How the FBI’s Russia Investigation Could Work

The bureau has been running counterintelligence for 100 years.
FBI Director James Comey has refused to speculate on how long the FBI investigation into Russian interference could take, but some experts say it could be a few years.
04_21_Comey_06 Source: Samuel Corum/Anadolu/Getty

“Counterintelligence is to intelligence as chess is to checkers, and we’re playing at the grand master level now,” says Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. He’s talking about the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s election tampering and possible collusion with people associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign.

The FBI has been running counterintelligence since World War I, when the federal government learned that spies from abroad protect American secrets and foil foreign espionage attempts. Such cases are the most difficult of all FBI investigations, according to Frank Montoya Jr., the bureau’s former national counterintelligence executive, whose caseload included the probe into National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. “Law enforcement’s relatively black and white—bad guy commits a crime, you go and investigate the bad guy, you arrest him, you bring him to trial where he pleads, bad guy goes to prison,” Montoya says. But in counterintelligence cases, “other than a beginning, it’s often hard to define a middle and an end,” he says. “When it’s a foreign nation-state like Russia who is attempting to undermine our democracy, how do you really quantify that? How do you prove it?” Then throw politics into the mix, he adds, “and it just complicates things tenfold, twentyfold.”

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