At a recent open hearing for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), confirmed that, indeed, there was a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s involvement into the 2016 elections: “I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” While the statement is devoid of any detail, the fact Comey even made such a statement is a nod to the seriousness and strength of its core claim because it came from the counterintelligence community of the FBI, a division inherently adverse to publicity.
While the counterintelligence (CI) division is part of the FBI and its Special Agents are law enforcement officers, the similarities between CI and the rest of the Bureau ends there. While other agents routinely conduct raids and make arrests, FBI CI agents rarely do either. Instead, they spend countless hours watching targets from afar, trying to guess what their adversaries are doing and who they are speaking to. They learn the culture of their targets and in many cases, grow to respect the individuals that they monitor for years. In fact, many of these targets are career foreign military or intelligence officers, who have a strong sense of loyalty and duty to their own nation (a trait the FBI agents can relate to and respect).
The culture within CI is more akin to that of the intelligence community. Indeed, in many cases, the CI division actually acts as part of the intelligence community, conducting operations instead of actual investigations. These operations often unseen and unknown to the public have the simple goal of stopping the efforts of foreign intelligence services working inside the United States to collect intelligence and to recruit and run spies.
While CI operations, of course, operate within the boundaries of law, their goal is not necessarily to collect evidence of a crime for eventual prosecution. Instead, it is to uncover and neutralize foreign intelligence collection efforts by adversaries. To do this job, these agents quietly recruit assets that can help spy on adversaries and rely heavily on surveillance. It creates a sense amongst FBI targets, such as Russian GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers who are posted to the United States, that they are operating behind enemy lines the minute they land in the U.S.
With less than 14,000 agents, the FBI is a small law enforcement agency (it is less than half the size of the New York Police Department), and of all the areas of focus, CI is one of its smallest components. The CI mission and agents tend to focus on areas like New York City, Washington D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco where foreign embassies and consulates are found. As such, CI agents are generally assigned to squads that focus on the intelligence efforts of a specific country. The end result is that even in a city such as New York which houses the United Nations and numerous consulates and missions, the FBI CI community is small and tight-knit. But, because of the sensitivity of the mission, information is highly compartmentalized. Because of the limited size of CI and the scope of its mission, agents must often choose what and who to focus on. While agents focused on criminal or counterterrorism investigations can often draw upon deep resources, the secret nature of CI efforts and the division’s limited number of resources forces agents to limit their scope and focus—often rejecting new endeavors because they lack the necessary resources to conduct a proper investigation.
Unlike criminal efforts, since many of the targets are given official cover as diplomats posted to an embassy or a consulate, an arrest of a foreign agent is out of the question. Instead, a win for counterintelligence is much more subtle and almost completely unknown and unseen by the public. Wins do not come with a perp walk or months of courtroom drama; rather, a win for CI might result in a confrontation between Bureau agents and the foreign intelligence officer, letting him know his efforts have been compromised. With the time, money, and resources that foreign intelligence agencies pour into collecting intelligence and running U.S.-based assets even the most subtle of hints that their efforts have been compromised can have a crashing and long-reaching effect on that nation’s collection efforts. In the end, success for CI agents is not defined by the arrests they make, but rather, by their ability to identify and surveil foreign intelligence collection efforts and assets.
Then, ever so rarely, there are the public cases where an American is swept up in a CI investigation and exposed as a spy for a foreign nation. Often times, those cases result in a plea deal with careful language about the foreign nation. The FBI does that for any number of reasons, particularly to limit the damage to any ongoing State Department negotiation efforts as well as to protect foreign posted CIA officers from reciprocal actions. Bringing a CI investigation into the courtroom or publicly confirming that such a case even exists is nothing short of a complete departure from the counterintelligence norm.
So yes, Comey’s statements were devoid of any detail; however, when understanding the secretive nature of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, his statements speak volumes as to both the strength of the information and to the seriousness of the investigation.