NEW YORK/May 11, 2017 (AP)(STL.News) — The White House is facing criticism for a possible security breach after it allowed a Russian news service photographer into the Oval Office to snap photos of President Donald Trump and a pair of top Russian officials.
While the administration downplayed the threat, a senior administration official acknowledged that the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer, who was actually employed by a state-run news agency. The official requested anonymity to discuss matters of security.
The photographer who stood feet from Trump as he talked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, had told the White House that he was Lavrov’s official photographer, the administration official said.
But he did not say that he also works for Tass, a Russian state-run news agency. And White House officials were surprised when photos depicting an apparently jovial moment between Trump and the two Russian officials appeared online a short time after Wednesday’s meeting, according to the official. There had been no plans to immediately broadcast images from the meeting.
The chummy photos left some observers agog, particularly coming a day after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been running the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian officials.
The American media, however, never caught a glimpse of either Russian inside the White House. When the press pool was allowed into the Oval Office at the meeting’s conclusion, both Lavrov and Kislyak were gone and, in a surprise, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was with Trump instead.
The White House posted photos online of the meeting a full day later, but they did not include any images of Lavrov. The ambassador was also not mentioned in the official White House readout of the meeting.
The White House defended the decision not to allow any independent press into the meeting. “We had an official photographer in the room, as did they,” spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday.
Sanders added that it was “proper protocol” to close a meeting to the press when Trump is meeting with a foreign official who is not a head of state. President Barack Obama’s staff frequently adopted a similar policy. Ambassadors often accompany visiting dignitaries to the White House.
Officials dismissed any security concerns, saying that Lavrov’s entourage went through the typical visitor screening process and that the White House is routinely swept for listening devices. But security experts said that the risk was real, if remote.
“Deadly serious Q: Was it a good idea to let a Russian gov photographer & all their equipment into the Oval Office?” Colin Kahl, who served as former Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, wrote on Twitter.
“No, it was not,” David S. Cohen, the former deputy director of the CIA, replied.
The Kremlin has hidden bugs in sensitive U.S. facilities. During President Bill Clinton’s term, a listening device was discovered in a conference room at the State Department where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other top diplomats routinely held meetings.
“It’s a very low probability that the incursion generated a real security breach,” said Jens David Ohlin, a dean at Cornell University Law School, where he teaches and studies international criminal law and security. “But any breach at all would be catastrophic. Why even take that chance?”
Contact with Kislyak led Michael Flynn to be dismissed from his post as national security adviser and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the probe.
Hours after his meeting with Trump, Lavrov insisted that no evidence exists that Russian attempted to influence last year’s election or hack the Democratic Party’s email system. He also said the subject never came up during his Oval Office meeting.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to affect the outcome of the 2016 election.
JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
Jill Colvin contributed reporting from Washington.