July 31, 2017 / 9:44 PM / 5 months ago

No let-up in spying amid tit-for-tat Russian sanctions: U.S official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia still runs a versatile spying campaign against the United States despite sanctions and daily publicity about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the top U.S. counter-intelligence official said in an interview.

William Evanina, the National Counterintelligence Executive, described a wide array of challenges his agency faces: hacking of government and industry secrets; industrial espionage; government employees and contractors who share secrets with the news media and groups such as WikiLeaks and foreign acquisition of strategic U.S. industries.

Evanina spoke to Reuters on Friday, the same day that Russia retaliated in Cold War-era style to a new round of U.S. sanctions by ordering Washington to cut diplomatic staff and said it was seizing two U.S. diplomatic properties. Russian President Vladimir Putin said 755 people would have to leave their jobs, although many will be Russian nationals.

Congress voted overwhelmingly last week to further punish Russia over U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Moscow had used cyber warfare and other methods to meddle in the election, something Putin has repeatedly denied. Last December, then-President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats, sanctioned Russian intelligence agencies and personnel, and evicted Russian officials from two diplomatic compounds in the United States.

Evanina said that losing the compounds was a “significant blow to the Russians. Significant. And I‘m not even sure we ... can measure it.”

He said, however, that U.S. agencies “have not seen a deterrence, or a drop - or an increase,” in Russian spying activity in the last year. “I can tell you, the FBI does not have less work.”

Still, Evanina acknowledged that in the tit-for-tat expulsions, the United States has more to lose than Moscow.

“We have a significantly ... smaller footprint over there than they do here. It’s always going to be disproportionate.”

The United States has long pursued its own aggressive espionage and electronic surveillance operations against Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union. Russia’s cuts to U.S. personnel and property will shrink the diplomatic infrastructure that countries typically rely on to both conduct foreign affairs – and spy.

Evanina said Russian espionage strategy has shifted over the last five to seven years, no longer relying solely on intelligence officers formally employed by its spy agencies. Now, he said, it also involves dispatching businessmen, engineers and other travelers to the United States working as contractors for intelligence services.

Evanina declined to comment on U.S. investigations into Moscow’s election year activities and whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials. Trump denies any collusion.

He said that in the past year, he has worked intensively with the U.S. private sector to protect critical infrastructure and supply chains from foreign threats. Evanina suggested that the United States could soon adopt more stringent reviews of foreign acquisitions that have national security implications.

Reuters reported on July 20 that the secretive Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has objected to at least nine acquisitions of U.S. companies by foreign buyers so far this year, a historically high number that bodes poorly for China’s overseas buying spree.

Reporting by Warren Strobel and John Walcott; editing by Grant McCool

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