US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday angrily denounced news reports detailing the secret exfiltration of a CIA mole who had operated at the top levels of the Kremlin, saying such reports could put lives at risk.
The informant reportedly confirmed to US intelligence that President Vladimir Putin directed Russia's meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, straining superpower relations and casting a cloud over Donald Trump's stunning victory.
According to multiple news reports citing sources in American espionage community, the informant was whisked out of Russia two years ago amid fears he was at risk of exposure, depriving Washington of essential insight into Putin's activities and thinking.
Pompeo, who was CIA director in 2017, questioned the reports without being specific, but did not deny their general thrust.
"I've seen that reporting. The reporting is materially inaccurate," he said, speaking in the White House.
"As the former CIA director, I don't talk about things like this very often," he said.
"It is only the occasions when there is something that I think puts people at risk, or the reporting is so egregious as to create enormous risk to the United States of America, that I even comment in the way I just did."
Kremlin foreign policy aide
Russian media identified the suspected insider as Oleg Smolenkov, an aide to Putin's top foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov. Smolenkov reportedly once served in Russia's embassy in Washington.
His Kremlin position could have given him access to top-level national security information and likely provided US intelligence with essential insights into Putin, intelligence experts said.
"If these reports ... are accurate, I think that really speaks to a tremendous intelligence victory on the part of the CIA," former CIA spokesman Ned Price told MSNBC.
On the other hand, Price said, the exfiltration would be "a strategic loss for us over time, as we will lose those insights."
Moscow: alleged mole was fired
Moscow sought Tuesday to downplay the news. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the US reports were "rather in the genre of pulp fiction."
He said the alleged mole worked in the Kremlin and did not have direct contact with the Russian leader.
"I don't know whether he was an agent or not. I can only confirm that he worked for the presidential administration and he was sacked," Peskov said.
"His position was not in the category of senior official," Peskov said. "This position does not call for contacts with the president as such."
Smuggled to safety in 2017
CNN reported Monday that the CIA's informant, who it did not name, was smuggled out of Russia in 2017, amid fears that his identity would be uncovered amid the ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the election.
Subsequent Russian media reports said Smolenkov disappeared with his family while on vacation in Montenegro in June 2017.
Since then he has not been heard from, but real estate records show that an Oleg and Antonina Smolenkov purchased a house in Stafford, Virginia, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of the US capital June 5, 2018.
The house sits on a large piece of land with a manicured lawn surrounded by forest. A neighbour who declined to be identified confirmed that Russians lived in the home and were nice neighbours, but had left the previous evening.
US media, citing intelligence sources, said the CIA's Kremlin informant was crucial to the US intelligence conclusion in late 2016 that Russia was actively interfering in the US election in Trump's favour.
While no sources were given, the strength of the assessment signalled to some that US intelligence might have a spy in the Kremlin.
Fears of exposure began in 2016
The New York Times reported that the CIA initially offered to bring out the source in late 2016 over fears about media exposure, but he refused, citing family issues.
Months later, the informant relented as the US Justice Department and Congress opened investigations into Russian interference that could expose US intelligence sources and methods.
"As soon as you launch an investigation like that, we know that there is going to be extensive amounts of intelligence that is going to come forward that is almost impossible to mask," said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent for counter-terrorism.
The CIA declined to respond to questions about the informant, but denied CNN's report that he was exfiltrated out of fears that Trump himself might expose him.
"Misguided speculation that the President's handling of our nation's most sensitive intelligence -- which he has access to each and every day -- drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate," the agency said in a statement.