Via Foreign Policy:
This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.
But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.
All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.
There is a lot to this very long form piece, including descriptions of Russian intelligence operations and communications patterns, how lawful Russian overflights of American territory might be used for a variety of intelligence purposes, and the Trump administration’s likely cluelessness about why closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco was so significant. But most interestingly, for me, was how the consulate likely functioned as an outpost for Russian signals intelligence operations, both due to the depth of analysis in the article but also for what it tells us about how Western-allied consulates and diplomatic facilities are likely used.1 In effect, the concerns raised by former FBI and other American counter-intelligence officers speaks to how America and her allies may conduct their own forms of surveillance.
- In a provincial sense, the concerns and opinions espoused by American counter-intelligence officers also raises questions as to the role of Canada’s significant number of diplomatic facilities scattered throughout China and other regions where the United States is more challenged in building out State Department facilities. ↩