Trump Russia Scandal Shows How Moscow is Still Trying to Turn Americans Using Cold War Tactics

During the 2016 presidential election, Russia used hackers and bots to disrupt American democracy. Since then, many have rightly decried these tactics, as policymakers have moved to address issues surrounding fake news and disinformation on social media. Lost in the mix, however, was Russia’s use of traditional espionage techniques—both online and in the real world—as they continued targeting and recruiting Americans on Donald Trump’s campaign.

It’s still an open question as to whether the Trump team colluded with Russia. But what’s clear is that Moscow used dirt on Hillary Clinton to try and turn members of the New York real estate mogul's campaign. In spy parlance, it’s called a dangle. “Sometimes it’s [a dangle] a person, other times it’s information,” says Vince Houghton historian and curator at the International Spy Museum. “But it’s always the bait on the end of a hook.”

During an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s dissemination of classified information across her private server, the Clinton campaign disclosed that it had inadvertently deleted over 33,000 emails. Even though Clinton was ultimately cleared by the FBI of criminal wrongdoing, a rumor persisted that the missing emails might potentially offer damning information. Making it public could have been a coup for the Trump campaign. So the promise of acquiring these emails was a juicy offer—one that the Russians hoped the GOP campaign would take seriously.

Related: Why Trump would make a terrible spy

They were right. People with alleged ties to the Kremlin apparently offered Clinton’s “missing” emails to Michael Flynn ally Peter Smith, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump campaign staffer, George Papadopoulos, during the campaign. It was the perfect dangle and the Trump team was interested.

The Russian offer may have been a bluff (there’s no public evidence that the Trump campaign received the emails). But that bluff could also have been successful. Scott Olson, a former FBI agent, says the Russians were testing the Trump team’s reaction. Would the New York real estate mogul and his associates tell the authorities? It doesn't look like they did. “By not going to law enforcement it would’ve indicated to the Russians that the targets wanted to play ball,” says a former American senior intelligence officer, who served undercover and asked to be called only “Logan” to protect U.S. intelligence sources and operations. This information, according to Logan “would help with their follow-on strategies on how or whether to use these targeted individuals.”

Such dangles don’t need to take place in the real world, they can be just as effective over email or Twitter direct message. So as the country continues to talk about Russian hacking, fake news and possible collusion, we’re missing the bigger picture: The old tactics worked for Russia. And the proof is already in the public domain.

Naveed Jamali is the author of How to Catch a Russian Spy, a memoir about working undercover as a double agent for the FBI. He continues to serve as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve and is a senior fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His views are his own.

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