Smoke Rises over the Russian Influence Campaign

When FBI Director James Comey appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20th, he made an announcement that the national law enforcement agency was investigating allegations of possible Russian influence during the 2016 Presidential Election campaign.  It was a veritable thunderclap.  It was unexpected, as the primary purpose of the House Intelligence Hearings was to focus on whether FBI Director Comey and NSA chief Admiral Rogers could confirm Trump tweet allegations about possible unauthorized wire taps at Trump Tower during the campaign and transition.

Both Comey and Rogers could find no such evidence, despite the President and White House spokespersons doubling down insisting that there was surveillance. The five hour public hearing evidenced what appeared to be partisan bickering over the Comey Russian investigation with Intelligence Chairman, Devin Nunes (R-CA), a member of the Trump Transition, tangled with Ranking Member Adam Schiff, (D-CA)  a former federal prosecutor and other minority members.

Nunes took it on his own recognizance to meet late Tuesday night, March 21st with unnamed National Security officials in the secure setting of the White House Eisenhower Executive Office Building where he allegedly received confidential information indicating that there was evidence of incidental surveillance of members of the Trump transition as part of an authorized FISA order concerning a third party foreign government, but not Russia.

Moreover, Nunes alleged subsequent to briefing the President the following day about the contents of the information, without providing it to Ranking Member Schiff and both Republican and Democratic members of the Committee,  that several members of the Trump Transition had been unmasked in the process, especially former National Security Director General Michael Flynn.  That gave rise to calls from Senate Democrat Minority Leader Schumer (D-NY) and House Intelligence Ranking Member Schiff that Nunes should recuse himself from the Hearings. Nunes retaliated with changing the upcoming Hearing on the Russian investigation to a confidential one that FBI Director Comey said he declined to participate in. Nunes was under a cloud of his own making as a partisan supporter of the President. Many found his behavior inexplicable. Despite calls for his removal, House Speaker Paul Ryan, himself under a cloud given the withdrawal of pending House  Health reform  legislation on Friday, March 24th, said that he still had confidence in Nunes as Intelligence Committee Chairman.

The Senate Intelligence Committee  appeared more bi-partisan in conducting its own investigation into the Russian campaign influence charges.  There was unanimity of purpose from both Chairman Burr (R-NC) and Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-VA). They made their own shocking revelation. They were inviting Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to testify about his encounters during the Trump campaign and transition with the head of a  sanctioned Russian State Bank.  Reuters reported on Monday, March 27th, “Trump son-in-law met executives of sanctioned Russian bank; will testify:”

Kushner previously acknowledged meeting the Russian ambassador to Washington last December and only on Monday did it emerge that executives of Russian state development bank Vnesheconombank (VEB) had talks with Kushner during a bank roadshow last year.

The bank said in an emailed statement that as part of its preparing a new strategy, its executives met representatives of financial institutes in Europe, Asia and America.

It said roadshow meetings took place “with a number of representatives of the largest banks and business establishments of the United States, including Jared Kushner, the head of Kushner Companies.” VEB declined to say where the meetings took place or the dates. U.S. officials said that after meeting with Russian Kislyak at Trump Tower last December, a meeting also attended by Flynn, Kushner met later in December with Sergei Gorkov, chairman of Vnesheconombank.

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks confirmed the meetings, saying nothing of consequence was discussed.

[…]

Gorkov was appointed head of VEB in early 2016 by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He graduated from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Russia’s internal security agency. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Merit for Services to the Fatherland, according to the bank’s website.

According to two congressional staffers, some Senate investigators want to question Kushner and Flynn about whether they discussed with Gorkov or other Russian officials or financial executives the possibility of investing in 666 Fifth Avenue in New York or other Kushner Co or Trump properties if the new administration lifted the sanctions.

preet bharara

Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York.

Simply meeting with a sanctioned bank is not a federal crime. However, there is more to Vnesheconombank activities in the US. Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) agents  were using the bank as cover for conducting economic espionage.  A guilty plea deal in March 2016 with a Russian spy was announced  by former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York,  Manhattan, Preet Bharara. Bharara was  fired by Trump Attorney General Sessions, on March 10, 2017, along with 45 other US attorneys appointed by President Obama. This despite President Trump suggesting in a meeting at Trump Tower in November 2017, that he wanted to keep the talented prosecutor on. The basis for the plea deal had been  an investigation by the FBI Counterintelligence Division into the activities of the Russian spy ring.  A news release by The U.S. Department of Justice on March 11, 2016 reported, “Russian National Pleads Guilty in Connection with Conspiracy to Work for Russian Intelligence“:

Evgeny Buryakov, a.k.a. Zhenya, 41, pleaded guilty today to conspiring to act in the United States as an agent of the Russian Federation without providing prior notice to the Attorney General.

“An unregistered intelligence agent, under cover of being a legitimate banker, gathers intelligence on the streets of New York City, trading coded messages with Russian spies who send the clandestinely collected information back to Moscow,” said U.S. Attorney Bharara.  “This sounds like a plotline for a Cold War-era movie, but in reality, Evgeny Buryakov pled guilty today to a federal crime for his role in just such a scheme.  More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russian spies still seek to operate in our midst under the cover of secrecy.  But in New York, thanks to the work of the FBI and the prosecutors in my office, attempts to conduct unlawful espionage will not be overlooked.  They will be investigated and prosecuted.”

Here are some of the details of the Russian spy ring that sound like a scenario for the AMC acclaimed cable TV series, “The Americans:”

Buryakov worked in New York with at least two other SVR agents, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy.  From on or about Nov. 22, 2010, to on or about Nov. 21, 2014, Sporyshev officially served as a trade representative of the Russian Federation in New York.  From on or about Dec. 13, 2012, to on or about Sept. 12, 2013, Podobnyy officially served as an attaché to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations.  The investigation, however, showed that Sporyshev and Podobnyy also worked as officers of the SVR.  Sporyshev and Podobnyy were charged along with Buryakov in January 2015, however, Sporyshev and Podobnyy no longer lived in the United States at that time and were not arrested.

The directives from the SVR to Buryakov, Sporyshev and Podobnyy, as well as to other covert SVR agents acting within the United States, included requests to gather intelligence on, among other subjects, potential U.S. sanctions against Russian banks and the United States’ efforts to develop alternative energy resources.

During the course of their work as covert SVR agents in the United States, Buryakov, Sporyshev and Podobnyy regularly met and communicated using clandestine methods and coded messages in order to exchange intelligence-related information while shielding their associations with one another as SVR agents.  Sporyshev was responsible for relaying intelligence assignments from the SVR to Buryakov.

On or about March 28, 2014, Sporyshev was recorded telling Buryakov that he needed help researching the “effects of economic sanctions on our country,” among other things.  A few days later, on April 2, 2014, Sporyshev called Buryakov and stated, in an intercepted conversation, that he had not seen Buryakov in a while, and asked to meet Buryakov outside VEB’s office in New York in 20 minutes.  A court-authorized search of Buryakov’s computer at VEB revealed that, at around the time of this telephone call, Buryakov conducted the following internet searches: “sanctions Russia consequences” [sic] and “sanctions Russia impact.”

[ … ]

In the summer of 2014, Buryakov met multiple times with a confidential source working for the FBI and an FBI undercover employee, both of whom purported to be working on a casino development project in Russia.  During these meetings, Buryakov accepted documents that were purportedly obtained from a U.S. government agency and which supposedly contained information potentially useful to Russia, including information about U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Unlike the other spy ring operatives who escaped prosecution, Buryakov was sentenced on May 25, 2016 to serve 2.5 years in a federal prison.

Thus, the smoke rises over the Trump White House and Chairman Nunes about relations with sanctioned Russian Banks engaged in economic espionage amid concerns about a possible 2016 Russian influence campaign during the 2016 Presidential election. What did Alice say in Chapter two, “Down the Rabbit Hole “ in Adventures in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The Surveillance on Donald J. Trump and Others

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