The warren of cubicles was secured behind a metal door. The name on the hallway placard had changed often over the years, most recently designating the space as part of the Mission Center for Europe and Eurasia. But internally, the office was known by its unofficial title: “Russia House.”
The unit had for decades been the center of gravity at the CIA, an agency within the agency, locked in battle with the KGB for the duration of the Cold War. The department’s prestige had waned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and it was forced at one point to surrender space to counterterrorism officers.
But Russia House later reclaimed that real estate and began rebuilding, vaulting back to relevance as Moscow reasserted itself. Here, among a maze of desks, dozens of reports officers fielded encrypted cables from abroad, and “targeters” meticulously scoured data on Russian officials, agencies, businesses and communications networks the CIA might exploit for intelligence.
In the months leading up to the 2016 election, senior Russia House officials held a series of meetings in a conference room adorned with Stalin-era posters, seeking to make sense of disconcerting reports that Moscow had mounted a covert operation to upend the U.S. presidential race.
By early August, the sense of alarm had become so acute that CIA Director John Brennan called White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. “I need to get in to see the president,” Brennan said, with unusual urgency in his voice.
Brennan had just spent two days sequestered in his office reviewing a small mountain of material on Russia. The conference table at the center of the dark-paneled room was stacked with dozens of binders bearing stamps of TS/SCI — for “top secret, sensitive compartmented information” — and code words corresponding to collection platforms aimed at the Kremlin.
There were piles of finished assessments, but Brennan had also ordered up what agency veterans call the “raw stuff” — unprocessed material from informants, listening devices, computer implants and other sources. Clearing his schedule, Brennan pored over all of it, his door closed, staying so late that the glow through his office windows remained visible deep into the night from the darkened driveway that winds past the headquarters building’s main entrance.
The description of Brennan and this article is adapted from “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy,” a Washington Post book, which will be published Oct. 2 by Custom House.
A narrative history of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its fallout, the book is based on hundreds of interviews with people from Trump’s inner circle, current and former government officials, individuals with close ties to the White House, members of the law enforcement and the intelligence communities, foreign officials and confidential documents. Most people interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified or sensitive U.S. and foreign government deliberations.
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