WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia’s foreign spy chief, who is under U.S. sanctions, met last week outside Washington with U.S. intelligence officials, two U.S. sources said, confirming a disclosure that intensified political infighting over probes into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian service known by its acronym SVR, held talks with U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other U.S. intelligence officials, the sources said. The sources did not reveal the topics discussed.
A Russian Embassy tweet disclosed Naryshkin’s visit. It cited a state-run ITAR-Tass news report that quoted Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, as telling Rossiya-1 television that Naryshkin and his U.S. counterparts discussed the “joint struggle against terrorism.”
Antonov did not identify the U.S. intelligence officials with whom he met.
The Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment. Coats’ office said that while it does not discuss U.S. intelligence officials’ schedules, “any interaction with foreign intelligence agencies would have been conducted in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with appropriate departments and agencies.”
News of Naryshkin’s secret visit poured fresh fuel on the battles pitting the Trump administration and its Republican defenders against Democrats over investigations into Moscow’s alleged 2016 election interference.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded that the administration “immediately come clean and answer questions - which U.S. officials did he meet with? Did any White House or National Security Council official meet with Naryshkin? What did they discuss?”
The key question, Schumer told reporters, is whether Naryshkin’s visit accounted for the administration’s decision on Monday not to slap new sanctions on Russia under a law passed last year to punish Moscow’s purported election meddling.
“Russia hacked our elections,” Schumer said. “We sanctioned the head of their foreign intelligence and then the Trump administration invites him to waltz through our front door.”
A January 2017 U.S. intelligence report concluded that Russia conducted an influence campaign of hacking and other measures aimed at swinging the 2016 presidential vote to Trump over his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.
Last week, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported that the Netherlands intelligence concluded that some of the Russians running a hacking operation, known as “Cozy Bear”, against Democratic organizations were SVR agents.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the BBC in an interview last weekend that he had not “seen a significant decrease” in Russian attempts at subversion in Europe and the United States, and he expects Moscow to meddle in November’s U.S. mid-term elections.
Congressional panels and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Russia’s alleged interference and possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s election campaign. Russia denies it meddled and Trump dismissed the allegations of collusion as a political witch hunt.
Naryshkin’s visit coincided with other serious disputes in U.S.-Russian relations. They include Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and its interference in Ukraine and Russia’s military intervention on the government’s side in the Syrian civil war.
Washington and Moscow cooperate in some areas, including the fight against Islamic militant groups, officials said.
For example, a month ago the United States provided advance warning to Russia that allowed it to thwart a terrorist plot in St. Petersburg, the White House said.
Naryshkin, who was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to head the SVR in September 2016, was sanctioned by the Obama administration in March 2014 as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. At the time, he was speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament.
He was banned from entering the United States, but sanctions experts said there are processes for providing people under sanction permission to enter for official business. Meetings between foreign intelligence chiefs, even from rival nations, mostly are kept secret but are not unusual.
Reporting by John Walcott and Jonathan Landay; additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Amanda Becker; Editing by Grant McCool