Ex-spies weigh in on Russian hacking allegations

Oleg Kalugin, left, and Jack Barsky, who both worked for the KGB, share their views on the allegations of Russia trying to influence the US election.

(CNN)President Donald Trump's campaign and its alleged ties to Russia has been a big part of the political conversation this week.

There are new reports that Trump's associates may have coordinated with Russians before releasing information to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign last year. FBI director James Comey told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the FBI is investigating alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign and the extent of Russian involvement in the American election.
Russia's interest in the United States is not new. During the Cold War, Russian agents were planted on US soil to spy on the country, and many of them were caught by the FBI. CNN spoke to KGB and FBI agents about the Russia hacking allegations and how espionage has changed over the years.
    Jack Barsky: "Political pressure (can) move the needle away from the truth."

    Jack Barsky

    Jack Barsky is a former KGB agent who was caught by the FBI and is now a US citizen. Born Albrecht Dittrich in 1949 in East Germany, he was recruited in 1970 by the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.
    He was part of the Soviet Union's "illegals program," KGB spies planted in the United States with fake American identities. His primary task as an undercover agent was to get to know and report on interesting people in the United States -- people with access to secrets, decision makers -- and gather political intelligence. He is also author of the new book: "Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America."
    Barsky said, "What is clear is that email accounts of Democrat operatives were hacked and those hacks originated in Russia. Anything beyond that is pure speculation. As such, my bias is to believe information that originates with the FBI, CIA, etc. with one caveat: political pressure, which may quite possibly move the needle away from the truth. I do not like the current situation where intelligence has become a political football subject to a great amount of speculation without a foundation in fact."
    He added that Russia's end goal is to foment chaos in the country. "Historically, the KGB has always tried to influence and destabilize events all around the world. The explicitly stated goal of the Soviet Union was world communism organized in a Soviet-like system. Therefore, anything that could destabilize free and democratic nations was fair game. The KGB were champions in the game of 'fake news,' which was called 'disinformation' in the old days. While Russia's goals are not as ambitious as those of the Soviet Union, it is quite clear that the Russian leadership desperately wants to re-establish a strong Russia, on par with the United States. Therefore, anything that helps destabilize the US and other Western countries, anything that turns the focus of those countries inward rather than at the real outward threats would benefit Russia. In my view, it is not possible for a foreign nation to have a significant impact on the outcome of elections in this country. Try as they might, all they will be able to do is nibble around the edges."
    Barsky said he doesn't think espionage or intelligence gathering has changed as much as people think. He said electronic spying and wiretapping has been replaced by hacking: "Because of the ubiquity of the Internet and the lax attitude towards data security by the majority of the American public, it has become much easier to obtain information electronically. However, the most valuable information is still what professionals call 'humint,' human intelligence. After all, it is humans that make decisions, not computers or drones. Getting to know decision makers and trying to understand what makes them tick is still at the pinnacle of intelligence gathering. This is also the toughest job in all of intelligence work. It is so much easier to sit at your desk and troll the Internet than cultivate a valuable source."
    Eric O'Neill: "Spies don't just steal. Spies also sabotage and disrupt."