How the FBI's Russia Investigation Could Work, Explained

FBI Director James Comey has refused to speculate on how long the FBI investigation into Russian interference could take, but some experts say it could be a few years. Samuel Corum/Anadolu/Getty

"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."

Related: Can FBI Director James Comey untangle the Trump-Russia allegations?

"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. "They're secret for a reason," Montoya says. "You've got to protect sources and methods." But there can be advantages to going public, as doing so can draw people with knowledge out of the woodwork, according to Montoya.

It can also send criminals deeper underground. "An intelligence investigation of the FBI succeeds because it hides in the shadows," Steinbach says. He doesn't blame Comey for going public, given the earlier media reports about the FBI's then-unconfirmed investigation: "Because of the political situation and the public's demand for some information, the risk of stating what was now obvious was not as important as the benefits of sharing that with the American public."

The investigation could take years, and the endgame is not always getting a criminal indictment. "The scope of this is so large," Montoya says, "that it's going to take a long time to not just cull through the data, but to put together the pieces of the investigation and then decide what could possibly go in a criminal direction and what could be just purely intelligence gathering." Steinbach says, "You will try to collect as much as you can to know the totality of the threat." Agents will ask questions such as, "Are there other actors in the United States? Who are they reporting to? What's the flow of information? What type of information is involved?"

Related: Can FBI Director James Comey escape the Clinton email debacle?

If the FBI decides to recommend criminal charges, it would bring the case to the U.S. attorney in the jurisdiction where the alleged criminal activities occurred. "If the crime took place in Trump Tower, then there's the possibility it will be done in Southern District of New York," says former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations related to Trump's presidential campaign after reports surfaced that he met with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. in 2016, so the deputy attorney general would call the shots. The current acting deputy attorney general is Dana Boente, who was confirmed under former President Barack Obama.

"Chess takes a long time. You don't always get to check and checkmate, which in this case would be criminal indictments," Weiner says. "You don't always capture the king. Sometimes counterintelligence cases end in stalemate."