How the FBI's Russia Investigation Could Work, Explained; the Bureau Has Been Running Counterintelligence for 100 Years

By Kutner, Max; Saul, Josh | Newsweek, April 21, 2017 | Go to article overview

How the FBI's Russia Investigation Could Work, Explained; the Bureau Has Been Running Counterintelligence for 100 Years


Kutner, Max, Saul, Josh, Newsweek


Byline: Max Kutner and Josh Saul

"Counterintelligence is to intelligence as chess is to checkers, and we're playing at the grand master level now," says Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. He's talking about the FBI's investigation of Russia's election tampering and possible collusion with people associated with President Donald Trump's campaign.

The FBI has been running counterintelligence since World War I, when the federal government learned that spies from abroad had been operating in the United States for years. The counterintelligence division is meant to protect American secrets and foil foreign espionage attempts. Such cases are the most difficult of all FBI investigations, according to Frank Montoya Jr., the bureau's former national counterintelligence executive, whose caseload included the probe into National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. "Law enforcement's relatively black and white--bad guy commits a crime, you go and investigate the bad guy, you arrest him, you bring him to trial where he pleads, bad guy goes to prison," Montoya says. But in counterintelligence cases, "other than a beginning, it's often hard to define a middle and an end," he says. "When it's a foreign nation-state like Russia who is attempting to undermine our democracy, how do you really quantify that? How do you prove it?" Then throw politics into the mix, he adds, "and it just complicates things tenfold, twentyfold."

"To my understanding, Comey has agents in at least five different field offices working this case," Weiner tells Newsweek. "One office is looking specifically at cyber. Another office is looking specifically at money." Other offices may be looking at U.S. citizens, and overseas intelligence agents will work with their foreign counterparts on leads from other countries, he says. Agencies such as the NSA and CIA will also likely be involved.

A dozen or so agents could be working the case full time, and they might bring on additional specialists in areas such as surveillance, computers, forensics and finance, according to Michael Steinbach, the FBI's former executive assistant director for the national security branch, who oversaw the Russia investigation. Agents will probably analyze electronic surveillance, interviews from the field and materials previously collected, in order to develop leads, analysts say.

Disclosing an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, as Comey did at a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on March 20, is unusual. …

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