The officials who head two of Russia’s top spy agencies visited the US last week to meet with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and discuss issues related to counterterrorism, two people familiar with the matter told Business Insider.
Sergey Naryshkin of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and Alexander Bortnikov of its Federal Security Service met with Pompeo to discuss the US’s and Russia’s mutual interest in counterterrorism.
A third official, Igor Korobov — who leads the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit — visited the US at the same time as Naryshkin and Bortnikov but did not meet with Pompeo, one of the people said.
The news was first reported by The Washington Post earlier this week.
Naryshkin and Korobov are among several Russian officials barred from entering the US under existing sanctions.
Former President Barack Obama’s March 2014 executive order imposing sanctions on Russia for its aggression in the neighboring territory of Crimea says Naryshkin cannot enter the US without a waiver and express approval from the White House and other federal agencies.
Korobov was barred when Obama signed another executive order in December 2016 implementing sanctions in response to the US intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russian government mounted an elaborate campaign to interfere in the 2016 US election.
The order sanctioned individuals who were found to be responsible for or complicit in “malicious cyber-enabled activities” that represented a threat to US national security.
Naryshkin’s visit has raised questions from Democrats and other observers about why the spy chief was allowed to enter the US amid heightened tensions with Russia.
The visit also occurred before President Donald Trump’s administration on Monday decided not to impose new sanctions on Russia for its election meddling.
Former diplomats and intelligence officials stressed that US intelligence heads often meet with their counterparts from adversarial nations to work together on issues of national security, like terrorism.
“It is routine for senior foreign intel officials to come to the US, Russians included,” said Glenn Carle, a former CIA operative. “It is not common if they have been banned entry, however.”
He continued: “The Russian explanation that they received a waiver on national security grounds rings true. It would be the [CIA director] or the White House, and perhaps the State Department, that would authorize the waiver.”
A CIA representative said Naryshkin’s visit was authorized and approved according to proper procedure.
“While we do not discuss the schedules of US intelligence leaders, rest assured that any interaction with foreign intelligence agencies would have been conducted in accordance with US law and in consultation with appropriate Departments and agencies,” the representative said in a statement.
A State Department representative declined to comment on the details of individual visa cases, citing legal restraints. The person referred further questions to the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, but declined to explain why.
Richard Kauzlarich, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who specialized in US-Russia relations, questioned why the State Department would make such a move.
“My goodness,” he said, adding that the US’s embassy in Russia would have issued Naryshkin the visa to travel to the US.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure why the State Department would refer anyone to the Russian Embassy or what they would be able to tell you,” he said.
Meanwhile, the purpose of Korobov’s visit remains unclear. His counterpart in the US is Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
A DIA representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The GRU was found to be the primary Russian intelligence agency responsible for interfering in the 2016 US election.
In addition to hacking and disseminating emails from the Democratic National Committee and attempting to breach election systems, Russia also worked to establish personal contact with Americans seen as sympathetic to Moscow. Officials also mounted an elaborate campaign aimed at spreading disinformation and stoking partisan bickering via Twitter and Facebook.
‘It is no accident the Russians announced this meeting’
Russia appears to be using some of those tactics even now, a US official suggested to CNN on Thursday, pointing to the Russian Embassy’s tweet announcing Naryshkin’s visit.
“It is no accident the Russians announced this meeting,” the official said. “The target was sowing discord in US.”
News of the meeting comes amid the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favor.
The investigation has zeroed in on the White House and the president in recent weeks as Mueller examines whether he sought to obstruct justice by firing FBI Director James Comey last May.
Trump’s critics have also accused the president of adopting a softer stance toward Russia to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing the administration’s decision this week not to impose the new sanctions despite a law Trump signed in August designed to punish Russia for its election meddling.
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said the law had already deterred Russian defense sales.
“From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” Nauert said.
Carle said there were “legitimate, plausible reasons” the three Russian spy chiefs were admitted into the US, but that there were “political and other reasons why none of it may be acceptable.”