According to a report by investigative journalist Jack Murphy that was released Sunday, the CIA has been using the intelligence services of a European NATO country to conduct sabotage attacks in Russian territory since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. The report cites multiple unnamed former US intelligence and military officials.
While the report states that no US personnel are on the ground in Russia, it does confirm that the operations are being directed by the CIA with the use of an ally’s intelligence which adds a second layer of plausible deniability. That added layer of deniability is a large part of why President Biden approved the operations, according to a former US special operations official.
Murphy did not name the NATO ally whose intelligence services the US is working with in the report because “doing so might endanger the operational security of cells that are still operational inside of Russia.”
According to Murphy’s report, the covert operation in Russia took years to plan. Two former military officials confirmed that the NATO ally’s intelligence service had hidden a cache of explosives and other gear in Russia over a decade ago and that some of it have been used recently.
A former US special operations official said that the CIA did not get involved in Russia until 2014. The first sleeper cells directed by both the CIA and the NATO ally’s intelligence service were in 2016. More sleeper cells that are directed by both agencies have entered Russia since.
The NATO country’s spy service provided the operatives and gave them cover stories to explain why they were in Russia along with the necessary documentation to support the stories. The NATO ally activated the sleeper cells around the time that Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24 and the cells were immediately ready to take orders regarding targets to strike.
While it is unclear how many attacks the sleeper cells have carried out thus far, there have been numerous unexplained explosions at Russian railroads, military installations, and powerplants since the invasion of Ukraine. Murphy’s report indicated that the cells could have been behind a fire at the research institute of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces in April, which killed more than 20 people.
The kind of sabotage operations that the CIA is directing cannot be executed without a presidential finding. Former President Barack Obama signed a finding in 2016 allowing covert operations against Russia due to unproven allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
The finding Obama signed allows for cyberweapons to be planted in Russia’s infrastructure, which is the digital equivalent of a bomb that could be detonated if things escalated between the US and Russia in the future.
There is some debate about what Obama’s finding permitted, with one former CIA official saying that the finding allowed for sabotage operations against Russia while different former officials have said that the current operations would require either a new finding or an amendment to Obama’s finding.
While a spokesperson for the CIA denied the report’s allegations, it should be noted that the CIA legally has the authority to deny the existence of its covert operations.
While Ukraine’s recent strikes inside Russian territory could lead to a nuclear escalation between NATO and Russia, the CIA directing acts of sabotage in Russia could easily escalate the situation to the same level.
According to Murphy, his report “went through a vigorous fact-checking process and was deemed newsworthy,” adding that he published the report to inform the public, saying, “Indeed, the Russian government knows perfectly well who is sponsoring these sabotage strikes. Moreover, the intelligence community wants them to know. The only party left in the dark is the public at large, left unaware of the shadow war taking place behind the scenes.”
Murphy published the report on his personal website. He offered the following explanation as to why it was not published by a media outlet. “While working with editors at mainstream publications, I was asked to do things that were illegal and unethical in one instance, and in another instance, I felt that a senior CIA official was able to edit my article by making off-the-record statements before he leaked a story to The New York Times to undermine this piece,” Murphy wrote at the end of the report.