U.S. intelligence agencies are expanding spying operations against Russia on a greater scale than at any time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. officials say.
The mobilization involves clandestine CIA operatives, National Security Agency cyberespionage capabilities, satellite systems and other intelligence assets, officials said, describing a shift in resources across spy services that had previously diverted attention from Russia to focus on terrorist threats and U.S. war zones.
U.S. officials said the moves are part of an effort to rebuild U.S. intelligence capabilities that had continued to atrophy even as Russia sought to reassert itself as a global power. Over the past two years, officials said, the United States was caught flat-footed by Moscow’s aggression, including its annexation of Crimea, its intervention in the war in Syria and its suspected role in hacking operations against the United States and Europe.
U.S. spy agencies “are playing catch-up big time” with Russia, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. Terrorism remains the top concern for American intelligence services, the official said, but recent directives from the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have moved Russia up the list of intelligence priorities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Though hidden from public view, the escalation in espionage activity is part of a broader renewal of conflict and competition between the United States and Russia after a two-decade lull. Surging tensions now cut across nearly every aspect of the U.S-Russia relationship.
The hack of the Democratic National Committee has raised fears that Russia is seeking to undermine democratic institutions if not influence the outcome of the American presidential race.
U.S. efforts to negotiate a cease-fire in Syria with Russia have divided President Barack Obama’s administration officials and served as a tacit acknowledgment that Moscow’s intervention succeeded in one of its principal aims: ensuring that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in position to influence any Syria endgame.
Even an encounter between Obama and Putin at a recent summit in China turned, at moments, into an tense staring contest.
U.S. officials stressed that while the need for better intelligence on Russia is considered an urgent priority, there is no intent to return the CIA or other spy agencies to Cold War footings. At the height of that decades-long conflict, former officials said, U.S. spy agencies often devoted 40 percent or more of their personnel and resources to tracking the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites.
U.S. officials said that CIA and other agencies now devote at most 10 percent of their budgets to Russia-related espionage, a percentage that has risen over the past two years.
Critics contend that U.S. intelligence agencies have been too slow to boost collection against Russia and respond to its provocations abroad, repeatedly enabling Putin to gain an upper hand.
“The failure to understand Putin’s plans and intentions has been the largest intelligence failure since 9/11 ,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes said that despite a now well-established pattern of Russian aggression online, against neighboring states and in Syria, U.S. spy agencies have struggled to anticipate Moscow’s moves.
“These should have been red flags,” Nunes said, “but we continue to get it wrong.”
Timothy Barrett, an ODNI spokesman, said in an emailed statement: “The Intelligence Community continues to maintain its focus and deep expertise on Russia, which has enabled us to understand Putin’s evolving worldview. The IC allocates resources directed against Russia commensurate with this evolving threat.”
Barrett and a spokesman for the CIA declined to comment on the scope or nature of espionage activities against Russia. Senior U.S. officials said that divining Putin’s intentions is a particularly daunting task because of the Russian president’s leadership style.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. has said that Putin is “impulsive and opportunistic” rather than guided by consistent strategic aims that would help U.S. intelligence analysts understand or anticipate his moves. “What his long-term plan is, I’m not sure he has one,” Clapper said in a CNN interview last year. “I think he is kind of winging this day to day.”
Former U.S. intelligence officials involved in spying operations against Russia disagreed, saying that Putin’s motivations are consistent and clear — to reclaim his country’s standing as a global rival of the United States, to destabilize Western governments that contest that aim and to constantly test how much Moscow can provoke its adversaries before they respond.
“What he’s basically doing is probing and saying: ‘How far can I push? How much can I gain?’ ” said Steven Hall, a former CIA officer who was responsible for overseeing operations in Russia and the former Soviet Union. “The DNC hack is nothing more than a modern iteration of something the Russians and Soviets have been doing for a long time — trying to meddle in other countries’ politics to their benefit.”
The greater challenge in gathering intelligence on Russia’s president, said current and former officials, is that because of Putin’s formative experience as a KGB officer, he takes extraordinary precautions to ensure that his plans are not vulnerable to foreign intelligence services. Critical information is kept to a tight circle within the Kremlin whose members are guarded in their use of phones, computers and other devices that might be penetrated.
Russia’s intelligence budget is probably a small fraction of the roughly $53 billion that the United States spends each year on espionage. But Russia aims a larger share of its resources at the United States, officials said, and takes advantage of a large disparity in manpower.
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, is believed to have 150 or more operatives in the United States, officials said, concentrated not only in Washington and at the U.N. headquarters in New York but in San Francisco and other major cities.
The CIA, by contrast, has at most several dozen case officers — the term for agency employees responsible for stealing secrets abroad — based in Russia, with several dozen more scattered across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states, former officials said.
Those numbers have expanded in recent years, the officials said, as the CIA has directed dozens of additional recruits emerging from its training campus near Williamsburg, Va., to assignments that will eventually involve espionage against Russia. But the officials said that few of those new hires have any Russian language abilities and will require years of training before they become productive case officers who can recruit and manage networks of spies.
“It is a pipeline process,” a former official said. “It will be years before they can be used operationally.” The official, like other current and former officials interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.
Former officials said there is an even greater imbalance in the counterintelligence resources the countries devote to tracking and disrupting the other’s spies.
“The counterintelligence operation that (Moscow) runs against the U.S. Embassy measured in the thousands,” said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor who until 2014 served as U.S. ambassador to Russia. “It always felt, especially sitting in Moscow, of course, that we were in a counterintelligence and collection battle that was an asymmetric fight.”
The FBI broke up a sprawling Russian spy ring in the United States six years ago and maintains surveillance on dozens of other suspected Russian operatives in the United States, former officials said. Even so, the officials said that the number of bureau agents assigned to tracking Russian espionage is a small fraction of the personnel deployed for the equivalent purpose by Moscow.
Though outnumbered, the CIA has embraced a more aggressive approach to recruiting Russian officials to spy for the United States in recent years, former officials said. The agency has taken advantage of the surging number of high-ranking Russians who travel abroad — trips they would rarely have made when the Soviet Union was intact. CIA operatives are also more daring in their approaches to Russian targets, officials said, waving wads of cash to entice would-be recruits in a nation where the pursuit of wealth has supplanted communism as the prevailing ideology.
The more brazen behavior by the CIA has been met with an intensifying campaign of harassment of American officials in Moscow. In the most recent case, an American official returning by taxi to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after dark in June was tackled and thrown to the ground by a Russian guard stationed at the gate.
The American was formally identified as a U.S. diplomat, but current and former officials said that he was a CIA officer operating under diplomatic cover in Moscow and had to be evacuated from the country to have his injuries treated. State-owned Russian television subsequently aired video of the brawl, depicting it as an act of bravery by a Russian guard seeking to protect the embassy from a dangerous intruder — an interpretation denounced by U.S. officials as preposterous.
Even during less combative periods in U.S.-Russian relations, American spy agencies kept some of their most sophisticated capabilities aimed at Moscow. Budget files provided to The Washington Post by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden depict Russia as on par with China and North Korea as an intelligence priority.
Despite Russia’s high-profile cyber-exploits, current and former U.S. officials said Russia’s digital espionage capabilities are inferior to those of the United States.
One entry in the Snowden files refers to a National Security Agency program that “will attempt to penetrate the Russian intelligence services’ computer networks, increase access and gain expertise on all elements of Russia’s cyber programs, and strengthen the (intelligence community’s) ability to counter Russia’s potential to tap or disrupt the undersea and landline communication cables that carry sensitive U.S. data.”
Even so, officials expressed concern that basic U.S. capabilities fell to levels that could take years to rebuild. The ranks of Russian analysts and speakers went through two stretches of resource drain, officials said, first during the “peace dividend” years after the Soviet Union’s implosion and the second when Russian sections were stripped of people who were reassigned to counterterrorism units after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The House and Senate intelligence committees sought to accelerate that rebuilding process by steering tens of millions of additional dollars toward Russian-related espionage in the budget adopted by Congress last year. But officials said that U.S. spy agencies have been slow to spend that money and that the CIA has not been given any additional authority to mount covert operations beyond traditional categories of espionage against Moscow.
“We have really talented people that need direction from the DNI and White House,” a senior U.S. official said. “There needs to be a robust presidential finding,” the official said, referring to the authority required for covert activity, “that would allow us to do a lot more.”
Putin would probably be skeptical that U.S. spy agencies face any such constraint.
Clapper and other U.S. intelligence officials have said that Putin’s renewed aggression against the United States appears to be driven in part by his paranoia that the CIA and other agencies have been behind public uprisings — including throngs of demonstrators in 2012, scenes that analysts say unnerved Putin before his return to the presidency.
“He assigns a lot of influence and agency to organizations like the CIA,” McFaul said. “He grossly exaggerates what they can do in the world and what they can do in Washington. But because he’s got that mind-set, he wants to win that war.”