WASHINGTON -- The director of the CIA has defended his decision to meet in Washington with the chiefs of Russian intelligence agencies, saying there was nothing untoward about it and that it was a routine practice.
The comments from Mike Pompeo came in a letter February 1 to the U.S. Senate’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, in response to criticism about his meeting last week with the heads of the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service, known respectively as the FSB and the SVR.
The FSB and SVR directors, Alekasandr Bortnikov and Sergei Naryshkin, were both hit with economic sanctions and travel bans by the United States following the 2014 Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine.
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The head of Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, also reportedly traveled to Washington, D.C., in recent days, though it was unclear whom he had met with.
Former U.S. intelligence officials and other experts noted CIA directors routinely communicate with their Russian counterparts. But they also called the presence of the Russian spy chiefs in the United States at the same time an unusual occurrence.
The CIA meeting also took place just days before President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would not issue new sanctions against Russian politicians and wealthy, politically connected businessmen over Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Many observers were surprised by the decision, which was announced on a deadline set by a law passed overwhelmingly in 2017 by Congress. At least one former State Department official called the decision “perplexing” and suggested possible political interference from senior administration officials.
Schumer had demanded to know why the officials were allowed into the country, despite existing sanctions.
In his response to Schumer, Pompeo wrote that U.S. intelligence officials routinely meet with Russian officials to discuss topics, such as aviation security and preventing foreign fighters from returning to both nations.
Pompeo said the meetings with the Russians -- whom he did not identify -- were also not easy.
"When those meetings take place, you and the American people should rest assured that we cover very difficult subjects in which American and Russian interests do not align," Pompeo wrote.
"Neither side is bashful about raising concerns relating to our intelligence relationships and the interests of our respective nations. We vigorously defend America in these encounters and pull no punches -- we never will,” he wrote.
U.S. intelligence agencies have accused the FSB -- considered Russia’s main domestic intelligence agency -- and the GRU of being behind the cyberhacks of U.S. political parties and activists. A U.S. intelligence assessment released in January 2017 said the two organizations were involved in a hacking-and-propaganda campaign to sway the 2016 election campaign.
The SVR, meanwhile, was linked by U.S. law enforcement to a ring of “deep cover” agents who were living in the United States and arrested and deported in 2010. An SVR officer posing as an attaché at the Russian mission to the United Nations was linked to an effort in 2013 to recruit Carter Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker who was later an official in Donald Trump’s election campaign.