U.S. media have reported that the CIA in 2017 extracted a Russian who provided top-secret intelligence on President Vladimir Putin, including information about alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post reported on September 9 that the man was considered a valuable asset for U.S. intelligence, and while he was not in Putin's inner circle, he had access to Russian security planning and other classified information.
Unnamed Russian officials told the newspaper Kommersant that the reports were false.
A CIA spokeswoman told CNN, the first to come out with the story, that its report was "misguided speculation." A White House spokeswoman called the CNN report incorrect. And U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 10 called the reports "inaccurate."
"The reporting is so egregious it creates an enormous risk," Pompeo said. "The reporting there is factually wrong."
The Times reported that the person had provided information to the United States for decades, including insights that helped U.S. intelligence agencies conclude that Putin was directly involved in efforts to interfere in the presidential election in order to benefit Donald Trump's bid for the presidency.
That conclusion was released in early January 2017, roughly six weeks after Trump won the election by defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton, and two weeks before Trump assumed the presidency.
Congressional committees looking into the 2016 election campaign have reached similar conclusions.
In late 2016 and 2017, according to the Times, the CIA sought to move the person out of Moscow, but the person declined, citing family concerns. In the first half of 2017, however, the Russian agreed.
The Times said the informant was not with in Putin’s innermost circle, but had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making.
CNN also reported that the decision to move the person out of Russia was fueled by U.S. intelligence concerns that Trump may have leaked classified information to Russian officials, including during a May 2017 White House meeting.
That was strenuously denied by the White House spokeswoman.
But the Times and the Post reported that the decision was based on a growing number of U.S. media reports at the time that referred to the possibility of a U.S. informant in Moscow.
Kommersant, meanwhile, reported that the alleged informant may have worked as a high-ranking civil servant in the presidential administration, and earlier, in the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The paper identified the man as Oleg Smolenkov.
Responding to reporters' questions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that a man by that name had worked in the administration "but he was fired several years ago."
Asked also about Russian efforts to thwart foreign espionage, Peskov was quoted by news agencies as saying, "Everything is normal with Russian counterintelligence."
Public records from the Russian government administration in 2008 and 2010 show a person named Oleg Smolenkov employed in the administration of Putin, who served as prime minister between 2008 and 2012. In 2010, Smolenkov was promoted to the relatively high civil-service ranking, under an order signed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.
Prior to Moscow, Smolenkov was listed as working as a second secretary at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., according to a personnel listing from the time. The ambassador at that time was Yury Ushakov, who later returned to Moscow and became a deputy chief of staff for Putin and then a foreign-policy adviser.
No one answered when an RFE/RL reporter rang the doorbell of a house in a Washington, D.C., suburb listed in public records as being purchased by a family named Smolenkov in June 2018. The drapes on the windows of the home located in Stafford, Virginia, were pulled tight, and only a basketball court was visible in the back.
One neighbor, who identified himself as Greg Talley and said he lived across the street, told reporters outside the home that he knew the family had moved in 16 months ago , and he believed they were Russian. He had heard they left their house late after dark on September 9, but said he did not know where they had gone.
Talley said the children went to the school right near the house, and that the family joined neighbors in watching the July 4th holiday firework display on the quiet, tree-lined street.
Talley expressed disbelief that someone who was allegedly working as a CIA informant would be allowed to live so openly in the United States. "If he is on our side, why would his handler let him put his house in his own name?" Talley told RFE/RL.
A report in the online news site Daily Storm from 2017 said that Russian investigators had opened a murder probe after Smolenkov and his family allegedly vanished while in Montenegro.
Kommersant quoted unidentified security officials as saying that the murder investigation was opened and closed several times.