The Mystery Man in the Senate Russia Report

New details suggest Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election may have been more extensive than thought, experts say.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., as seen on March 5, 2001.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., as seen on March 5, 2001. Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images

When the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released the first volume of its report on Kremlin interference into the 2016 presidential election, it included a Russian name never before publicly mentioned in connection with the investigation. A section on “Russian Efforts to Research U.S. Voting Systems, Processes and Other Elements of Voting Infrastructure” is entirely redacted except for one sentence that reads: “It is unknown if Tarantsov attended the events.” 

With no further details given as to who this individual was, it left a conspicuous breadcrumb in a report detailing one of the most pored-over and picked-apart news stories in years: Who is Tarantsov?

Tarantsov is a fairly uncommon Russian last name. At the time Russia was known to have begun its efforts to probe U.S. electoral systems, there was at least one Tarantsov working in Washington, D.C.: Lt. Col. Dmitry Vladimirovich Tarantsov, who served as Air Force attache at the Russian Embassy, according to a list of accredited diplomats published by the U.S. State Department.

The Russian Embassy and spokespeople for the Senate Intelligence Committee did not comment on whether the Tarantsov referenced in the report is the former Russian defense attache. But when asked by Foreign Policy, former U.S. government officials said it would align with Moscow’s playbook for this Tarantsov to have been operating out of the embassy under the diplomatic cover of an attache. 

Defense attaches, and not just those from Russia, have long played a role in military intelligence-gathering out of embassies, and Russia’s military intelligence branch, the GRU, is known to have played a central role in efforts to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election—hacking their way into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails and probing election infrastructure. 

Twelve GRU employees were indicted by special counsel’s Robert Mueller’s office in July 2018 for their role in the hacking operations run out of Moscow. If the Tarantsov mentioned in the Senate Intelligence Committee report is confirmed to be an attache working on behalf of the GRU, it would be the first public mention that a Russian military intelligence officer may have been involved in efforts to research U.S. voting systems from within the United States. That in turn raises significant questions about the details obscured in the redacted report. 

Thus far, no GRU officers have been indicted for election interference activities carried out on U.S. soil. But Max Bergmann, a former State Department official, said that if a Washington-based defense attache was involved, it “would show this wasn’t just some rogue intelligence unit in the GRU randomly deciding to go off and hack some U.S. voting infrastructure, it was a concerted whole-of-government, whole-of-Kremlin effort.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee report, released late last month, detailed the Russian government directing “extensive activities” against U.S. election infrastructure. The panel’s investigation said electoral systems in all 50 states were likely targeted but found no evidence votes were changed. 

In response to a request for comment as to Tarantsov’s identity or why his name was not redacted, the offices of the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee declined to comment beyond the report.

The committee released the report the day after Mueller warned Congress that Russia would likely interfere in future U.S. elections. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” he said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.” 

“They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign,” Mueller said of Russian subterfuge. 

The section of the report in which Tarantsov is named is based on one or more FBI memos and the findings of a wiretap under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant. The FBI declined to comment for this story. There is little trace of Dmitry Vladimirovich Tarantsov online, save for a mention in a list of accredited diplomats who worked at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, in 2008. 

Embassy military attaches—and not just those from Russia—serve as liaisons between defense departments but are also widely regarded to be involved in military intelligence, said Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Eastern Europe.

However, any efforts on the part of a military attache to gather information on the U.S. electoral system would be regarded as highly unusual, Farkas said. “Their job is to try to find out how are we planning to fight our adversaries, to try and get some sort of military intelligence—they’re not supposed to be targeting American civilians,” she said. Farkas said she did not recall working with Tarantsov during her time in government. 

“But as we know, the GRU, the military intelligence service of Russia, has gotten way beyond its normal gambit under this Kremlin, and they have branched into areas including meddling in the elections and internal affairs of other countries,” she said. 

The Russian Embassy in Washington became embroiled in the election interference scandal that has plagued the Trump White House for nearly the entirety of his administration. President Donald Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, pled guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI over his contacts with former Russian Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. And U.S. authorities have probed suspicious financial transactions and cash withdrawals from the embassy after the 2016 presidential elections. 

“There was a lot that was taking place in the Russian Embassy that was really suspicious,” said Bergmann, the former State official and a current senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, who has closely tracked Russian election interference. 

The United Kingdom has accused two GRU officers of carrying out the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal, a former member of Russian military intelligence, last year. Skripal and his daughter were left seriously ill after coming into contact with the poison Novichok, which was sprayed on the door handle of their home in Salisbury. A British woman died after coming into contact with the poison, which was disguised in a perfume bottle, after it was discarded. 

“They’ve thrown the GRU out there to do some wildly discoverable stuff including the Skripal assassination, there were footprints and breadcrumbs all the way back to GRU headquarters in Moscow,” said Daniel Hoffman, who served as CIA station chief in Moscow.

Russia has denied any involvement in the attack on the Skripals or in attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. At a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the accusations as “groundless” and “completely false.”

In response to a detailed list of questions from Foreign Policy, the press office of the Russian Embassy in Washington sent a number of links including an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted by the filmmaker Oliver Stone and a link to a report produced by the embassy titled, “The Russiagate Hysteria: A Case of Severe Russophobia.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer