Congress and Counterintelligence: The Unique Vulnerabilities of the U.S. Congress to Malign Foreign Influence

Darren E. Tromblay
Thursday, July 13, 2017, 11:30 AM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Darren E. Tromblay has served the U.S. Intelligence Community, as an Intelligence Analyst, for more than a decade. He is the author of The U.S. Domestic Intelligence Enterprise: History, Development, and Operations (Taylor & Francis, 2015) and co-author of Securing U.S. Innovation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Mr. Tromblay has been published by Lawfare, the Hill, Small Wars Journal, and Intelligence and National Security. He holds an MA from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, an MS from the National Intelligence University, and a BA from the University of California. Mr. Tromblay can be reached at This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book on the impact of foreign influence operations on U.S. policymaking, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2018. The views expressed in this essay are entirely the author’s and do not represent those of any U.S. government agency or other entity.


Congress and Counterintelligence: The Unique Vulnerabilities of the U.S. Congress to Malign Foreign Influence

Darren E. Tromblay

Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections and its meddling in the politics of various European countries has called attention to the vulnerability of policymaking to covert foreign manipulation. Like the attacks of September 11, 2001, these developments do not represent a paradigm shift but, instead, a brutal reminder of activity that has long progressed—largely unheeded—in the shadows. Foreign influence activities—particularly of a Soviet / Russian flavor—have been a consistent threat to U.S. politics since before the Cold War but have only sporadically attracted U.S. public attention. These covert—and sometimes not-so-covert—influence activities are as, if not even more, valuable than the ability to collect protected information because if successful they allow a foreign government to shape U.S. policies, rather than simply cope with them.

Congress is uniquely vulnerable to foreign government-directed influence campaigns. Its malleability—due to tension with the executive branch and partisan forces—make it susceptible to pressures that are not felt by the executive branch. (Foreign governments may also attempt to amplify these pressures through the exploitation of conduits for influence such as the media, think tanks, and activist organizations.) The cacophony of external advocacy around a legislative initiative creates an environment in which one more voice—albeit it that of a foreign government —does not seem so conspicuous. However, legislators and members of their staffs who seek information from foreign officials put themselves in the crosshairs of foreign intelligence operatives.

Foreign actors seeking to manipulate Congress must engage in several distinct activities to develop a foundation for influence operations. First, a foreign actor must develop awareness of the decisionmaking environment, specifically the processes and the players associated with developing and passing legislation. Foreign actors must then must find points of access through which they can introduce information that supports their policy objectives. Disruption of foreign influence activities should focus on reducing opacity—which foreign actors exploit as cover for influence activities—in the policymaking process. Therefore, the United States needs requirements, of greater stringency than the current Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) to ensure that decisionmakers are transparent about their contacts with foreign actors, who may be seeking to exert influence, and to keep officials accountable to the American public they are supposed to serve.

Congress is characterized by tensions that foreign actors can adeptly manipulate to advance their agendas at the expense of the American electorate. Tension between the executive and legislative branches leads the latter to encroach on the foreign policy prerogatives of the former. Additionally, partisan tension is a string that is taut for plucking to a foreign government’s tune. These dynamics exist in an often opaque decisionmaking environment, where the substance of policy is formulated before a finished proposal is ever introduced through formal channels. In recent years, the environment has become even murkier, as legislators have become increasingly independent and assertive in their approach to international affairs.

Foreign actors’ access to congressional staff and elected representatives is often a prerequisite for exertion of influence. During the Cold War, the nationalist Chinese (i.e. Taiwan) lobby, for instance, demonstrated its interest in capitalizing on partisan dynamics when it engaged a legal advisor who the lobby believed had the potential for developing “friendships and relationships with the Democratic party.” Foreign governments have also attempted—sometimes through corruption—to co-opt specific elected officials. The FBI, as the result of a probe that it launched in 1996, reached the conclusion that China might attempt to make contributions to members of Congress via Asian donors. China was not the only country that attempted to buy off the legislative branch. Pakistan—including the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence—funneled $4 million, over two decades, to a variety of U.S. entities including members of Congress. Furthermore, according to a 1978 Congressional inquiry, South Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) authorized its Washington, DC, chief of station to back the election campaign of a specific Congressman. Years earlier, funding became a blatant intelligence recruitment/public corruption issue in the case of Congressman Samuel Dickstein, who was on the Soviet payroll between 1937 and 1940.

Access to Hill functionaries warrants specific discussion. Staffers at the working level of policymaking operate where a lack of transparency can allow originators and advocates of ideas to get lost in the fog. This is likely what foreign intelligence services count on when they develop contacts with—and provide information to—a congressional staffer who then incorporates it into a memorandum or set of talking points for the legislator who employ(s) the staffer. Consistent with this, foreign governments and their respective intelligence services have attempted to make inroads with Hill personnel. For instance, in 1967, a Soviet First Secretary expressed interest in engineering an opportunity to meet individuals on Capitol Hill who handled trade and foreign affairs issues. Apparently, no functionary is too insignificant for intelligence service interest. In 1965, Soviet TASS correspondents provided a presentation to a group of political science interns about the correspondents’ duties as reporters. (Considering the KGB’s use of the press as a cover for intelligence officers, this encounter may not have been the magnanimous imparting of knowledge that it at first appeared.) This interest in professionally immature personnel was again evident, nearly two decades later, as illustrated by the identification of a Senate intern in the company of Soviet operatives.

Foreign intelligence services have attempted to transition these relationships into non-official settings. For instance, in the early 1980s, a Soviet intelligence operative frequently entertained staff members of Congressional committees at high-priced Washington, DC, restaurants and always insisted on picking up the check. This was only the latest iteration of Soviet efforts to make inroads with the Hill personnel who keep the legislative process moving. In 1966, a Soviet official expressed a desire to be included in social activities on Capitol Hill. Psychologically, this change of venue can work to a foreign government’s advantage. It makes it easier for a foreign official or foreign intelligence officer to hide the relationship; appeals to a staffer’s ego; and may also lead to the staffer lowering his or her guard. Ultimately, the progression from formal to informal may lead to a full-fledged recruitment pitch. In 1982, Soviet intelligence attempted to enlist the services of the staff assistant to a member of Congress. (The staff assistant, fortunately, reported this to the FBI rather than taking the bait.)

Congressional delegations (CODELs) visiting foreign locations—where the tab is paid by a foreign government—as well as members’ individual travel offer unique opportunities for adversarial governments and those with agendas in competition with the United States to gain access. For instance, prior to the Congressional vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal—two separate codels—one Democratic and one Republican—traveled to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Avowed U.S. adversaries have also taken advantage of foreign travel to engage members of Congress. In early 2017, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard took a unilateral “fact-finding” trip to Syria, where she met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Gabbard, who opposed U.S. assistance to anti-al-Assad rebels must have seemed an ideal guest for the regime, given her prima facie national security credibility as a U.S. veteran of the Iraq war. An example of how a foreign government can benefit from these interactions is demonstrated by a 2008 incident during which Congressmen Bill Delahunt and Dana Rohrbacher—who has been publicly identified as sympathetic to Russian interests—advised Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin that Russia needed to interact with Congress more effectively.

Access is the first step, but regimes, especially those of a totalitarian bent, need to understand U.S. political dynamics before they can engage in effective manipulation. This requires intelligence collection. For instance, one Soviet official indicated interest in the operation of the American political and legislative system, while another made inquiries about the differences between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Cold War’s “China Lobby” often provided advice to Chiang Kai-Shek regarding ways to deal with disputes vis-à-vis the White House.

Foreign actors must gather basic information that will enable them to assess specific legislative branch figures. As part of its inquiry into the illicit campaign finance activities with a nexus to the 1996 federal election campaign, the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs noted that China was “learning more about Members of Congress.” Open Congressional hearings provide opportunities for foreign intelligence operatives to gain insights about the individuals involved with policy issues of concern. Attendance at Congressional hearings afforded the Soviets opportunities to observe nuances of individual Senators’ attitudes.

Access and collection prime foreign governments to pursue influence activities, while congressional predispositions make legislators and their offices willing audiences. Although Congress has access to several world-class research resources—the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office—it nonetheless seeks knowledge that will help to usurp the executive branch’s foreign policy making prerogative. Foreign governments are more than willing to furnish information that serves those regimes’ interests.

A recent example of how these factors merge is the deliberation around the JCPOA. Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, believed that if Israel pursued a lobbying campaign vis-à-vis Congress prior to the JCPOA, it could scuttle this arrangement. The lobbying campaign leveraged Israeli intelligence collection efforts and sought to fuel the division between the executive and legislative branches by providing congressional offices with information that the White House was attempting to keep secret. Although such behavior by an ostensible ally is distasteful, it is not surprising. As of 2015, the U.S. directed more counterintelligence resources at disrupting Israeli intelligence activities than at the machinations of any other close ally. It is also not new. As early as 1961, the FBI assessed that a significant objective of Israeli intelligence activities was the influence of U.S. policy.

Foreign governments have demonstrated tenacious consistency in targeting Capitol Hill. In a 1970 FBI communication a Bureau official explained that the majority of Soviet personnel who maintained contacts on Capitol Hill were known or suspected intelligence officers. Approximately a decade-and-a-half after this assertion, a Bureau official explained to Congress that “[m]embers of the Congress and employees of Congress are certainly targets. [KGB] intelligence officers are here to collect political intelligence . . .” The FBI subsequently identified that the KGB’s Line PR, which was responsible for political intelligence, included officers who specifically targeted Congress. (Soviet–Russian continuity is evident in this area, as the SVR, the Russian successor to the Soviet KGB’s foreign intelligence component, continued to field Line PR.) Furthermore, in the early 1980s, the head of the FBI’s Washington Field office assessed that Congress was the Soviets’ top intelligence target, to which the KGB dedicated more resources than it did to either the White House or the Pentagon.

It is amazing that, despite this consistent history of foreign interference, foreign governments and their respective intelligence services operating against Congress continue to benefit from a lack of transparency. Both FARA and LDA, which are supposed to illuminate the murkier areas of political and policy discourse have limitations in scope and enforcement. To fill this gap, there should be a requirement for congressional staffers and elected officials to provide notification—which would be available to the public—of interaction with foreign government representatives. Although the average American is unlikely to sift through these filings, multiple publications, notably Politico, with its story on Rohrbacher’s affinity for the Russians, and non-governmental organizations, such as the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation, have done an admirable job in distilling similar information into accessible narratives and would likely do the same public service with this new source of data. The purpose of this reporting requirement—which is already levied on members of the national security community for obvious reasons—would not be vilification of contacts but, rather, ensure that they were consistent with legislators’ responsibility to represent the interests of American voters.

Foreign exploitation of access to Congress has consequences beyond the individual policy decisions that are not in the United States’ best interests. When elected officials respond —or are even perceived to respond—to voices other than those of their constituents, Americans’ confidence in the country’s political institutions diminishes. Russia’s actions, in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. elections were likely intended to create doubt about the U.S. political system’s viability. While this was a high-profile assault, the ongoing actions by Russia and other foreign governments vis-à-vis Congress represent the continuation of a pernicious pattern of behavior.

Darren E. Tromblay has served as an intelligence analyst with the U.S. government for more than a decade. He holds an M.A. from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, an M.S. from the National Defense Intelligence College, and a B.A. from the University of California. Tromblay is the author of "Spying: Assessing U.S. Domestic Intelligence Since 9/11" and "Political Influence Operations: How Foreign Actors Seek to Shape U.S. Policy Making." He has been published in multiple venues including Intelligence and National Security and the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. He can be reached at The views expressed are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of any U.S. government agency.

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