WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russian efforts to obtain secrets on U.S. political and military decision-making have reached levels not seen since the Cold War, the top U.S. counterintelligence official said on Thursday.
Joel Brenner, the Bush administration’s National Counterintelligence Executive, said a new intensive assault by Moscow is intent on gaining insights into “the upper echelon of U.S. decision-making” rather than stealing secrets about sensitive U.S. technology.
“The Russians are back to Cold War levels in their efforts against the United States,” he said in a speech to the American Bar Association.
Brenner, whose job is to oversee counterintelligence strategy and policy for U.S. intelligence czar Mike McConnell, did not provide details about suspected Russian intelligence operations in the United States. Sensitive counterintelligence activities are classified.
But he said Moscow appears less interested in U.S. commercial and military technology than other countries including China, which U.S. officials have described as the greatest counterintelligence threat facing the United States.
Brenner’s remarks come at a time when Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin have become more openly confrontational about U.S. policy such as Washington’s plan to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Putin, himself a former KGB official, accused the United States of trying to dominate the world in a February speech.
U.S. officials and independent analysts view Russia as a country determined to return to great power status it enjoyed during the Cold War, largely through its oil wealth and the reconstitution of its military and intelligence capabilities.
McConnell also warned the Senate last month that Russia was taking a step backward in its democratic progress and could be heading for a controlled succession to Putin. Moscow responded by describing his remarks as “outdated assumptions.”
The U.S. government has suffered several embarrassing security breaches at the hands of Russian and Soviet intelligence moles, including former CIA case officer Aldrich Ames and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
Brenner said Ames provided the Soviets with enough information about U.S. officials to “decapitate” America’s leadership in the event of war.
But Moscow intelligence does not now appear interested in posing a physical threat to American leaders. “It’s not a strike threat they’re after. I don’t want to give that impression,” Brenner said.