As Hillary Clinton was beginning her job as President Obama’s chief diplomat, federal agents observed as multiple arms of Vladimir Putin’s machine unleashed an influence campaign designed to win access to the new secretary of State, her husband Bill Clinton and members of their inner circle, according to interviews and once-sealed FBI records.
Some of the activities FBI agents gathered evidence about in 2009 and 2010 were covert and illegal.
A female Russian spy posing as an American accountant, for instance, used a false identity to burrow her way into the employ of a major Democratic donor in hopes of gaining intelligence on Hillary Clinton’s department, records show. The spy was arrested and deported as she moved closer to getting inside the secretary’s department, agents said.
Other activities were perfectly legal and sitting in plain view, such as when a subsidiary of Russia’s state-controlled nuclear energy company hired a Washington firm to lobby the Obama administration. At the time it was hired, the firm was providing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in pro bono support to Bill Clinton’s global charitable initiative, and it legally helped the Russian company secure federal decisions that led to billions in new U.S. commercial nuclear business, records show.
Agents were surprised by the timing and size of a $500,000 check that a Kremlin-linked bank provided Bill Clinton with for a single speech in the summer of 2010. The payday came just weeks after Hillary Clinton helped arrange for American executives to travel to Moscow to support Putin’s efforts to build his own country’s version of Silicon Valley, agents said.
There is no evidence in any of the public records that the FBI believed that the Clintons or anyone close to them did anything illegal. But there’s definitive evidence the Russians were seeking their influence with a specific eye on the State Department.
“There is not one shred of doubt from the evidence that we had that the Russians had set their sights on Hillary Clinton’s circle, because she was the quarterback of the Obama-Russian reset strategy and the assumed successor to Obama as president,” said a source familiar with the FBI’s evidence at the time, speaking only on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
That source pointed to an October 2009 communication intercepted by the FBI in which Russian handlers instructed two of their spies specifically to gather nonpublic information on the State Department.
“Send more info on current international affairs vital for R., highlight US approach,” part of the message to the spies read, using the country’s first initial to refer to Russia. “… Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources closer to State department, government, major think tanks.”
The Clintons, by that time, had set up several new vehicles that included a multimillion dollar speech-making business, the family foundation and a global charitable initiative, all which proved attractive to the Russians as Hillary Clinton took over State.
“In the end, some of this just comes down to what it always does in Washington: donations, lobbying, contracts and influence — even for Russia,” said Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.
The sleeper ring
Figliuzzi supervised the post-arrest declassification and release of records from a 10-year operation that unmasked a major Russian spy ring in 2010. It was one of the most important U.S. counterintelligence victories against Russia in history, and famous for nabbing the glamorous spy-turned-model Anna Chapman.
While Chapman dominated the headlines surrounding that spy ring, another Russian woman posing as a mundane New Jersey accountant named Cynthia Murphy was closing in on accessing Secretary Clinton’s department, according to records and interviews.
For most of the 10 years, the ring of Russian spies that included Chapman and Murray acted as sleepers, spending a “great deal of time collecting information and passing it on” to their handlers inside Russia’s SVR spy agency, FBI records state.
Murphy, living with her husband and kids in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, reported a major breakthrough in February 2009 in an electronic message sent to her handlers: she had scored access to a major Democrat, FBI records state.
“Murphy had several work-related personal meetings with [a prominent New York-based financier, name omitted] and was assigned his account,” one FBI record from the case read. “The message accurately described the financier as ‘prominent in politics,’ ‘an active fund-raiser’ for [a major political party, name omitted] and a ‘personal friend’ of [a current Cabinet official, name redacted].”
Multiple current and former officials confirmed to The Hill that the Cabinet officer was Hillary Clinton, the fundraiser was New York financier Alan Patricof and the political party was the Democratic National Committee. None of the Americans were ever suspected of illegalities, but the episode made clear the Russian spies were stepping up their operations against the new administration after years of working in a “sleeper” capacity, officials said.
Patricof did not return a call to his office Friday seeking comment. But in 2010 he told The Washington Post after the spy case broke he believed he had been a victim of the spy ring, saying Murphy had worked for him but that he only talked accounting and not government or politics with her.
“It’s just staggering,” he told the Post about the idea of being targeted by Russia. “It’s off the charts.”
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill declined Saturday to say if the secretary was ever alerted or briefed to the Russian spy effort, instead suggesting that any focus on the spy case was a partisan effort to distract from the controversy around Moscow and President Trump.
“Nothing has changed since the last time this was addressed, including the right’s transparent attempts to distract from their own Russia problems, which are real and a grave threat to our national security,” he wrote in an email to The Hill.
Back in 2010, when the spy story broke, Hillary Clinton’s office issued a statement that there was “no reason to think the Secretary was a target of this spy ring.”
Court documents and agents who worked the case suggest otherwise, saying the Russians were specifically targeting her department and any intelligence they could get on the new administration’s emerging foreign policy.
Trying to get inside State
The FBI documents show exactly what Murphy’s Russian handlers wanted her to get from a Clinton-tied donor she had befriended. “Maybe he can provide Murphy with remarks re US foreign policy, roumors (sic) about White House internal kitchen, invite her to major venues,” one FBI document quoted the Russians as saying.
By 2010, the Russian SVR urged Murphy to consider taking a job with a lobbying firm because “this position would expose her to prospective contacts and potential sources in U.S. government,” the FBI affidavit read.