F.B.I. Shed Informants Linked to Russian Influence Operations

The F.B.I. cut ties to at least a handful of informants and issued warnings about dozens of others after an internal review prompted by concerns that they were linked to Russian disinformation, current and former U.S. officials said.

The review was carried out in 2020 and 2021 by a small group within the bureau’s counterintelligence division, with the findings then passed along to field offices, which handle informants.

It led to the severing of sources — some of whom had offered information about Russia-aligned oligarchs, political leaders and other influential figures — at a moment when the bureau was asking agents to produce more information from and about those same networks. The review was conducted during and after the 2020 election, when concerns about Russian meddling were running high, and at a time when the United States was closely monitoring whether Russia would invade Ukraine.

The episode highlighted a tricky balance: The more access informants have to valuable intelligence, the higher the risk that they could knowingly or unknowingly be used to channel disinformation. This is particularly true with regard to post-Soviet countries, where shifting alliances among oligarchs, politicians and intelligence services have far-reaching consequences that can be difficult for Western governments to discern.

Even in an age of high-tech intelligence gathering and surveillance, human sources continue to play an important role in law enforcement and national security, giving agents the chance to gather insights and perspective that cannot always be gleaned from communications intercepts, for example.

The New York Times has independently confirmed, but is not disclosing, the identities of several of the F.B.I. informants who provided information about Russia and Ukraine and who were cut off around the time of the review by the bureau’s counterintelligence division, including one informant that predated the review.

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