Before he leaves the public stage, former special prosecutor Robert Mueller should be asked why he let Russian spies go free.
Lawmakers should compare then-special prosecutor Mueller’s extraordinary, relentless aggressiveness to find Russian collusion in the 2016 elections with Mueller’s conduct as FBI director.
Mueller prematurely shut down Hanssen probe
When Mueller started his term as FBI director in 2001, the Bureau was reeling from its worst (known) spy penetration after the arrest of senior FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen. Mueller prematurely shut down the FBI’s internal Hanssen investigation within a year. He never publicly revealed why. The FBI claimed it was satisfied that Hanssen had fully cooperated with the damage assessment. But the interagency Hanssen Damage Assessment Team, led by the CIA, was not. Neither was the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General, which had its own investigation with a prescription of things the FBI needed to fix.
Mueller terminated the investigations into the extent of Hanssen’s destruction within the FBI and across the national security community because, as the former director of the Hanssen Damage Assessment Team, Paul Redmond, told me in 2003, “the Bureau didn’t want to know.”
It was an internal coverup of the FBI’s own sloppiness. Five years after Hanssen’s conviction, in 2007, the Justice Department Office of Inspector General found that “the FBI has still not fully implemented some of the most important recommendations” of the OIG’s 2002 report. “In addition, the FBI’s progress in several areas has been uneven and in others requires further attention.”
Cronyism at the top
Under Mueller’s leadership, the FBI continued to protect the cronyism of the inner circle. Mueller added layers of bureaucracy that distanced the leadership from the crucial work of the FBI field offices nationwide and posts around the world. Agents working cases found it harder and harder to get top-level approval. Mueller’s new centralized bureaucracy quickly earned a reputation as a promotion ground for agents who went along with the leadership.
Despite adding all that bureaucracy, Mueller didn’t follow up on some of the Justice Department’s most important points. The Justice OIG reported in 2007 that the FBI had not even bothered to implement a 2002 recommendation to create “a central repository to receive, collect, store, and analyze derogatory information concerning FBI employees.”
Visibly disturbed agents like Hanssen had received promotion after promotion, becoming spy hunters themselves while betraying their country. The repository would have flagged agents and analysts for unprofessional behavior that could lead to treason or abuse of power.
Somehow none of it became a scandal, and nobody was held accountable.
Brilliant counterintelligence operation underway
At the same time, the FBI was secretly running a brilliant counterintelligence operation against a deep-cover Russian spy network that stretched from Boston to Washington, DC.
The operation, called Ghost Stories, had begun before Mueller arrived at the FBI. Among the spies was Anna Vasilyevna Kushchyenko, an attractive 28 year-old Russian intelligence officer known by her American alias Anna Chapman.
The network of at least 11 highly trained Russian officers, who posed as American citizens living normal lives, was a priceless treasure for the FBI and the nation. Brought out to its logical conclusion as a strategic cooptation of Russian espionage, the FBI’s Ghost Stories operation could have manipulated that network of “illegals” back against Moscow for decades.
With patience and strategic vision, the FBI could have penetrated the heart of Russian intelligence, and even the Putin regime itself, feeding both with quality disinformation and creating provocations that would have upturned Russian operations in the United States for a generation.
Mueller shut down the operation while Bill Clinton was in Moscow
Instead, Mueller agreed to shut down Ghost Stories and return the spies to Putin. He publicly went along with a political decision to expose the FBI’s knowledge of a colossal strategic counterintelligence victory for the United States.
In so doing, Mueller destroyed any hopes of permanently hijacking an elaborate Russian espionage operation back against the Kremlin.
With Attorney General Eric Holder supervising criminal complaints on relatively minor charges, the FBI arrested the spies on June 27, 2010.
Literally as FBI agents were making the arrests, former president Bill Clinton was on his way to Moscow to make June 29 a speech for which a Kremlin-affiliated bank would pay him $500,000. On that same visit, Clinton met with Vladimir Putin at his home.
Secretary Hillary Clinton had been blocking Magnitsky sanctions on Russian figures tied to Putin. She would later try to stop reports that her opposition was because of the $500,000 payment from the Russian bank, which was allegedly tied to fraud that triggered the sanctions.
A big spy scandal could not have come at a worse time for the Clintons. For months, the Clintons had been working the system to gain interagency approval of the sale of 20 percent of American uranium production to the Russian government agency that runs Putin’s civilian nuclear power and his nuclear weapons program. That Uranium One deal would ultimately see $145,000,000 pour into the Clinton Family Foundation.
After helping draft the indictments, the FBI arrested ten members of the Russian spy ring. The eleventh spy got away. Even though neutralized as effective spies, the ten were valuable assets to be held in reserve for the right time, as had been done in the past, to trade for valuable American agents in Russian control.
Spies charged with ‘conspiracy to act as unregistered agents’
Instead, FBI director Mueller inexplicably agreed to let them walk. The Justice Department arranged a hasty prosecution of “conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government” – a standard later to be applied to Trump campaign figures and others – and something far less serious than espionage. Within days, all ten immediately pleaded guilty and received a get-out-of-jail-free pass back to Russia.
An Obama administration source told journalists that the FBI arrested the Russian spies before they could get too close to an unnamed cabinet member.
That was true.
An anonymous Hillary Clinton spokesman told ABC News that there was “no reason to think the Secretary was a target of this spy ring.”
That was a lie.
Officially, the State Department pooh-poohed the arrests as old news. Operation Ghost Stories, a decade of work involving hundreds of FBI agents, was nothing more than “a law enforcement action,” claimed department spokesman Phil Gordon. “I don’t think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there,” Gordon said.
What the FBI would describe as an extensive, deep-cover Russian espionage network and one of the greatest victories in Bureau history was, according to Clinton’s press operation, only a minor matter, some vestiges of old attempts, and nothing of real concern.
It’s as if Mueller, like the Obama administration, wanted the whole issue to go away.
Inexplicably fast, one-sided spy swap
One of the spies in the ring, it would later be revealed, had been burrowing into Hillary Clinton’s inner circle since she was a senator from New York. But the spy had not come close to the State Department or classified information.
Even if she had, she would have presented the FBI with a rare opportunity to feed high-level false information directly into the Russian espionage machine.
Instead, Mueller helped Holder and Clinton arrange an inexplicably fast, one-sided spy swap with Moscow. The exchange went like this: The US would give Moscow ten young, highly trained, Americanized Russian intelligence officers in FBI custody.
In return, the Kremlin would release two elderly former Soviet officers who had been of negligible value to the US in the first place and were of no value any more, a former GRU military intelligence colonel who had spied for the British, and a Russian researcher who had never been a spy at all.
The spy swap took place in Vienna, within two weeks of the June 27 arrests. In violation of all norms, Russian agents in England would later attempt to assassinate the former GRU officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, using a binary chemical weapon called Novichok.
One could fairly argue that, while handling two of the most important counterintelligence cases in FBI history, Robert Mueller recklessly damaged American national security and benefited Putin’s successor KGB intelligence service.
The question here is why Mueller chose to abort two investigations into indisputable Russian espionage when he was FBI director, but remained so aggressive with his Russian election interference probe, despite his failure to build a case against any American for “collusion” with the Kremlin.
The July 24 hearings could be the last time Congress can get an answer from Mueller.