A senior official in the Russian cyberintelligence department that American officials say oversaw last year’s election hacking has been arrested in Moscow on charges of treason, a Russian newspaper reported Wednesday.
The arrest of Sergei Mikhailov, a senior officer of the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., the main successor agency to the K.G.B., is a rare instance of turmoil in the country’s usually shadowy cybersecurity apparatus slipping into public view.
Mr. Mikhailov served in the F.S.B.’s Center for Information Security, the agency’s cyberintelligence branch, which has been implicated in the American election hacking. But it is not clear whether the arrest was related to those intrusions.
He was detained along with one of Russia’s leading private-sector cybersecurity experts, Ruslan Stoyanov, the head of computer incident response investigations at the Kaspersky Lab, which makes antivirus programs.
The company confirmed in a statement that Mr. Stoyanov had been arrested, but said his arrest “has nothing to do with Kaspersky Lab and its operations.”
Still, the arrests of the men, who had cooperated in Russia to prosecute cybercriminals, shed light on the intersection of cybercrime, private antivirus companies and the Russian security services.
Western cybersecurity analysts have said there are indications that the security services recruited among criminal hackers to carry out politicized computer intrusions ahead of last summer’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee in the United States, giving the hackers impunity to commit financially motivated attacks in exchange for their expertise.
The arrest raised the possibility that Mr. Mikhailov and Mr. Stoyanov had interfered in this cooperation. The newspaper article, in Kommersant, which cited unidentified sources in Moscow’s technology industry and the F.S.B., said the treason charges related to work on criminal hacking investigations.
For the Russians to ring up one of their own in the FSB on treason charges is massive. When the NYT here says that Mikhailov and Stoyanov "interfered in this cooperation" it means they were passing info to the US. Josh Marshall explains:
Last night I noted that a top Russian spy who is the number two person in the FSB department which allegedly oversaw the US election hacking operation had been arrested and charged with treason. Was he a sacrificial lamb and olive branch to Trump? A way for Putin to claim that his spy services had perhaps gone rogue? Or was he suspected of being a source to US intelligence? People who fall from grace in Putin's Russia are often dealt with with trumped up criminal prosecutions. But treason is a special charge.
Well, now we have reports that Sergei Mikhailov is suspected of being a US asset at the heart of Russian intelligence.
And that leads us directly back to the Trump regime.
But this immediately poses the question: if Mikhailov was a US asset, how was he compromised? Did the information put out by US intelligence somehow lead to his exposure? Without putting too fine a point on it, a number of close advisors to President Trump are being scrutinized for ties to Russia. Some of them participated in the intelligence briefings the President receives.
Do we have a very big problem?
The scenario that Trump's people let slip that Mikhailov was working for US intelligence through sheer incompetence, or that his cover was blown deliberately and the Russians were told outright that one of their top cyberspies was a US asset? That's not really in the far-fetched category given this bunch of assholes. As Marshall points out, maybe he was a sacrificial lamb.
Another possibility is that Putin knew Mikhailov was turned all along and is choosing now to dispose of him, but if that's the case why not do it quietly? It's not like "Oops this guy had an accident and fell down an elevator shaft on to 27 bullets" isn't Putin's m.o. or anything. Treason charges tend to draw attention.
The larger point is however that if this is part of Trump's war with the US intelligence community, things just reached an all-new level of bad, and I'm sure Congress has some questions at this point.
Will they even ask them?