Naveed Jamali Interview: Former FBI Double Agent on Why America Can Never Trust Russia
Image attributed to Naveed Jamali
Naveed Jamali is a senior fellow in the program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, He is a special contributor to the Military Times and a recurring guest on MSNBC, CNN and Fox, providing expert defense, intelligence and national security analysis.
Jamali is the author of How to Catch a Russian Spy (movie rights to 20th Century Fox), which is an autobiographical account of working as a double agent for the FBI against Russian military intelligence. After playing the role of a real life James Bond for almost four years (between 2005 and 2009), he accepted a commission in the US Navy where he continues to serve as a reserve intelligence officer with the Office of Naval Intelligence.
"Remember, my story wasn’t that long ago. I think what it illustrates is that the Russians have a very strong commitment to recruiting, and they certainly never abandoned the philosophy and the objective of recruiting US persons to essentially do their bidding."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Naveed, how did you become a double agent?
Naveed Jamali: The whole story actually started with my parents. My parents owned a company that morphed into a defense contracting firm that essentially specialized in selling books, and it supplied primarily to the federal government. One day in the late 1980s, a man walked into their office and said he wanted to buy some books, showed my dad a business card that said “United Nations” and "Soviet Union." The list of books were things on nuclear proliferation and arms control, nothing classified or anything that wouldn’t make sense for a UN diplomat. He said that the store had been "highly recommended" and that he'd come back in a few weeks for the books.
My father went back to work, and a few minutes later, two armed men came into the office. They identified themselves as being FBI agents and said, “The man that just walked into your office is a Soviet intelligence officer. Can you tell us what he wanted?” My dad told him he wanted to buy books. The agents told him to get him his books, and they’d be in touch if he came back.
That started about a 20-year relationship between my parents, the Soviet Union and the Russians and the FBI. They were a consistent asset to both the Soviets and the Russians and the FBI. I grew up around that. It was a big joke at the family dinner table about the Russians. So, I was fairly desensitized to it and saw them actually as kind of bumbling, even when they would do ominous things like show up at our grocery store when we were shopping, and I was eight or nine at the time. My dad would make a big joke, and I think he was doing that to try and not freak us out.
My parents are both immigrants, and they did it just because they felt like it was the right thing to do. They were never interested in progressing the relationship with the FBI or the Russians though. The Russians would periodically come in and ask for things that were restricted, and my parents would say they couldn’t help them, or the FBI would say they’d take them to dinner and they wouldn’t accept. They felt they owed this to the FBI and to the country, but it was a very fine line at what they were willing to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And your involvement as a spy?
Naveed Jamali: Well, being a first generation American of a father from Pakistan and a French mother, I was one of those guys that was able to fit in almost anywhere. That kind of defined a lot of my motivation. When September 11 happened, I felt this really strong urge to join the military. I found this program to become an intelligence officer in the Navy, and I thought it sounded exciting. I felt I could make a meaningful contribution.
I went through the whole process and applied. Despite making the final round, I wasn’t selected, but the recruiter told me to try again and that I needed to show there had been substantive change since my prior application. I started working on a master’s degree, but I really didn’t like it. I was in my early 20s, and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I dropped out of graduate school, ended up back in New York, got married, went back to the family company and came up with this harebrained idea that perhaps I could approach the FBI and say, “Hey, you’ve had this long relationship with my parents, and I’d like to help you. Maybe I could move things in a different direction. In exchange, you could write me a letter of recommendation to the Navy.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So, the FBI doesn’t routinely recruit average citizens as spies?
Naveed Jamali: No. Neither the Russians nor the FBI do that. It takes a lot of time to recruit someone and to vet them. I imagine there are a lot of people on both sides that would like to do this, but they tend to be pretty selective. I was just in the right place at the right time as it were.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you ever fearful for your life during those years as a civilian double agent?
Naveed Jamali: I really wasn’t fearful for my life. I can’t lie and say I was. It’s this weird thing where, again, I grew up around it. I was so desensitized to it that, to me, it was kind of a big joke. I spent more time arguing with the Russians. I think it’s natural to be scared. But the context of what I was doing seemed so cut off from the rest of the world. Here I was in the middle of two massive superpowers, but you don’t think that way because if you do, you’ll never get out of bed in the morning.
Instead, I just viewed it as Terry and Ted (the names I gave the two FBI agents) and Oleg (his real name), and it was a more quaint and personal thing. So, no. You don’t actually get scared because you retract the larger part of it, and that’s what makes you effective.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was your mission successful?
Naveed Jamali: It was successful in the sense that, as we saw with the 2016 election, it’s so rare that US intelligence or the US government actually can definitively, unequivocally catch a Foreign Intelligence Service directly in the act. Oleg, the person who the Russians had appointed to run me as a spy, was a Russian diplomat to the UN. He was also a military attaché, and we got him on tape essentially admitting to spying.
It was a counterintelligence operation. There’s no gray area. It’s just black and white. It’s not like whether WikiLeaks is connected to Russia. It’s clear. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind he’s a Russian military officer trying to recruit US persons and breaking American and international law as a diplomat. So, that was a pretty big win. It also has ramifications for the FBI to be able to study the Russian network.
All of this happened in person. The Russians only wanted to meet me in person. That’s the whole recruiting thing. You have to sit down with them. They look you in the eyes and make sure you’re not lying. It’s a whole process. They have to trust you. I was pretty good at convincing them of that, and because of it, they let me in the fold.
I was able to watch their recruitment effort and watch what they used in terms of surveillance and countersurveillance of me when I met with Oleg. Uncovering those networks leads to other Russian operations. The FBI was able to figure out a lot of that from watching what Oleg was doing with me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned the 2016 presidential election. There is overwhelming evidence of Russian hacking and interference and that apparently they wanted to help Trump and hurt Clinton. Why do you think the Russians preferred Trump over Clinton?
Naveed Jamali: I don’t know specifically why they wanted Trump over Clinton. I’m not even sure that was their objective. But what I do know is that my experiences lead back to the Soviet Union. It’s important to note that the people who first made contact with my family at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations and then became the Russian Mission to the United Nations, are the same people.
We won the Cold War and thought that Russia was no longer our enemy. But the Russians don’t view it that way. They view the Cold War as never having ended. They always view America as their main adversary. When the Russians come to New York and get off the plane at JFK, they consider themselves to be behind enemy territory. They really do. That’s how they act.
When you think about the 2016 presidential election, pretty much everything they did was meant to somehow minimize, directly or indirectly hurt us because they think that hurting us is success for them. The decline of our influence is a success for them. They view everything we do as incredibly aggressive and aggressive toward them. So, I think that was probably more along the lines of they just don’t like us.
We’re the enemy, and they want to make us look bad on the world stage because that has huge implications. I think that was the main objective much more than to benefit Trump.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think about Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, requesting to unmask the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by US intelligence agencies, and Trump saying she may have committed a crime by doing so?
Naveed Jamali: It’s absurd. Remember, my story wasn’t that long ago. I think what it illustrates is that the Russians have a very strong commitment to recruiting, and they certainly never abandoned the philosophy and the objective of recruiting US persons to essentially do their bidding.
It’s important to understand what we’re talking about here is not masking and unmasking. It’s a distraction. The real questions here are, “Did Russia aggressively attempt to target US persons for recruitment?” and “Were they successful?” The rest of it are bureaucratic formalities that don’t give you the answers to those questions.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): President Trump and/or his associates are being investigated for colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Does collusion normally begin with recruitment?
Naveed Jamali: No. As much as I have my personal feelings about the administration, my experience with the Russians is that there’s no collusion. That has an underlying assumption that you’re equal. The Russians don’t treat you as an equal. You’re an asset to them. That means the goal is for them to manipulate and control you to be able to get to the point where they can tell you what to do. No negotiation. This idea that there’s an equal quid pro quo doesn’t make sense to me. In the three plus years I sat down with the Russians, they never used the word “spy.” They never used the word “treason” or even “espionage.” They were very careful about the words they chose. Those words were not used in their tradecraft.
The idea of a Russian intelligence officer having a discussion with a US person and saying those words and essentially making that claim is a pretty significant departure from their tradecraft. Again, an asset is someone that’s controlled completely by Russia. That’s really what they’re looking for.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your recent story in the NY Daily News titled, “The Only Honest Answer to Russia-induced anxiety: A Blue-Ribbon Commission.”
Naveed Jamali: The 9/11 commission investigated the actual act, but also made recommendations. There’s a public thirst to know what the hell happened. There’s a question of legitimacy. We saw some pretty devastating attacks during the 2016 election in the sense that they undermined the confidence that we have in our institutions. I think that requires things to be changed.
Michael Flynn was given a security clearance even though he had entanglements with Turkey and Russia. This is something that needs to be updated about how these things happen, how people are vetted and how their security background checks are done. It should be done by an independent party devoid of political partisanship.
The question of getting security clearance shouldn’t be partisan. I think an independent commission, besides finding out what the hell happened last year, can also make recommendations as to how to fix this stuff, not just from the hacking perspective, but from the perspective of recruiting a US person by the Russians.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Should Trump’s son-in-law and real estate investor/developer, Jared Kusher, have security clearance despite having no government experience in international relations?
Naveed Jamali: You know, a security clearance is not a constitutional right. It’s like a bank denying you for a loan for a low credit score. With a security clearance, they’re supposed to look at all your foreign contacts, all your foreign travel and foreign business and essentially make an assessment of how much risk you pose. Forget about these people not having the experience or ever spending a day in office. International businesspeople come with a tremendous amount of baggage and entanglements. Most people with clearances are right out of college that don’t have that kind of baggage.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump says that it is a “fake Trump/Russia story” and a “hoax.” Is he continuing to spread the Russian propaganda or even damaging America’s relations with other countries by refusing to admit or acknowledge the evidence of Russian interference and that his associates had certain ties to Russia?
Naveed Jamali: Russia’s view of us has never changed. They view the US as their main adversary. We view ISIS as a threat, but Russia not so much. We’re Russia’s biggest threat, and they’re going to act to minimize that.
When you downplay this and make it sound like it’s just about the act of speaking to the Russians as opposed to why that’s dangerous, then you’re avoiding the fact that Russia is a major threat. And, of course, you look like a fool to the rest of the world, and this is exactly what I think the Russians were after. Creating chaos.
Our allies in the rest of the world look at this and say, “My God, it’s hard to believe the US is still the shining city on the hill.” It’s not just Russia that takes advantage of that. It’s China, Iran and other emerging adversaries. They look at this and say, “Hey, we can really use this to our advantage.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe that Trump and/or his associates will be found to have committed crimes that may even rise to the level of treason?
Naveed Jamali: Gosh. I don’t know. No one really knows what the FBI knows except for the FBI, and they’re not talking. I think it’s really important for the country to have confidence in its institutions.
My personal beliefs aside, restoring the confidence in the democratic process is frankly much more important than punishing anyone. I can make the argument they go hand in hand, but I think whatever happens has to be legitimate. It has to appear to be legitimate, and it has to be such that it really restores that confidence.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The House’s investigation into Trump’s Russian ties has been stalled since Chairman Devin Nunes briefed the president on certain intelligence reports and kept the Democrats in the dark. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) invited you to give a briefing on April 5 to perhaps reboot that investigation. Was this a closed session?
Naveed Jamali: It was indeed a closed session. I was asked to speak about Russia, specifically my involvement. Everything I did ended in 2009, so there wasn’t a direct correlation to the 2016 election. But essentially I was asked to come in and brief the House Intelligence Committee about my experiences and how Russia targets and recruits US persons.
They don’t need to target someone for recruitment and know exactly what that person’s going to do for them at that time. They can say that someone is of interest and recruit them, and it could be years after that when they’re put into play.
Although the targets of US persons [by Russia] continues, perhaps it’s time, just like we did after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, to rethink how we combat it. Perhaps that needs to be revamped. I also said in the briefing that looking at Michael Flynn, I see echoes back as to how the Russians recruited me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was reported by the Daily Beast that your briefing was boycotted by the Republicans. Were you aware of that, or do you know why?
Naveed Jamali: I don’t know because there was no one from Congress to tell me. I can’t tell you their rationale. I’m seeing things you’re seeing in articles. No one showed up, and I see reports that they made a conscious effort to boycott this. Why? I don’t know.
You also saw that Nunes stepped down. This is just conjecture, but I don’t know if this was because they knew he was going to be gone. I don’t know. I wish I knew. I chuckle about it being boycotted. I guess you can either go big or go home, right?
I can tell you that the Democrats I met with were genuinely engaged with real questions. This has been a slow go, and the Russians have been slowly changing things to adapt to a post Cold War thing. Our FBI’s very good at keeping tabs on the Russian Embassy. But it’s a little more amorphous. We need to readdress it and make recommendations as how to make this better.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think you will be asked to come back and speak to the House Intelligence Committee?
Naveed Jamali: I’m hopeful. What I’ve been saying is something that has nothing to do with partisan politics, but it’s a very political thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is your prediction about where the investigation will lead?
Naveed Jamali: My prediction is that right now, after Flynn said he wanted immunity, if I’m any of those people that will be named, I’m probably pretty nervous. That’s my prediction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Final thoughts on counterintelligence, Naveed?
Naveed Jamali: I think it’s really important that while the foreign intelligence threat has not abated, the way that we conduct counterintelligence has to change to reflect the way that our adversaries have adapted. The FBI is obviously the lead agency for this stuff. I don’t really have a solution as to how it should change, but clearly adversaries like Russia and China that have conducted these kinds of investigations have adapted and we should, too.
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