On August 18, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 1,300-page report calling the involvement of Russian intelligence agents with officials in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as an “aggressive and multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to ‘influence, the result of 2016. presidential election. “The report details the long-standing relationship between Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, and a Russian intelligence agent named Konstantin Kilimnik, while also describing other connections Russian intelligence figures with members of the Trump family including Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner, and with such Trump confidants as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, briefly the President’s National Security Advisor.
Predictably, President Trump immediately denounced the report as “a hoax” (not to mention the fact that it was drafted by a Republican-controlled committee), while his entourage took their usual stance on these questions, either by remaining silent or by denouncing the committee. working like a tired retread from last year’s Mueller report. The real scandal, the president declaimed, was the deep state’s “witch hunt” against him that sparked these inquiries in the first place.
While this latest chapter in the four-year-old Russiagate drama is unlikely to change its mind, at least one person has considered the Senate findings with both great interest and concern. His name is Peter Sichel and, at 97, he is the last surviving member of the first CIA that faced the Soviets at the start of the Cold War.
Escape from Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, Sichel served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime US intelligence agency, during World War II. In October 1945, just months after the end of the war, he was sent to Berlin to take charge of the local underground wing of an embryonic American intelligence group called the Strategic Services Unit, a precursor to the CIA. This assignment placed Sichel at the zero point of the Cold War that was already beginning to take shape between the Soviet Union and its wartime Western allies, and gave him a front row seat to observe precisely how the Soviets were taking over. in Eastern Europe.
“Most people have this idea that they came and seized all of these countries by force,” Sichel explained, “but that’s not true. In almost all cases, they worked within the structure of the pre-war political parties and simply gradually co-opted them.
Through his contacts in Soviet-controlled East Germany, Sichel witnessed how the Soviets first forced local left and center-left political parties to regroup, then to accept the general leadership of the embryonic German Communist Party. “They did it both by threats – if a politician resisted, he could be threatened with arrest as a Nazi war criminal – and by seduction. Remember, Germany was in absolute shambles back then, so it didn’t take much – the offer of a car or a food allowance – to line up. Their ambition was to take control of political parties, but to pretend it was the will of the people.
Sichel’s early 1946 report on the methods used by the Soviets to co-opt East German political parties was the first detailed examination of the phenomenon, which was soon imitated in other Eastern European nations under their military control. . Once they formed a sizable minority in government, communist-led coalitions would then begin to take control of key ministries, including the police and internal security services, until they could take control. relay. One of the ultimate beneficiaries of this approach, a Hungarian communist leader by the name of Matyas Rakosi, called it a “salami tactic,” the process of joining the existing political system and then eliminating it until ‘There is nothing left.
In this regard, a revelation in the Senate Intelligence Committee report caught Sichel’s attention. Contrary to most previous assumptions, Senate investigators found that the Russian intelligence campaign to gain influence with the Republican Party began long before Trump became a viable candidate, in accordance with Vladimir Putin’s plan to thwart a Hillary Clinton’s presidency as he could. It matched the pattern the old CIA hand saw in Eastern Europe.
“A big advantage the Soviets have always had over us,” Sichel explained, “is that they played the long game. We thought in terms of quarters, while they thought in terms of years, even decades. They were opportunistic, willing to let things unfold gradually until the right political faction or the right leader to support emerged.
“Scattered throughout the Senate report is a litany of examples in which Trump’s associates have allowed themselves to be exposed to Russian blackmail.”
This resonated in the years leading up to 2016 in the string of connections Putin, an old man in the KGB himself, had with right-wing politicians and fringe groups across Europe. While these ties may have seemed to run counter to Putin’s open nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet Communist regime, they shared the common ground of ultra-nationalism.
It paid big dividends for the Russian leader, as these same nationalist groups were at the forefront in their respective countries to call for the dissolution or weakening of NATO and the European Union, two goals. long term of Putin. For the same reason, Russia’s leaders could not have been delighted with Trump’s steady rise to the Republican nomination. Far more than any other Republican presidential candidate, Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, America First, matched Putin’s own version, while Trump’s promise of a reduced American role on the world stage was the product of Russian fantasy. It’s no wonder Putin’s henchmen are doing everything in their power to help propel the hotel mogul and reality TV host into the White House.
But of course, one cannot rely solely on the Jingo fraternity to achieve their goals, and filing the pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee report is the specter of another old KGB reservation: kompromat or blackmail. . During his Cold War days in Berlin, Peter Sichel had to remain constantly vigilant against kompromat schemes targeting himself and his CIA colleagues, as well as West German politicians. “The KGB was an absolute master in this area,” he recalled, “and they would use whatever they could get their hands on. A favorite was the honey traps [or sexual entrapments], but bribes, favors, whatever they could find. And once they got you hooked, they got you.
Scattered throughout the Senate report is a litany of examples in which Trump’s associates have left themselves open to Russian blackmail: Manafort’s extensive dealings with Kilimnik; the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which Donald Jr., Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn met with Russian intelligence agents who vowed to smear Hillary Clinton; backchannel communications between Flynn, then Trump’s appointed national security adviser, and the Russian Ambassador.
“The past four years have been very, very good for Vladimir Putin.”
“The bottom line is they all lied to investigators about it,” Sichel explained, “and that’s where the potential blackmail comes in. Imagine if the FBI hadn’t caught Flynn and he The Russians knew he had lied – I’m sure they had recorded all their communications with him – so they would have had him forever.
In this way, argued the old spy master, the various investigations into Russiagate have in fact been of great service to Trump.
“I know he doesn’t see it that way,” Sichel said, “but by bringing all of these things out in public, it removes the threat of blackmail. The smartest thing Trump could have done when this all started to fall apart was to just come out and say, ‘Yeah, it looks like Russia was involved in my campaign, but it’s over now, I’m Chair, then let’s move on. “. But he didn’t, of course. Maybe there were reasons he couldn’t.
Even long-retired intelligence officers tend to be circumspect by nature – Sichel left the CIA in 1960 – and while he left that last comment hanging, his allusion seemed pretty clear. After all, what about an American president whose foreign policy initiatives have been to weaken NATO and to urge the European Union to fracture. Who has repeatedly tried to reintegrate Russia into the council of industrialized nations of the G-8, despite strong objections from America’s European allies, and who defends Putin’s propensity to kill his political opponents by declaring: “I think that our country does a lot of murder too. And it’s not as if Trump’s obedience to his Russian friend is a thing of the past. On August 20, two days after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Putin’s main surviving political opponent, Alexei Navalny, was left near death by poison almost certainly administered by Russian intelligence agents. Even as European leaders have protested the Kremlin and demanded an investigation, President Trump has yet to say a word on the matter. This is not an original thought, but did Sichel think that the president himself could be the hostage of the Russian kompromat?
“Well, I couldn’t tell,” he replied, “because I think we’re still in the early stages of unlocking everything that’s happened. What I can say is that the past four years have been very, very good for Vladimir Putin. And if Trump is re-elected, the next four will be even better.
Scott Anderson is the author of The Silent Americans: Four CIA Spies on the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy in Three Acts. He is also the author of two novels and four other non-fictional works, including Lawrence in Arabia, an international bestseller that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Remarkable book. A veteran war correspondent, he is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.