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Reports suggest U.S. considering returning compounds to Russia, diplomats turning up in strange places

June 1, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
The Trump White House is reportedly considering returning two long-held diplomatic compounds in the U.S. to Russia, after they were seized last year in retaliation for meddling in the 2016 election. John Yang discusses that story, as well as another report that Russian spies have been turning up in odd places in the U.S., with Ali Watkins of POLITICO and The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to hint today at Russian involvement in hacking during last year’s presidential campaign, not by government agents, but by what he called patriotically-minded individuals.

Meantime, the fallout from the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with Russia, and the ongoing tensions between Washington and Moscow, continue on several fronts.

John Yang has more.

JOHN YANG: Late last year, in response to the Russian campaign meddling, the Obama administration expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, and seized two long-held Russian diplomatic compounds, one on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the other on the North Shore of Long Island.

Today, the Washington Post reports that the Trump White House is now considering returning those properties, which are widely considered intelligence-gathering hubs.

What’s more, Politico reports that alleged Russian spies have been turning up in odd places around the United States, often near parts of the nation’s critical telecommunications network.

It’s one part of what U.S. intelligence officials see as intensifying Russian espionage and counterespionage measures both here and in Russia.

With me now for more on these stories are Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post and Ali Watkins of Politico.

Thanks to you both.

These two stories are different enough, I want to handle them one at a time.

So, apologies to you, Ali.

I want the turn first to Karen DeYoung.

Karen, walk us through how this is coming about. The Obama administration took away these compounds to punish the Russians, and now the Trump White House is talking about giving them back?

KAREN DEYOUNG, The Washington Post: Well, they were not — although the Russians charged that they were expropriated, they’re still the property of the Russian government.

What the Americans did in the Obama administration was to ban the Russians from having access to them. They told them they all had to leave in 24 hours, and they couldn’t come back. And then the FBI and other agencies went in and proved to their own satisfaction that what they thought was happening there was actually happening.

The Trump administration in a meeting with — between Secretary Tillerson, Secretary of State Tillerson and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, last month said that they would drop what had been a linkage between the two, what the Trump administration had said was linkage between letting the Russians go back into the buildings and have access to them again and the Russians giving up a situation that had been going on for several years in St. Petersburg, where, in response to previous U.S. sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, the Russians had refused to allow the Americans to build a new consulate in St. Petersburg.

And so the administration had said, well, let’s — you give us our consulate, and we will give you back your building. The Russians said, no, you’re in the wrong and we’re not. This was an illegal expropriation. And a couple days later, when Foreign Minister Lavrov was here, the Americans said, OK, we won’t link them anymore.

And since then, the Americans have been working on specific proposals to give the Russians about the conditions under which they will give them back. The Russians said today in Moscow that — that Tillerson had told them that they would send them specific proposals, but they haven’t gotten anything yet, but they’re still confident that they’re going to get their compounds back.

JOHN YANG: And, Ali, talking about sort of Russian activities, let’s turn to you.

Your reporting found that U.S. intelligence officials were finding Russian diplomats turning up in odd places around the country, right?

ALI WATKINS, POLITICO: This has been kind of a growing concern of what my understanding is the FBI over the last year-and-a-half of Russian diplomats within the U.S. who are supposed to follow pretty stringent travel rules. They’re supposed to notify the State Department when they travel anywhere outside of their posting.

The Russian diplomats effectively disregarding those travel rules and turning up in places that they shouldn’t have been or that they never told the State Department they were going.

JOHN YANG: And what do they think they were up to?

ALI WATKINS: Yes.

As U.S. intelligence officials started kind of looking at where these guys were turning up, they would turn up over where a fiber-optics cable ran underground, or these strange locations that when, taken as a whole, it was — became clear that they were on some kind of mission to kind of map the infrastructure. The intel part went to this infrastructure mapping of some of the telecommunications networks in the country.

JOHN YANG: And was this — is this a change from previous behavior? Does it seem like the Russians are emboldened somehow?

ALI WATKINS: You know, there is an element of this that’s kind of par for the course. There is natural intelligence gathering. The whole art of espionage is trying to do things that a host country doesn’t want you to do.

But what’s different about this is that there’s been kind of a burgeoning debate, particularly over the last year with this election operation, of the U.S., particularly under the Obama administration, being unwilling to fight back on this, and not cracking down as much as they could, when they know that these Russian diplomats who are presumed intelligence operatives are doing these things, brazenly disregarding these rules that they’re supposed to follow.

JOHN YANG: Ali and Karen, let me ask you both — and I will start with you, Ali — earlier today, Vladimir Putin again denied that the Russian state was involved in the meddling with the election, but suggested it could be patriots in Russia.

What do you make of that statement, Ali?

ALI WATKINS: I mean, there are some very — it’s a lot of kind of wordplay going on there, I think.

Putin is not stupid. He knows what he’s saying, in that Russian intelligence is fundamentally different from U.S. intelligence, in that there are a lot more gray zones in the world of Russia. And when Putin says this could have been private sector patriotic actors, but we didn’t know anything about it on a state level, from a U.S. perspective, that might make sense.

An American intelligence operation isn’t necessarily set up to use private sector hackers. But Putin is kind of exploiting that gray zone and that disconnect. So it’s not surprising that he’d say something like that, but it no doubt comes with a bit of a wink-wink.

JOHN YANG: Karen, what do you think of it? You have been watching the Russians for a long time. What do you take of that?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, I think that the allegation has always been that the Russians worked through individuals, non-governmental individuals, in order to do this hacking, and that they were guided by and turned the information over to Russian intelligence.

So, I think what Putin is doing is basically acknowledging that they did it in a very indirect way. And he’s kind of thumbing his nose at the Americans and saying, you know, you can’t pin this on us, even though I think that he’s not really fooling anybody.

JOHN YANG: Very good.

Karen DeYoung, Ali Watkins, thanks for being with us.

KAREN DEYOUNG: You’re welcome.

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