Top Democrat questions US meeting with Russian spy chiefs

By Deb Riechmann The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Democrats want to know why the Trump administration allowed two Russian spy chiefs under U.S. and European sanctions to meet last week in Washington with American intelligence officials.
Russia’s U.S. ambassador said Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, was in the United States to discuss counterterrorism with his American counterparts.
Naryshkin was accompanied at the meeting in Washington by Alexander Bortnikov, who directs the top KGB successor agency known as the Federal Security Service, according to two U.S. officials, who were not authorized to disclose the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The two Russian intelligence officials were sanctioned in 2014 in response to Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine — Naryshkin by the U.S. and Bortnikov by the European Union.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the timing of the meeting is suspicious because it came just days before the Trump administration decided not to issue new sanctions against Russian politicians and oligarchs over Russian interference in the election. He released a letter early Thursday demanding that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats disclose details of the meeting by Feb. 9.
Schumer said sanctions against Naryshkin impose severe financial penalties and prohibit his entry into the U.S. without a waiver.
The State Department declined to comment, saying visa records are confidential by law.
The CIA would not confirm the meetings, saying only that any interactions with foreign intelligence officials would have been conducted in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with appropriate departments and agencies. Such meetings might occur more often than is publicly known.
Government agencies at times need to secure waivers to get certain individuals into the country, according to a U.S. official, who agreed to discuss the process only on condition of anonymity. The official said law enforcement agencies, for instance, might need a waiver to allow a witness in an arms trafficking case travel to the United States. Other U.S. agencies might need to speak with officials from an enemy nation.
Schumer wants to know why the visit was allowed, who approved it, which other Russian officials were in the delegation and whether they also are under sanction. Schumer also asked Coats to disclose what was discussed at the meetings and whether the Russians also met with Trump administration officials at the White House, State or Defence departments or the National Security Council.
“Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?” Schumer asked.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the senior Democratic on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also expressed concern about the meeting. He said the fact that it was disclosed by Russian authorities is evidence that Moscow wants to boast that sanctioned officials can travel into the United States. Cardin said in a CNN interview he wants to make sure sanctions against Russians are being enforced.