Intelligence officials and lawmakers are concerned that the State Department is dragging its feet in implementing a crackdown on Russian diplomats’ travel within the U.S., despite evidence that Moscow is using lax restrictions to conduct intelligence operations.
The frustration comes amid bipartisan concern that the Trump administration is trying to slow other Congressional efforts to get tough on Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a House committee last week that a new Senate sanctions package designed to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election would limit Trump’s “flexibility” and impede possible U.S. “dialogue” with Moscow.
At issue separately is a provision already signed into law, as part of Congress’s annual Intelligence Authorization Act, approved in May, which requires the State Department to more rigorously enforce travel rules for Russian diplomats inside the U.S. The Kremlin’s U.S.-based diplomatic corps, according to several U.S. intelligence sources, has been known to skip notification rules and use the lax restrictions to roam around the country, likely engaging in surveillance activities.
The law includes a requirement that the State Department work with the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence’s Office to ensure that Russian diplomats notify the State Department of their travel plans, and actually wind up where they say they’re going.
But intelligence officials say there are early indications that the State Department, which is trying to avoid an escalation in tensions with Russia that might prevent friendly dialogue, is resisting the new measure, which formally goes into effect on Aug. 2. The officials wouldn’t give specifics, but said there has been little forward progress on actually implementing the new policy, which also includes notifications between the State Department and Congress, and is relatively easy to put into place.
While the State Department still has time before the deadline, much of the officials’ frustration comes from months of perceived inaction by State as Russian diplomats traveled freely throughout the last year and a half, and there’s little optimism that will change.
The State Department said it is taking the new requirement seriously.
“The Department is aware of the mandate in Section 502 of the Intelligence Authorization Act and is discussing it internally and with other U.S. government agencies,” A State Department official said. “The Department understands the importance of strict enforcement of travel protocols and procedures applicable to Russia’s accredited diplomatic and consular personnel.”
Russia hawks in Congress are already publicly voicing concern that the State Department is not doing enough ahead of the deadline to start cracking down on Russian diplomats’ movements inside the U.S.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed the FBI on the subject at a recent open hearing, and asked whether the State Department was being more cooperative with the agency, which also plays a role in tracking foreign diplomats’ whereabouts.
“I’d rather not comment on that here,” Bill Priestap, the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division said. “We’re still working through the implementation.”
The new restrictions were proposed in Congress last summer after it was found that the Kremlin’s diplomatic corps frequently waited until the last possible moment to notify the State Department of their travel plans, as required by law, if they notified the State Department at all. Often, the diplomats wound up in places they didn’t disclose they were going.
Priestap declined to discuss specifics of the travel notification issue, but said that the notion of Russian diplomats wandering around the country unchecked would be a concern for the bureau.
“If that were to happen, that would absolutely complicate our efforts,” Priestap said, declining to comment on the existence of the problem.
But U.S. intelligence officials tell POLITICO that the burgeoning issue has absolutely impacted the U.S.’s counterintelligence efforts at home. And there is tangible frustration that the State Department is fighting implementation of an overall easy fix of ensuring the Russians adhere to basic travel guidelines.
One frustrated U.S. official complained the State Department has mistakenly assumed its mandate is to keep foreign governments happy. “That’s not their job,” the official said, adding that the State Department is too worried about “rocking the boat.”
The new requirements aren’t stringent, nor completely new — instead, they underscore procedures that are already supposed to be happening. For example, Russian diplomats are allowed to travel with appropriate notification. Rules require that a diplomat notify the State Department 48 before their travel, if they intend to travel more than 25 miles outside their posting. The State Department is then supposed to notify the FBI.
Still, intelligence officials say the State Department has shown little appetite to actively crack down on Russian personnel, fearing backlash from Moscow.
With the departure of John Kerry and Obama’s State Department ranks, there was tempered optimism from the intelligence community that new leadership might be more willing to crack down where Kerry — hopeful for a counterterrorism cooperation with the Russians — wouldn’t. But Tillerson’s comments and State’s apparent lack of interest in enforcing the new travel restrictions has effectively muted that.
For years, there has been tangible frustration among intelligence officials and even some foreign service officers at the Obama administration’s hesitation to undertake aggressive counter espionage methods at home, especially as the Kremlin aggressively goes after U.S. diplomats based in Russia. In a well-publicized incident last year, the FSB beat up a CIA officer returning to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, hurting him so badly he was forced to be immediately flown from the country for medical treatment.