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How U.S. intelligence agencies (such as Special Collection Service – SCS) can find out what Trump told Putin in Helsinki

The irony of Trump himself being the one obstacle preventing them from confirming his claim conclusively — and getting a full picture of what happened in Helsinki — is not lost on current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

Under virtually any other president, some told POLITICO, audio and video recordings of such a critical event would be a given, especially if there wasn’t a top aide in the room specifically there to take detailed notes. That is also something that Putin’s side most certainly possesses. U.S. intelligence analysts would want to parse every word, facial expression and change in body language of Trump and his wily adversary, and share their findings with the White House, Congress, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders, and their many intelligence allies around the world.

Instead, former NSA senior signals intelligence analyst John Schindler says it appears that “the only way they're learning about what was said in that closed-door meeting is through NSA reporting, top-secret code-word reporting, about what the Russians say was said in that meeting. And what the French foreign ministry and, insert other country here {U.K} or Finland, think happened in Helsinki based on what the Russians told them."

“Obviously, this is so crazy that no one thought this would happen,” Schindler said of the U.S. intelligence agencies scramble to figure out what, exactly, a sitting U.S. president said in a meeting with a known belligerent adversary. “The really important stuff from an intelligence viewpoint is what we collect on the meeting. But because there’s no U.S. version to check it against, the Russians could be lying about it and we wouldn’t even know.”

The ultimate, and most frustrating, irony of all for the intelligence community? “Eventually we are going to wind up with every version of what happened,” Schindler said, “except Trump's.”

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Intelligence officers are especially hamstrung because even if they are able to get a full account of the meeting, they would be extremely limited in how they could use it without risking Trump's wrath. Given his intention to have the meeting remain between him and Putin, he could even claim that any collection done without his permission is therefore illegal.

James Bamford, author of four books on how the NSA operates, said it is indeed illegal for the NSA and CIA to intercept the communications of Americans — domestically or overseas — unless they give their express approval. The agencies also could seek a special intelligence-gathering warrant, usually by demonstrating that the people in question are acting as agents of a foreign power, as was the case with former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

“And I don’t think Trump would appreciate that,” Bamford said. “The NSA is a bureaucracy in which people only do what they are ordered to do if it comes from the top down. So there’s not a chance in hell that anyone would have eavesdropped on the president of the United States without express prior authorization.”

U.S. intelligence officials made clear their concerns about Trump going it alone with Putin long before the specifics of the Helsinki meeting were finalized. But those concerns went through the roof as those officials witnessed Trump’s erratic behavior during the chaotic news conference immediately following it.

For his part, Trump publicly sided with Putin over his own security agencies regarding Russia’s hacking of the 2016 presidential election, and said both countries were to blame, while later claiming that he delivered tough talk during their private session. Putin suggested that Trump had made significant concessions on several key security issues, including Syria.

What was also alarming to some veteran American spies, they said in interviews, was Trump’s behavior — slump-shouldered and deferential to Putin, who has long boasted about his ability to manipulate rivals when left alone with them.

One former senior intelligence official said Coats likely was referring to that broader Trump-Putin dynamic when making his statement last week during an event at the Aspen Security Forum.

Rather than say he didn’t know what Trump discussed with Putin, Coats said, “I don`t know what happened in that meeting,” adding, “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way.”

Because the summit was finalized just a few weeks beforehand, U.S. intelligence officials had to scramble to get their agents, analysts and technical collectors in position to eavesdrop on an event that had the potential of being one of the most consequential of Trump’s presidency, according to current and former U.S. officials. The Special Collection Service, the ultraclassified team of NSA and CIA interceptors, no doubt began moving into position as soon as the decision was made, they said.

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The SCS has operated so deeply in the shadows that even its existence, and its name, were unknown to public for decades. In 2013, explosive details about its operations emerged into public view, when former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked a massive trove of NSA documents to journalists.

The unit, sometimes code-named STATEROOM,

often has provided Washington with a decisive advantage during trade talks and political negotiations at the United Nations, within range of U.S. embassies overseas and at remote locations such as the meeting in Helsinki. But the Snowden documents sparked a firestorm of criticism, including details about how SCS systematically had wiretapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private cellphone for a decade as part of a massive electronic dragnet covering dozens of European and Latin American leaders.

In Helsinki, other elements of the vast U.S. security apparatus also mobilized, and so did the spy agencies of American allies like Britain, neutral countries like Finland itself and adversaries like China, a neighbor of Russia that is also the biggest U.S. trading partner, according to Bamford and some former U.S. intelligence officials. All of them would be intent on vacuuming up whatever they could from the summit, both on the ground and via electronic intercepts and so-called signals intelligence.

That made the capital of Finland the modern-day equivalent of Vienna in the run-up to the summit meeting; an international crossroads for spooks of all stripes and nationalities. U.S. officials considered it a given that Russia would deploy an unprecedented number of intelligence operatives to Helsinki, a coastal city just 188 miles west of perhaps the Kremlin’s biggest spy hub, St. Petersburg.

But U.S. intelligence agencies were at a disadvantage from the start, some current and former officials said.

Under established protocols, Coats or other intelligence leaders would brief top White House officials, and possibly Trump or national security adviser John Bolton, about what the NSA, CIA and other agencies were capable of doing before, during and after the summit.

What actually transpired during that process, including whether Trump and his team specifically shot down the use of any particular collection capabilities, is among the most closely guarded and classified secrets. The NSA, CIA and intelligence directorate all declined comment.

Current and former officials agreed with Bamford that those agencies, the NSA in particular, would steer far clear of using their immensely intrusive collection capabilities against American targets, especially Trump and his aides and Marina Gross, who as Trump’s translator, was the only other non-Russian in the room.

Ideally, U.S. intelligence officials would be able to watch video of the event to see the interaction between Trump and Putin, and to look for other hints, such as whether the Russian president was being fed intelligence that his side had learned during the meeting itself.

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Trump isn’t the first president to go it alone with such a formidable Cold War adversary. President Ronald Reagan did so with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, but he provided detailed and public readouts afterward.

In Trump’s case, U.S. intelligence officials were especially suspicious about his insistence on privacy even before the meeting, due to his already cozy relationship with Putin despite several U.S. investigations that already had concluded that Putin personally approved of the Russian election campaign.

Two former intelligence officials said they were more concerned, for the first time in memory, about what their own leader said and did than their adversary.

So Trump’s comments in the news conference afterward prompted even more concern among intelligence officials about whether Trump made promises that went against U.S. interests on issues like Crimea, Syria, Iran and nuclear weapons — and whether they would be able to figure out what really happened.

Trump’s overall refusal to criticize Putin, and his praise for Putin’s "incredible offer" to do an interrogation swap of Russian intelligence officers and prominent Americans including former Ambassador Michael McFaul were especially noteworthy, the former officials said.

Afterward, Democrats on Capitol Hill pushed unsuccessfully to compel Gross to testify before Congress about what transpired during the meeting. Trump’s own White House has tried to tamp down the significance of the entire event, saying, essentially, that it resulted in no agreements or commitments of any kind.

The Russians have gone into overdrive since Helsinki, with TASS and other state-run news organizations pumping out one story after another about how Russia is moving forward on issues for which Trump offered concessions.

For their part, U.S. intelligence officials have been spending more time and energy just trying to figure out whether Trump did, in fact, make concessions, and whether he revealed things he shouldn’t have, according to Schindler, Priess and Peter Harrell, a senior Obama administration State Department official familiar with summits like Helsinki.

“We’ve let the Russians shape, publicly and privately, what was allegedly agreed to in the meeting,” said Harrell, “with no coherent ability for the U.S. to push back.”

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CIA Central Intelligence Agency NSA Russia National Security Agency Donald Trump Dan Coats Vladimir Putin Trump-Putin meeting

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Aceasta se datorează, în mare parte, existenței unui serviciu de colectare extrem de secret din S.U.A., care este specializat în interceptarea în timp util a comunicărilor adversarilor, inclusiv a celor din anturajul lui Putin la summitul de săptămâna trecută de la Helsinki.

În mod privat, surse familiare cu capacitățile de informații ale SUA și-au exprimat încrederea că așa-numitul Serviciu de colectare specială a reluat nu numai citirea lui Putin a întâlnirii de două ore, ci ceea ce spionii de top din Kremlin se gândesc cu adevărat - și cum îl fac omologii lor străini.

Asta înseamnă că Agenția Națională de Securitate și CIA sunt mai puțin dezavantajate strategic decât au recunoscut public funcționarii serviciilor de informații din S.U.A. Dar pentru că probabil că le lipsește una dintre cele mai importante informații de inteligență de care au nevoie cel mai mult - un cuvânt cu cuvânt în legătură cu ceea ce au spus Trump și Putin în timpul întâlnirii - acești oficiali par să fie oarecum orbi când vine vorba de îndeplinirea celor mai importante misiunea de a ajuta polițiștii americani să dau seama ce urmează.

"Majoritatea întrebărilor despre ceea ce sa întâmplat la Helsinki - și despre riscurile pe care le-a creat președintele - omoară o preocupare mai fundamentală: Cum pot ofițerii de la departamentul de informații să susțină în mod eficient politica, la orice nivel, când numai președintele știe ce este politica? "Îl întreabă David Priess, fost ofițer al CIA și inteligența zilnică a Casei Albe. "Dacă unu-la-unu cu Putin, președintele a făcut sau schimbat politica și refuză să spună nimănui exact ce sa întâmplat, cum poate birocrația securității naționale să pregătească notele și punctele de discuție pentru viitoarele întâlniri care se vor purta despre aceste politici ?“

Dacă se crede declarațiile sale publice, Dan Coats, directorul serviciilor de informații naționale ale Trump, a dezvăluit săptămâna trecută că nu are vizibilitate deplină în ceea ce sa discutat și că există un "risc" pe care Putin la înregistrat în secret.

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Un purtător de cuvânt al DNI a declarat luni că Coats nu a spus nimic public pentru a indica faptul că poziția sa sa schimbat. Secretarul de presă al Casei Albine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a refuzat să răspundă direct la întrebări luni dacă Trump a informat pe deplin ofițerii de informații de top despre situația lui cu Putin și dacă sa bazat doar pe memorie sau pe note.

"Președintele sa întâlnit și sa consultat cu toată echipa sa de securitate națională", a declarat Sanders la briefing. "Nu voi intra în detaliile specifice cu privire la modul în care președintele interacționează de fiecare dată cu echipa națională de securitate".

Între timp, Trump continuă să-și tachineze versiunea de discuție.

"Când auziți Fake News vorbind negativ despre întâlnirea mea cu președintele Putin și tot ce am renunțat, amintiți-vă, am renunțat la nimic, am vorbit pur și simplu despre beneficiile viitoare pentru ambele țări", a scris Trump tweeted dimineața luni.

Ironia lui Trump însuși fiind singurul obstacol care îi împiedica să-și confirme în mod definitiv afirmația - și să obțină o imagine completă a ceea ce sa întâmplat la Helsinki - nu este pierdut pe actualii și foștii oficiali ai serviciilor americane de informații.

Sub vreun alt președinte, unii au declarat pentru POLITICO că înregistrările audio și video ale unui astfel de eveniment critic ar fi o dată, mai ales dacă nu ar exista un avocat de top în cameră special acolo pentru a lua note detaliate. Acesta este, de asemenea, ceva pe care partea lui Putin posedă cu siguranță. Analiștii americani de informații ar vrea să analizeze fiecare cuvânt, expresia feței și schimbarea limbajului corporal al lui Trump și a adversarului său viclean și să împărtășească constatările lor cu Casa Albă, Congresul, conducătorii militari și diplomați ai SUA și mulți aliați ai lor din întreaga lume.

În schimb, fostul senior NSA semnalează un analist de informații, John Schindler, spune că "singura modalitate de a învăța despre ceea ce sa spus în cadrul acelei întâlniri cu ușile închise este prin intermediul rapoartelor NSA, rapoarte extrem de secrete despre coduri, despre ceea ce spun rușii a fost spus în acea întâlnire. Și ceea ce ministerul francez de externe și, să introducă altă țară aici, cred că sa întâmplat la Helsinki pe baza a ceea ce le-au spus rușii ".

"Evident, acest lucru este atât de nebun încât nimeni nu credea că se va întâmpla acest lucru", a spus Schindler despre agitația agențiilor americane de informații pentru a afla exact ce a spus un președinte american în ședință într-o întâlnire cu un adversar beligerant cunoscut. "Chestiile cu adevărat importante dintr-un punct de vedere al inteligenței sunt cele pe care le colectăm în cadrul întâlnirii. Dar pentru că nu există o versiune din S.U.A. pentru a verifica acest lucru, rușii ar putea minți despre asta și nici nu am fi știut.

Ironia ultimă și cea mai frustrată pentru comunitatea inteligentă? "În cele din urmă vom termina cu fiecare versiune a ceea ce sa întâmplat", a spus Schindler, "cu excepția lui Trump."

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