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World

As Trump-Russia Controversy Continues, Kremlin Spies Watch And Learn

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As diplomatic talks played out in Moscow, a different Russian drama was playing out here in Washington - the ongoing probes into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Three confirmed investigations by the FBI, the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees are underway. And Americans are not the only ones following every twist and turn. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports that Russian spies are also watching and learning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Another day, another front-page story splashing sensitive, sometimes classified information to do with Russia. For months now, the Russia controversy has careened on in Washington - bombshell scoops, congressional hearings, press conferences. Longtime Kremlin watchers warn Russia's security services are gobbling up every morsel.

TOM GRAHAM: Anything that we say about the investigation publicly reveals something about what we know and how we know it.

KELLY: Tom Graham, the top Russia expert on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House. He's now a managing director at Kissinger Associates.

GRAHAM: They're watching this very, very closely, how many of their operations we have uncovered, how we might have uncovered them. But it also gives them an opportunity to adjust their tactics as they pursue further information gathering or disruptive activities.

KELLY: In other words, as Moscow continues to pursue what Russians call active measures and other covert action against the U.S. Michael Sulick agrees that his old adversaries in Moscow are riveted. Sulick is former chief of the CIA's Clandestine Service.

MICHAEL SULICK: I would imagine they have the equivalent of a task force set up at the FSB and/or the SVR to watch events because of course they could learn a lot from it.

KELLY: The FSB and SVR being, respectively, Russia's federal security and foreign intelligence services.

SULICK: This is the most scrutinized counterintelligence investigation I have ever heard of.

KELLY: That's saying something, considering Sulick spent three decades at the CIA, including a tour as chief of counterintelligence. Sulick says he worries less about details that might emerge from, say, an open Senate hearing.

SULICK: Nobody wants to be accused of, you know, publicly on TV revealing classified information. So I think they're more disciplined in that. It's what happens after a classified briefing and then somebody decides they want to leak some particular piece of news. Or they say, oh, we got this from a human source and the next thing you know the FSB is energized to go redouble their efforts to find somebody.

KELLY: To dig out that human source who may be funneling intelligence to the U.S., thereby shutting down American efforts to spy on Russia. So far, Sulick says nothing has emerged publicly from the probes that's a game-changer in terms of damaging sensitive U.S. sources and methods. But Rob Richer, who ran the CIA's Russia operations in the '90s, sees danger in recent news stories about unmasking the names of Trump aides caught up in surveillance.

ROB RICHER: The fact that we're talking about incidental collection, i.e. when we collect against a target and an American surfaces, I don't like - I don't think we should be talking about collection methods. You don't hear the Russians talking about theirs.

KELLY: The question, though, is what's the alternative when a free press and congressional investigators have vital legal roles to play?

GRAHAM: We're operating in a democratic society. Governments are held accountable.

KELLY: The former National Security Council official Tom Graham.

GRAHAM: If we're going to be able to deal with effectively with the challenge we're facing from Russian active measures then we have to have an educated public.

KELLY: And there's the rub, making sure that in the process of educating, of shedding light on what happened during the election of 2016, the U.S. doesn't inadvertently roll out the welcome mat to future Russian meddling. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.