As part of intelligence operations being conducted against the United States for the last seven months, at least one Western European ally intercepted a series of communications before the inauguration between advisers associated with President Donald Trump and Russian government officials, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.
Related: President Trump's National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigns amidst Russia controversy
The sources said the interceptions include at least one contact between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a Russian official based in the United States. It could not be confirmed whether this involved the telephone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that has led to Flynn’s resignation, or additional communications. The sources said the intercepted communications are not just limited to telephone calls: The foreign agency is also gathering electronic and human source information on Trump’s overseas business partners, at least some of whom the intelligence services now consider to be agents of their respective governments. These operations are being conducted out of concerns that Russia is seeking to manipulate its relationships with Trump administration officials as part of a long-term plan to destabilize the NATO alliance.
Moreover, a Baltic nation is gathering intelligence on officials in the Trump White House and executives with the president’s company, the Trump Organization, out of concern that an American policy shift toward Russia could endanger its sovereignty, according to a third person with direct ties to that nation’s government.
These sources spoke on condition that they not be identified because they were not formally authorized to disclose the information. While Newsweek was told which allied nations intercepted the communications and are gathering intelligence on Trump associates, the sources did so on condition that the countries not be identified out of concern those governments would incur the president’s wrath.
The Western European intelligence operations began in August, after the British government obtained information that people acting on behalf of Russia were in contact with members of the Trump campaign. Those details from the British were widely shared among the NATO allies in Europe. The Baltic nation has been gathering intelligence for at least that long, and has conducted surveillance of executives from the Trump Organization who were traveling in Europe.
These operations reflect a serious breakdown in the long-standing faith in the direction of American policy by some of the country’s most important allies. Worse, the United States is now in a situation that may be unprecedented—where European governments know more about what is going on in the executive branch than any elected American official. To date, the Republican-controlled Congress has declined to conduct hearings to investigate the links between Trump’s overseas business partners and foreign governments, or the activities between Russia and officials in the Trump campaign and administration—the very areas being examined by the intelligence services of at least two American allies.
Some details about Trump’s business partners were passed to the American government months ago. For example, long before the president’s inauguration, German electronic surveillance determined that the father of Trump’s Azerbaijani business partner is a government official who laundered money for the Iranian military; that information was shared with the CIA, according to a European source with direct knowledge of the situation.
Of equal concern to our allies is Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, who is also the special representative to Washington of that country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. This government official, Jose E.B. Antonio, is the head of Century Properties, which in turn is a partner with the president’s business in the construction of Trump Tower at Century City in Makati, Philippines. According to people with direct knowledge of the situation, a European intelligence service has obtained the contracts and other legal documents in the deal between the Trump Organization and Antonio. That deal has already resulted in large payments to Trump’s business, with millions of dollars more on the way—all coming from an agent of the Philippine president.
The financial relationship between an American president and the Philippine government comes at a time when the historic alliance between the West and the Southeast Asian country is under great stress. Since the election last year of Duterte, a campaign of slaughter has gripped the Philippines, with death squads murdering thousands of suspected drug users in the streets. The carnage, which intelligence officials have concluded is being conducted with Duterte’s involvement, has been condemned throughout the Western world; the Parliament of the European Union and two United Nations human rights experts have urged Duterte to end the massacre.
Duterte has responded by signaling his government could tilt its alliances away from the West, instead turning to China as its primary ally. Such a move could be devastating, given that the American armed forces maintains large military bases there. The situation with the Philippines “is already an enormous challenge,” one official with direct knowledge of the European intelligence operations said. “President Trump’s business there is a complicating factor that we are trying to assess.”
The information gathered by the Western European government has been widely shared among the NATO allies, although it is not clear how much has been provided to American intelligence officials. One source said that members of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s staff had been briefed on the surveillance findings prior to her meeting last month with Trump and that officials within the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel have also obtained the details.
These intelligence operations against the United States come as a result of allied concern about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s designs to damage NATO and whether Trump intends to follow a policy path that would embolden Russia. In addition, they are apprehensive about whether a newly strengthened Moscow would use its energy weapon—Western Europe obtains almost 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia—to push aggressive policies with little objection from the Trump White House.
Officials in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are particularly concerned. Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they fear that, should the Trump administration drop sanctions intended to punish Moscow’s military adventurism, their nations’ futures could also be at risk. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will "protect" Russian speakers wherever they are; only 17 percent of Ukraine’s population is ethnic Russians. However, ethnic Russians make up 24 percent and 27 percent of the populations of Estonia and Latvia, respectively, according to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, an American think tank. And even though only 6 percent of Lithuania’s population is ethnic Russian, its government brought back military conscription, which had been abandoned seven years earlier, following Moscow’s military invasion of Ukraine.
While nothing improper has been detected, the Baltic nation also launched an investigation by its intelligence service into the relationship between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his longtime personal friend, Igor Sechin, the head of the Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft. Sechin and Rosneft are on the blacklist of people and entities designated for sanctions following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. He was Tillerson’s main business partner when he worked as the chief executive of Exxon Mobil and is a powerful figure in Russia who is both a former member of the FSB (the federal security service that is the primary successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB) and the former head of presidential administration in charge of the security services.
“Sechin’s power derives from his relationship with Putin,” according to a 2008 State Department cable sent from the embassy in Moscow. “As Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration in charge of the security services, there was little doubt about Igor Sechin's power. He was widely regarded as a very influential member of Putin's inner circle, perhaps even the most influential, with the requisite FSB background to advance the President's (and his own) agenda.”
That influence, and the role Sechin could play in gaining greater power for Russia through oil sales if sanctions are dropped by the Trump administration, is what made him a primary target in the Baltic state’s intelligence investigation of Tillerson. Yet, back in America, the name Sechin was not even mentioned during Tillerson’s confirmation hearings before the Senate.