Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin knew about President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky as early as 1996, according to former U.S. intelligence officials who said that they believe that the Russians obtained the knowledge by compromising secure White House communications.
The Clinton-Lewsinky scandal did not become public until 1998 and in 1996 was known only "to a mere handful" of the White House inner circle, these sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
These officials do not rule out that compromising information given the Russians by accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen could have played a role in helping Yeltsin obtain the information.
In the book$?'Midnight Diaries' published last October, Yeltsin said that in November 1996 he had received an encrypted telegram that reported that Republican Party activists intended to plant an attractive young woman in the Clinton White House to embarrass its most senior occupant. In the book, Yeltsin did not name Lewinsky but when asked by an interviewer for the London Times if he knew the woman's name was Lewinsky, he replied: "I knew." Russians knew about Lewinsky before public
A former head of the Russian intelligence service, the SVR, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, said in a Feb. 27, 1998 interview with a Russian newspaper, Obshchaya Gazeta and published by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, that he knew of the scandal.
"You know, joking aside, our intelligence service some time ago anticipated that powerful pressure would be brought down to bear on the U.S. president and that it would be exerted in various fields, including this one," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
A veteran U.S. intelligence analyst said: "There are two key rules in intelligence: The first is that reputations of people are their most important secret. Rule two is that every agent is aware of rule one." Both Yeltsin's and Trubnikov's statements show they were "aware of both rules," he said.
Another veteran analyst said: "When Clinton entered office, every hostile and friendly intelligence service began gathering data on this man," whose name was already associated with sexual scandal.
To the Russians, he said, what was important was not the fact of illicit sex "which was widely rumored and taken for granted," but rather "the speculation that a high conspiracy was going on."
In fact, he said the Russian speculation had "a factual basis" -- meaning the affair -- otherwise it would not have occurred "at (that) level" of their intelligence gathering services or generated the encrypted telegram referred to in Yeltsin's book.
"Their natural tendency to suspect sinister conspiracy behind a blatant sexual affair was probably the main thing motivating their collection effort against the latter," he said.
The fact that top secret and supposedly secure White House communications appear to have been breached "poses questions of real urgency," another former U.S. intelligence official said. "If they got it from an antenna on their embassy, we need to know that."
One former State Dept. official told United Press International that originally Israel was the suspected culprit.
"We have had lots of indications that Israel has tried to make hits on some of our encryption, especially during the completion of the Wye Agreements (on the Mideast peace process). Not to mention the high number of pro-Israeli sources embedded in the most sensitive portions of the U.S. national security infrastructure."
But a former U.S. expert on Soviet intelligence said: "We looked for Israel, but we found no evidence at all to support the allegation," following talks with Israeli officials and other investigative probes.
This source said that during the Lewinsky-Clinton affair there occurred at least "70 hours of phone sex," some of it from Air Force One, and more when President Clinton was traveling to and from and visiting Prague.
"We speculate that the Russians got it from intercepts of Air Force One or they placed a bug in Lewinsky's apartment," he said.
One source, a current official with the Defense Intelligence Agency, noted that the Russian admission that they knew of the affair early on corroborates Lewinsky's assertion in her sworn testimony about her final sexual encounter with then President Clinton.
According to the Starr Report, Lewinsky visited the president on Saturday, March 29, 1997, and was admitted by Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary.
The Starr Report quotes Lewinsky as saying that, during this encounter the president "told her that he suspected that a foreign embassy (he did not specify which one) was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories. If ever questioned, she should say that the two of them were just friends. If anyone ever asked about their phone sex, she should say that they knew their calls were being monitored all along, and the phone sex was just a put-on."
Accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen could very well have played a role in this, say former U.S. intelligence officials.
Former FBI and other U.S. intelligence officials told UPI last week that Hanssen had betrayed FBI intelligence countermeasures -- including real-time monitoring of Moscow's interception of White House and other top U.S. government agency communications.
Knowing of the countermeasures employed might have helped Moscow evade them, these sources said.
What did Yeltsin gain from knowing about the scandal?
"It gave him an insight into the foundation of the man with whom he was dealing," said one analyst, adding, "there was no way this didn't raise the ante" in U.S.-Russian dealings.
Good intelligence doesn't lie there unused, he concluded.