Some Russian media outlets said Tuesday they believed they had identified the CIA spy who American news reports this week alleged had been at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s government, setting off frantic speculation in Russia over who the mole could be.
The Kremlin confirmed that a former Russian official had worked as an employee in the country's presidential administration but sought to downplay the idea he could have been a spy, dismissing the American media coverage as "pulp fiction."
CNN and The New York Times on Monday both reported that the U.S. had helped a high-value spy inside the Kremlin flee Russia in 2017, fearing that he was about to be exposed. The reports said the source had been an official working in the top levels of Putin’s administration, who had given the CIA an extraordinary vantage point into the Russian government’s decision-making.
At an unrelated briefing Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the reporting false.
"The reporting is materially inaccurate and you should know, as the former CIA director, I don't talk about things like this often," Pompeo said. "It is only the occasions when there's something I think puts people at risk or the reporting so egregious as to create enormous risks to the United States of America. I won't say anything more. I know the CIA put out a statement. Suffice it to say the reporting there is factually wrong."
Neither CNN nor The New York Times named the agent, citing requests from U.S. officials to protect the spy’s safety.
But following the reports, Russian media outlets brought to light an article from September 2017 about an official in the presidential administration who mysteriously disappeared along with his entire family in June 2017.
The 2017 report appeared on a small news site launched by former tabloid journalists with connections to Russia’s media establishment. According to the site, police had opened a murder inquiry into the family's disappearance but had found no trace of them. The official, his wife and three children were reported to have traveled to Montenegro on holiday and never returned.
The article at the time attracted almost no notice and was not picked up by Russia’s larger media until Monday night, when the explosive CNN and NYT stories appeared. Since then, some of Russia’s leading media have reported the official as the possible mole.
Kommersant, a leading newspaper with sources in the Russian government, said its own security services sources had confirmed a murder investigation had been opened into the official’s disappearance but it was closed after they found the family was alive and living in a "foreign country."
Asked by reporters on Tuesday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that the official had been an employee in the presidential administration but said he had been fired between 2016 and 2017.
"[He] did really work in the presidential administration but several years ago he was fired over internal regulations," Peskov told journalists during his daily briefing call. He said that the Kremlin was not aware whether the man had gone missing.
Asked if the official had been an agent, Peskov laughed, dismissing it as speculation.
"I can't confirm that. I don’t know whether he was an agent. I can only confirm that there was such a person in the presidential administration who was later sacked," he said. "All this U.S. media speculation about who urgently extracted who and saved who from who and so on -- this is more the genre of pulp fiction, crime reading, so let's leave it up to them."
U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed the reports about the alleged CIA asset and have not commented on the suggestion that it could have been the official named in the Russian media. ABC News has not been able to independently verify the Russian reports.
CNN and The New York Times both reported that the anonymous agent had played an instrumental role in informing American intelligence about Russia’s operation to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. They reported that the source’s information allowed the intelligence services to confirm that Putin himself had ordered the operation.
According to the Times, U.S. officials reportedly decided the source was in danger of being exposed after the intelligence community published its findings about the Russian operation and media outlets began reporting details they feared could identify him. The source initially rejected the offer to flee then, the paper reported, but eventually accepted several months later, after Barack Obama had already left office.
Sources quoted by The Times said there was no public evidence Trump's behavior affected the decision and that it was taken exclusively because of "media scrutiny of the agency's sources."
A spy inside the presidential administration would have been an extraordinary coup for American intelligence. Recruiting spies in Russia’s government has long been considered exceptionally difficult, due to the country’s extensive counter-intelligence defenses and closed nature of its administration.
The Times, citing anonymous officials, described the source as "the American government’s best insight into the thinking of and orders from Mr. Putin." The informant "was outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making," according to the article. The source’s identity was deemed so sensitive, it said, that then-CIA Director John Brennan made the information available only to then-President Barack Obama and a tiny circle of senior officials.
Peskov on Tuesday downplayed the official’s importance, but Russian government documents published online showed that the man in fact had received a senior government rank awarded by President Dmitry Medvedev. Another publicly available State Department document showed the man had served for a time in the Russian embassy in Washington.
Attention also quickly focused on whether the official and his family may now be living in the U.S. after journalists found a real estate listing that showed a couple with the same name as the official and his wife had bought a large family home in June 2018.
It would be remarkable that a former spy in the top levels of Russia’s government would be living openly after being exfiltrated by the CIA, particularly in light of a number of recent assassinations targeting former Russian intelligence officers. In 2018, the former Russian double-agent Sergey Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent in the British town Salisbury. British and U.S. officials have accused Russian military intelligence of carrying out the assassination attempt.
Peskov on Tuesday denied that the Kremlin is aware of the official's current whereabouts. "We don’t do manhunts for people," he said.