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Ex-FBI informant has 'extensive' Russian intelligence contacts, lawyers say

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden's younger brother was on Capitol Hill today. James Biden's closed-door deposition is part of the Republican-led impeachment inquiry against the president. And meanwhile, new information has emerged about the former FBI informant who has been charged with making false bribery claims about the Bidens. Prosecutors say Alexander Smirnov has extensive contacts with Russian intelligence. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering all of this. He's in the studio now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey, there.

KELLY: OK, start with that last twist - the former FBI informant who has been charged, Alexander Smirnov. The government says he has Russian intelligence contacts. What do we know?

LUCAS: Well, this all comes from a court filing from the government. And in that document, prosecutors say that Smirnov has significant contacts with multiple foreign intelligence agencies. But they really do zero in on what they say are his ties with Russia's spy services. We don't get any names, of course, about who some of his contacts are, but we do get some details. One of his contacts, for example, is described to his FBI handler as the son of a former high-ranking Russian official. This contact is said to control a group that conducts assassinations overseas. Another contact is described in court papers as the head of a unit of a Russian intelligence service. But to be clear, prosecutors also say that Smirnov disclosed all of these contacts to his FBI handler, so this is not something that he was hiding from the FBI.

KELLY: OK, so help me here. He wasn't hiding it. And am I not right in thinking this is exactly why he would be useful as an informant to the FBI? Wouldn't they want somebody with Russian contacts?

LUCAS: That's exactly right. I actually talked to Stephen Laycock about this. He was a senior counterintelligence official at the FBI, and he finished his career leading the bureau's intelligence branch. And he said, look, there's nothing unusual about Smirnov's contacts on their own. As you said, it's exactly why he would be useful to the FBI. But at the same time, Laycock says, the FBI is always evaluating the information that an informant is giving them. The idea is to constantly assess whether the information that's coming in is credible, whether it's consistent. And he said, sometimes you have to look at whether you're being lied to - whether you're being fed misinformation or disinformation - so in other words, whether there's some sort of double game afoot.

KELLY: And is there a double game afoot? I mean, what do we know?

LUCAS: Well, there's certainly a nod to that possibility in the court papers, yes. Prosecutors say that Smirnov's ties with the Russians are not, quote-unquote, "benign." And they say that Smirnov told authorities after he was arrested last week in Las Vegas that officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing along a story about Hunter Biden, the president's son. Prosecutors don't specify what that story might be, but this does all raise questions of whether there is some sort of info here being fed by Russian intelligence.

KELLY: OK. And to focus on why we're here talking about this, Smirnov's claims have been central to the whole case that House Republicans are trying to build in this impeachment inquiry. Do we know if the case has been affected?

LUCAS: Well, it certainly dealt a blow to the Republicans' case. It was not a particularly strong case to begin with. They haven't produced any concrete evidence thus far tying the president to wrongdoing. But the Smirnov case, outwardly at least, has not prompted Republicans leading the impeachment inquiry to back down in any way. The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, James Comer, has almost brushed aside the Smirnov indictment, even though Comer himself once called Smirnov's bribery claims a key part of the impeachment probe. Instead, what Comer has done is criticize the FBI and its handling of the investigation. And he said that the bribery allegation isn't the only thing that the impeachment inquiry is hanging its hat on, so to speak.

KELLY: Which brings us to President Biden's brother, James Biden. We said he was on Capitol Hill today - a closed-door deposition. Did we get any readout?

LUCAS: Well, we know from a copy of his opening statement to lawmakers that James Biden told them that his brother, President Biden, has never had any involvement or financial interest in James' business dealings. He also said that he never asked his brother to take any official action on his behalf or anyone else's behalf. That said, we do not have a full picture, at this point, of everything that was said behind closed doors. What we do know is that the president's son, Hunter, is expected to appear next week to answer questions - again behind closed doors. He, of course, has been a central figure here for Republicans who have really put his business dealings under scrutiny. So this impeachment inquiry is still active for now.

KELLY: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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