U.S. counter-intelligence investigators discovered a suspected Russian spy had been working undetected in the heart of the American embassy in Moscow for more than a decade, The Guardian reported on Thursday.
The Russian national had been hired by the Secret Service and is understood to have had access to the agency’s intranet and email systems, which gave her a potential window into highly confidential material including the schedules of the President and Vice President, according to the report.
The woman had been working for the Secret Service for years before she came under suspicion in 2016 during a routine security sweep conducted by two investigators from the Department of State’s Regional Security Office (RSO).
They established she was having regular and unauthorized meetings with members of the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, according to The Guardian.
The report said the RSO sounded the alarm in January 2017, but the Secret Service did not launch a full-scale inquiry of its own. Instead it decided to let her go quietly months later, possibly to contain any potential embarrassment.
An intelligence source told The Guardian the woman was dismissed last summer after the State Department revoked her security clearance. The dismissal came shortly before a round of expulsions of U.S. personnel demanded by the Kremlin after Washington imposed more sanctions on the country.
The order to remove more than 750 U.S. personnel from its 1,200-strong diplomatic mission is understood to have provided cover for her removal.
“The Secret Service is trying to hide the breach by firing [her],” the source said. “The damage was already done but the senior management of the Secret Service did not conduct any internal investigation to assess the damage and to see if [she] recruited any other employees to provide her with more information. Only an intense investigation by an outside source can determine the damage she has done.”
The Secret Service did not deny the woman had been identified as a potential mole but attempted to downplay the significance of her role.
“The U.S. Secret Service recognizes that all Foreign Service Nationals (FSN) who provide services in furtherance of our mission, administrative or otherwise, can be subjected to foreign intelligence influence,” it said in a statement.
“This is of particular emphasis in Russia. As such, all foreign service nationals are managed accordingly to ensure that Secret Service and United States government interests are protected at all times. As a result, the duties are limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support,” the statement added.
“It was specifically the duties of the FSN position in Moscow to assist our attaches and agency by engaging the Russian government, including the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian Ministry of the Interior (MVD), and the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) in furtherance of Secret Service interests.”
“At no time, in any US Secret Service office, have FSNs been provided or placed in a position to obtain national security information.”
The State Department would not comment “on allegations related to intelligence or personnel matters, and we have no information for you on this alleged incident.”
It did say, however, it was aware “that U.S. government employees, by virtue of their employment with the U.S. government, may be targeted by foreign intelligence services … when we identify an employee in violation of security directives, we take appropriate action at the appropriate time.”
The report comes as the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
In mid-July, federal prosecutors in Washington revealed they had arrested a 29-year-old woman and accused her of acting as a covert agent inside the U.S. on behalf of a senior Kremlin official.
The announcement of the arrest of Maria Butina came three days after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.