on undermining American democratic systems.
At an appearance this month at the White House, Mr. Coats said intelligence agencies “continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try and weaken and divide the United States.” He added that those efforts “cover issues relevant to the elections.”
But officials said there has been no concrete intelligence pointing to Mr. Putin ordering his own intelligence units to wade into the election to push for a certain outcome, beyond a broad chaos campaign to undermine faith in American democracy. Intelligence agencies do not believe Mr. Putin has changed his strategy; instead, officials believe they simply do not have the same level of access to information from the Kremlin’s inner circle.
Intelligence collection appears to have suffered after Russia expelled officials from American diplomatic outposts there in retaliation for the United States removing 60 Russian officials this year, said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the C.I.A. who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program.
The C.I.A.’s Moscow presence, according to former officers, was always small, at least in light of the importance of the target, the difficulty of spycraft and the amount of counterintelligence the Russians dedicated to thwarting American spies.
“The Russians kicked out a whole bunch of our people,” Mr. Sipher said. “Our station in Moscow is probably really small now and they are under incredible surveillance.”
Former C.I.A. officials said Mr. Putin has made plain to his counterintelligence forces his antipathy, and desire to eliminate, to so-called traitors who provide information to the West. In public comments in 2010, Mr. Putin made menacing comments about former agents who worked for Western intelligence, although he publicly disavowed assassination.
“The Russians are very focused and upset,” Mr. Sipher said. “They have shown they are willing to kill sources.”
Informants close to Putin are very rare, according to current and former officials. The United States, in recent years, has had only a few, and at times been reliant on only one or two for the most important insights on Mr. Putin, according to former officials. If those people go silent for their own protection, it can make it very hard for the agency to look inside Moscow.
The United States still should have a clear view of Mr. Putin’s strategies and intention to interfere in the elections, said Michael Carpenter, a Russia expert and former Obama administration official. He pointed to fake social media accounts created as part of Russian intelligence operations that have drummed up support for white nationalists and the Black Lives Matter movement, and have supported far right, far left and pro-Russian candidates in the United States and in Europe.
“Clearly Russia is playing both sides of controversial issues precisely to sow chaos. But that said it is not just chaos, there are certain candidates Russia prefers to see in office,” said Mr. Carpenter, now at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. “The Russians are trying to support anti-establishment and pro-Russian candidates, not just in the U.S. but everywhere.”
Still, there is little doubt about the crucial nature of informants, said Seth G. Jones, who leads the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research organization.
“It is essential to have sources coming from inside the government. It was during the Cold War and it is today,” Mr. Jones said. “There are multiple ways to collect intelligence against your adversary, in this case the Russian government. But sources can provide you things you might not otherwise get, like documents, intelligence assessments.”
Sources can provide photographs of Russian documents and intelligence that are hard to intercept electronically, and that can help the United States figure out what Russia is targeting, not just with its election meddling but with its attempts to infiltrate financial systems, the power grid and other critical infrastructure, Mr. Jones said.
The full reasons the sources have gone silent are not known. But current and former officials also said the exposure of sources inside the United States has also complicated matters.
This year, the identity of an F.B.I. informant, Stefan Halper, became public after House lawmakers sought information on him and the White House allowed the information to be shared. Mr. Halper, an American academic based in Britain, had been sent to talk to Trump campaign advisers who were under F.B.I. scrutiny for their ties to Russia.
Current American officials said there is no direct evidence that the exposure of Mr. Halper has been cited by overseas informants as a source of concern.
But the officials said that some allies have cited the exposure of the informant and other intelligence leaks in curbing some of the intelligence they share. And former spies believe that, long-term, the exposure will hurt overseas collection.
“Publicizing sources is really bad for the business,” Mr. Sipher said. “The only thing we can offer people is that we will do anything in our power to protect them. And anything that wears away at that trust, hurts.”
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