How Russia Has Been Spying in Plain Sight in San Francisco

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Tensions continue to mount between Russia and the US. In August, President Trump made an unprecedented move: he gave the Russian consulate in San Francisco 48 hours to close its operation and evacuate the property. Media outlets noted the plume of black smoke that rose from the building before the closure, and the public quickly forgot about the event. But smoke was just a hint of the large scale web of data-collecting activities that the Russians have been conducting in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest for over a decade.
For Foreign PolicyZach Dorman took the closest look yet at the mysterious, disconcerting activity that centered around Russia’s oldest US consulate. Satelite dishes and antennas on the roof, men in suits standing on a beach with handheld devices ─ unlike Russia’s three remaining consulates in Seattle, New York and Houston, the San Francisco consulate’s espionage activity was so vast and obvious that Trump’s administration chose to close that one. So what intelligence are the Russians gathering? Will the closure make any difference? And how much of the closure can be attributed to politics?

Over time, multiple former intelligence officials told me, the FBI concluded that Russia was engaged in a massive, long-running, and continuous data-collection operation: a mission to comprehensively locate all of America’s underground communications nodes, and to map out and catalogue the points in the fiber-optic network where data were being transferred. They were “obviously trying to determine how sophisticated our intelligence network is,” said one former official, and these activities “helped them put the dots together.”

Sometimes, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me, Russian operatives appeared to be actively attempting to penetrate communications infrastructure — especially where undersea cables came ashore on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They were “pretty sure” said a former intelligence official that, on at least one occasion on land, a Russian operative successfully broke into a data closet (a telecommunications and hardware storage center) as part of an attempt to penetrate one of these systems.

But what was “really unnerving,” said the former senior counterintelligence executive, was the Russians’ focus on communication nodes near military bases. According to multiple sources, U.S. officials eventually concluded that Moscow’s ultimate goal was to have the capacity to sever communications, paralyzing the U.S. military’s command and control systems, in case of a confrontation between the two powers. “If they can shut down our grid, and we go blind,” noted a former intelligence official, “they are closer to leveling the playing field,” because the United States is widely considered to possess superior command and control capabilities. When I described this purported effort to map out the fiber-optic network to Hall, the former senior CIA official, he seemed unfazed. “In the context of the Russians trying to conduct hybrid warfare in the United States, using cyber-types of tools,” he said, “none of what you described would surprise me.”

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