The huge brick fortress overlooking the Presidio known as the Russian Federation-Consulate General was the topic of some wild conspiracy theories the day it was shut down in early September. Plumes of black smoke poured out of from the consulate’s chimneys that day, leading many locals — and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District — to speculate that they were definitely burning something other than paper on the eve of the Russian staff being forced out.
— KRON4 News (@kron4news) September 12, 2017
Thanks to a new exposé on the San Francisco Russian Consulate just published in Foreign Policy, we can make some educated guesses on what was being burned. According to Zach Dorfman’s fascinating research, the roof of the consulate was used as a secret high-tech spying hub full of satellites dishes, antennas, and electronic transmission devices all concealed within wooden shacks.
“The San Francisco consulate served a unique role in Russian intelligence-gathering operations in the United States, as an important, and perhaps unrivaled, hub for its technical collection efforts here,” Dorfman writes.
The high-altitude vantage point of that building’s location made it particularly attractive for monitoring underseas data cables, naval military craft, and even nuclear submarines. Even if these weren’t visible from the roof, the rooftop was a great place for high-tech monitoring. A San Jose Mercury News article from way back in 1985 noted, “Agents say the Soviets eavesdrop on the Silicon Valley from the roof of the consulate using sophisticated electronics made in the United States.”
Fast forward to Aug. 31, 2017, when the Trump administration ordered the closure of the San Francisco Russian Consulate. This was ostensibly in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin cutting 755 staff members on U.S. diplomatic missions in late July — a move the BBC called “the largest action against diplomatic staff from any country in modern history” — which itself was ostensibly in response to outgoing president Barack Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats his administration classified as spies in retaliation for the 2016 election meddling.
Four of those 35 “spies” worked at the San Francisco consulate. One of them was the in-house chef.
The San Francisco Consulate was the oldest Russian Consulate U.S., so its closure was significant. Oddly, similar Russian Consulates in New York Seattle, and Houston were not ordered closed. But there was something special to Russia about the San Francsico location.
On a general level, a San Francisco office is attractive to any outside nation’s intelligence operation. It’s close to Silicon Valley and tech headquarters like, ahem, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The region is rich with venture capitalists to influence, home to universities like Stanford and Berkeley that serve as pipelines for tech talent, and not far from the location of nuclear weapons lab the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
And the intelligence community apparently found definitive proof that the Russians were spying from the consulate. “The consulate’s closure was linked to U.S. intelligence officials definitively proving long-held suspicions about the objectives of these Russian activities,” Dorfman writes. “Officials could simply no longer countenance these extraordinarily aggressive intelligence-collection efforts.”
Dorfman found that U.S. intelligence could prove a pattern of Russian agents looking for weaknesses in our fiber optics networks and telecommunication infrastructure. Essentially, they were looking at ways to knock out or internet, or the functionality of servers at critical tech companies.
“If they can shut down our grid, and we go blind,” one former intelligence official told Foreign Policy.
But if President Trump is supposedly in cahoots with the Russians, why would he shut down their embassy and such an important intelligence-gathering operation? One theory in national security circles is that Trump was simply too dumb to understand the significance of what he was doing.
“Based on my other interactions with West Wing officials, and the depth of their understanding on the issues in general, I would be very surprised personally if President Trump had any … comprehension of that at all,” the National Security Council’s former Russia director Jeffrey Edmonds told Foreign Policy.
There could also be a back-channel arrangement that the consulate will be reopened once the Trump-Russia issue blows over, which by all accounts Trump thinks it will. But the use of San Francisco as a prized Russian intelligence asset is probably a burden this city will carry for good.