Too good to check: Feds feared hot Russian spy was trying to seduce Obama cabinet member?

Via Ace, who found this irresistible news nugget buried in an Independent story about the duplicitous Iraqi WMD informant who’s been telling his story for more than a year now.

Go look at the picture Ace posted. I can’t lie: I probably would have given her the launch codes.

Another revelation in the series is the real reason why the FBI swooped on Russian spy Anna Chapman in 2010. Top officials feared the glamorous Russian agent wanted to seduce one of US President Barack Obama’s inner circle. Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI’s head of counterintelligence, reveals how she got “closer and closer to higher and higher ranking leadership… she got close enough to disturb us”.

The fear that Chapman would compromise a senior US official in a “honey trap” was a key reason for the arrest and deportation of the Russian spy ring of 10 people, of which she was a part, in 2010. “We were becoming very concerned,” he says. “They were getting close enough to a sitting US cabinet member that we thought we could no longer allow this to continue.” Mr Figliuzzi refuses to name the individual who was being targeted.

That’s from a new BBC documentary called “Modern Spies”; there’s a clip of Figliuzzi talking about the Russian spy ring at the BBC website but it won’t play for me in any browser. Figliuzzi’s actually talked a lot about the spy ring in the past, most notably in November when he detailed the Russians’ methods for ABC. He hinted at the time that the ring was trying to get close to someone in the cabinet but if he’s ever mentioned anything about a honey trap, I missed it. Quote:

“This group was well on their way to penetrating foreign policy circles. They had befriended a friend of a sitting Cabinet official,” FBI Counter Intelligence Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi said. “They wanted to get their hands on the most sensitive data they could get their hands on, but we took this thing down before classified information changed hands.”…

Because they broke the code, the FBI was able to place an informant into the spy ring. At one point, Chapman even hands her laptop over to the informant so he can fix some technical problems she was having. She didn’t know, of course, she was having trouble with her laptop because of measures taken by the FBI. The FBI dubbed the operation that caught Chapman and her colleagues “Ghost Stories,” because many of the Russian spies assumed the stolen identities of dead Americans.

At the time he called Chapman a “highly-trained intelligence officer” and the “cream of the crop” of Russian intel, but how highly trained could she have been if she was willingly handing over her laptop to a mole following FBI cybersabotage? On the contrary, when the story first broke two years ago, some of the details of how Chapman and company operated made them sound like abject morons. (Writing down passwords? Changing cover stories repeatedly?) I’m eager to see the BBC interview with Figliuzzi once it hits YouTube, because now that I re-read that Independent passage, I notice that it never quotes him as saying Chapman or anyone else was trying to “seduce” anyone. That’s the Independent’s interpretation, but the actual quotes are Figliuzzi’s standard take about her (and the rest of the ring) trying to gain access to someone in the cabinet. If he really is suggesting a honey trap, I wonder why he didn’t tell ABC that last fall. It’s a sensational, movie-worthy detail. They surely wouldn’t have left it out of their story deliberately.

Semi-serious exit question: Why invest in risky humint operations when cyberhackers can operate remotely and pull far more detailed intelligence than spies in the field can? If you missed them in Headlines last week, take 10 minutes to read two important pieces that will chill you to the bone. First is this Smithsonian interview with Richard Clarke describing a horrifying and maybe literally fatal flaw in the Stuxnet worm: Clarke is convinced that the worm was programmed to self-destruct when installed on a computer outside of Iran’s enrichment facility, but something went wrong and it didn’t. Now every cyberspy and hacker in the world who wants one can get a copy of the virus and tweak its code so that it can attack all sorts of infrastructure. It’s as if the U.S. had lost an atomic bomb somewhere in Russia in 1945: No need for the enemy to steal the blueprints when it suddenly has your own weapon. The second piece is this Wall Street Journal story interviewing top U.S. counterintel officials in the FBI’s cybercrime division. Their verdict: America is badly, badly overmatched right now in defending itself from hackers. According to one think-tanker who specializes in cybersecurity, “Mr. Lewis said he didn’t believe there was a single secure, unclassified computer network in the U.S.” Anything China and, presumably, Russia wants is basically theirs for the taking; in the Smithsonian piece, Clarke even speculates that China could plant cyberbombs in U.S. military systems to disable planes, carriers, etc, in the event of a conflict. Who needs Anna Chapman when you’ve got modems and killer nerds?

Ed Morrissey Nov 29, 2021 8:25 AM ET