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Brett Forrest: An American family trapped inside the FBI's secret war

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June 3, 2023 12:00 am

Brett Forrest: An American family trapped inside the FBI's secret war

Brian Kilmeade Show / Brian Kilmeade

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June 3, 2023 12:00 am

In this Producers' Pick, Wall Street Journal national security reporter Brett Forrest details what he found while investigating the FBI's "secret" war.

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Brett, great to see you in person. Yeah, thanks for having me. And congratulations on the book.

Thank you very much. I mean, the first thing that comes to mind, too, is your colleague, the Wall Street Journal reporter, scooped up for being a spy by the Russians. We all know he was not a spy. And Brett, in fact, Evan wrote his column and it just so happens his last column talked about how the sanctions are paying such an economic toll on the Russians. Didn't that have anything to do with it? Well, I think it's not so much a specific article that he wrote. It's really the Russian state made a decision. They wanted to do something like this. They had a list drawn up.

That's our understanding of possible targets. And they wanted to go after somebody. They wanted to take a Western reporter, preferably an American, to make a statement. And they did, even though he's got a Russian background, really liked the country and was just doing his job. Any way that he's linked to being a spy is just comical. Evan is a dedicated professional journalist, period. Why are the Russians feeling so bold to do this?

I mean, between the Marine, between the WNBA star, Greiner, and now this. It's a great question. And, you know, I lived in Moscow for five years. I've been working there in Russia for 20 years.

And I've seen this evolution. It really goes back to a case that the DEA put together against the arms dealer Victor Boot in 2008. After that, the DEA then took another Russian pilot who was smuggling drugs in Africa. See, you just described two people doing bad things.

Exactly. These were people committing crimes internationally. The U.S. took them down. And over a number of years, the Russians decided, you know, we're going to react to this. So they started taking Americans.

And what's the consequences? They get their people. They get their people back. Victor Boot is back.

Britney Greiner's back. Exactly. And that really comes to a decision for the administration or various administrations.

How do you deal with this? Will you play hardball with the Russians? And what's the result? We also see Sergei Maginsky. We had the famous Maginsky Act. And the Maginsky Act is the lawyer for Bill Browder, who was tortured and killed in an effort to get Bill Browder to come back because they feel as though he was a billionaire by illegal, illicit means.

But he wasn't. He just happened to be a capitalist in Russia. That's right.

That's right. I mean, that case, the Magnitsky case related to Browder's activities and investments in Russia really shows the sort of cynical, deep cynical nature of some folks in Russia who've come to power and influence. This was a scheme perpetrated by people who were Russian officials. And they were simply trying to steal money, boldly.

Which is kind of interesting. I don't know if it plays into this, but Tara Reid, the accuser of Joe Biden, she is now defected to Russia. And Edward Snowden, when he decided to give up some secrets and intelligence, he didn't want to be a whistleblower. He didn't trust the process and went from Hong Kong to Russia.

Well, I've always thought that that speaks volumes. I mean, the fact that someone like Snowden would do what he did and then take refuge in a place like Russia without criticizing Russia certainly says something. And you'll remember, too, in 2013 when he took refuge there, there was talk about possibly making a trade for Snowden for Viktor But, or for the Russian pilot that I mentioned.

But we don't want him back. Maybe not now, but at the time there was serious talk about that, but instead Vladimir Putin granted Snowden asylum. I do want to talk about what's happened in Russia. Moscow got hit a couple of days ago. There's been some strikes inside Russia. This is not the way the Ukraine invasion was supposed to go for Russia. Could you describe what it's like as we watch the ineptness of their military, the unwillingness for those to serve, the unavailability of the children of rich people in Russia to actually fight this war, the private armies that are sprouting up because their real army is not doing much?

Yeah. Well, goodness, haven't we seen a great surprise there? I mean, before this war began, we all, I think, mostly held the Russian military in high esteem, right? And we've seen how poorly they've behaved on the battlefield. And you're right, their lack of success has really revealed a lot of fissures within Russia.

Does it surprise you as somebody who lived there? You know, it doesn't because, for one, we're aware of the great corruption within the Russian military, and we've seen how that has been borne out within the war. You see a lot of people, a lot of soldiers who are unprepared, don't have the right gear, who don't have the right weapons.

And we see a lot of old weapons, unguided missiles, hitting apartment buildings. We see just the lack of planning over many years, the Russian military. And that, of course, gives rise to people like Prigozhin, who's the head of Wagner, the paramilitary group, to stake his own claim to power. And Wagner, who has this elite unit, well, next thing you know, he's recruiting in prisons.

Right, right. So how elite are you if you have no choice but to serve or die or rot in a cell? You know, interestingly, I spoke with a couple of gentlemen who are in prison in Russia currently, and they told me that Wagner came to their prison twice last year, and they described the conditions. They said that the first wave of recruitment, actually, a lot of people volunteered for it, but then subsequently they learned that the guys who went to war didn't fare so well. It's a death sentence.

Basically, because a lot of these guys are just cannon fodder for Wagner. I mean, you remember the movie The Dirty Dozen, right? Sure.

This is sort of like a perverted Russian version of that. With me right now is Brett Forrest, national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of a new book, Lost Son, an American Family Trapped Inside the FBI's Secret War. So tell me about the book, Brett. How did you stumble upon this story?

How did you pursue it? Right. Well, this came to me actually late 2017. It's a long time ago now. It was a source of mine, an American guy with deep contacts in Russia. And also, he was being considered for positions in the incoming Trump administration. And he told me that he knew of a story, a case of a young man from Michigan who'd gotten wrapped up with the FBI, worked for the FBI for five years as what's known as a confidential human source, working mostly in counterterrorism. And one day after the war in Russia began, in Ukraine that is, he told his parents that he was traveling to Russia.

This was 2015. He went there. He was there for about six weeks. Suddenly, he disappeared. His parents lost track of him.

And very soon after that, his FBI handler came to the door, said he knew nothing about the trip to Russia and began confiscating devices from the family and eventually shut them out. And right away, I knew that this was a story that I could possibly pursue for the Wall Street Journal. But I also thought that if we were able to get results here for the family, that this could be something that could be expanded into a book. So that's interesting. You go from a reporter to basically a supporter. An advocate? An investigator? You know, it's just interesting. I wouldn't say that necessarily. I'm always a reporter.

I don't advocate for people. What I was trying to do in this story was to investigate it, to get a result, to find out what happened to this gentleman named Billy Riley. And what made you, well, with your experience in Russia, you felt as though you could be successful. But Russia's constantly changing, becoming a more hostile place. Did that give you second thoughts? Well, it did. It did.

I mean, I've seen the evolution. When I first went to Russia in 2002, as you remember, Vladimir Putin was pretty new in the job. The United States kind of liked him. He was very close with George W. Bush, or at least he seemed so.

They spent time on his ranch in Texas. Remember, I looked into his soul. Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

But I saw that relationship deteriorate between our two countries over many years. Because of him, would you say? Or do you blame us? Well, that's a very good question.

These things are never so clear. It's difficult to place blame. I mean, if I had to place it on one person, it would be Vladimir Putin simply because he has stayed in power too long. And when you stay in power too long, often your thoughts turn to your place in history. And I don't want a leader who's thinking about his place in history.

I want a leader who's thinking about doing what's right for the country. And what you had to do is deal with Vladimir Putin's Russia. And I don't want you to give away the ending of this. It's too important to the story. It's really happened. It's not fiction. But could you give us an idea of what you found when you started pursuing or the venues you started first looking?

Certainly. So I knew initially that the parents had gone to Russia themselves in search of their son. And they had gone there, I believe, in 2017. Now, they're just regular folks from Michigan. They don't have any contacts over there.

They don't know anybody. And, you know, they tried their best. They really dedicated their lives to this. I thought that I might be able to help because of my experience there, because I indeed do know people and I can get around and have language skills. So I learned that Billy had flown to Moscow and then taken a train down to a southern city in Russia called Rostov-on-Don, which was the staging ground for Russian military activity just across the border into eastern Ukraine. And I learned that Billy had set himself up at a camp there for volunteer fighters. These were guys, mostly Russians, but international people as well, who were collected down there with the intent to cross the border into Ukraine to join volunteer fighter battalions fighting against Kiev in the eastern part of Ukraine. So here you had a guy who was an FBI source who was at a Russian volunteer fighter camp.

On his own? And the FBI telling you he's on his own? Well, the FBI, of course, is not really saying much. I mean, this book began as an article in The Wall Street Journal, and I gave the FBI pre-publication of more than 100 questions, and the FBI didn't answer a single one. They did give me one single line, and they said that they had not sent Billy Reilly to Russia, and that's it. Got it.

So a few more minutes with Brett Forrest when we get back. Brett, I want to ask you about what's going on with Christopher Wray's FBI and what your take is and talk more about this story. Listen, this is a real-life mystery. Lost son, an American family trapped inside the FBI secret war. Brett Forrest of The Wall Street Journal here.

Don't move. You listen to The Brian Kilmeade Show on Thursday. It's spanning your knowledge base.

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That's 800-884-3863. He's so busy he'll make your head spin. It's Brian Kilmeade. It's really unfortunate the notion that the FBI is some sort of leftist cabal out to get the Republicans is so crazy it just shows you how crazy our times are. The FBI will be fine in the long run. This fever around Donald Trump and the MAGA world will eventually break but it's become somehow a nutty article of faith that the FBI is out to get Republicans. There's no doubt about it.

The evidence is overwhelming that he's a fraud and he shouldn't be trusted and he's sanctimonious and self-obsessed and was one of the worst FBI directors who's done more damage to their organizations than just about anybody else. Welcome back everyone. Brett Forrest, NASA security reporter for the Wall Street Journal with us, author of Lost Son, an American family trapped inside the FBI secret war. This family turned to Brett Forrest to help find his son located inside Russia and that's what this story is about. Brett helping the family but more importantly just trying to find out what exactly is going on as the FBI cleaned out his house.

And then the family was left really with no way of getting in touch and finding out what happened to their son so that's all chronicled in his story. Brett, you spent so much time in Russia and the Ukraine. You just told me in the break outside Kiev is Buche and once it was clear that Kiev was not going to be captured by the Russians, it's going to be a longer war. They backed out and they unveiled. What did they unveil in Buche? You were the first reporter on the scene to see this massacre?

Yeah, that's right. I happened to be in Kiev at that time and I saw a photo on social media of several bodies with their wrists tied behind their backs and I knew that it was located nearby. And so I raced out there with the bodyguard and a photographer and a fixer and we arrived with incredible timing. It just so happened that the local militia was retaking the town. We pulled up to the administration building and they were just reinstalling the Ukrainian flag and they were singing the national anthem just as we were getting out of the car. It was just a happenstance. And the local militia leader, he said, you know, come back another day. It's too dangerous here. Russians have booby-trapped the town.

We haven't had time to clear it. And, you know, there was great appetite for information. This was the first month of the war. It was maybe like six weeks in and we needed to know what had happened there. So I persuaded him to give me a couple of guys and we drove around the town and, you know, it was raw.

It was as raw as you can imagine. Death? Yeah. I mean, there were hundreds of bodies all around Buche. Civilians or military?

I didn't see a single body wearing any military uniform. So it was the mass killing of innocent Ukrainians. Yes.

And a lot of these people were elderly, women, men, a great mix of just local inhabitants. You know, people who were killed clearly while they were riding a bicycle. Executed. Yeah. Well, in many different ways because I eventually got to talk to survivors, people who were huddling in basements for a month trying to save themselves against the Russians and heard so many stories about just senseless killings, also planned killings.

For the Russians, they put snipers in different high positions and when people would try and leave the town, they would take them out. Wow. It's hard to shake that. Yeah.

I mean, that's not something you can be prepared to see. So now the Ukrainians are more determined than ever to take their country back. They have 17% the Russians do.

What do you expect with the surge in the last minute we have? I expect the Ukrainians to throw everything they have at the Russians. Will they have success?

It depends what you mean by success. Getting their country back? The Ukrainians have sacrificed so much that it's very difficult for them to think about sitting down at the table with Russia. Will they hit Crimea first? I know that they are determined to take it back.

That's all the way. Yeah. And that's why there's nothing to talk about. One country invaded the other and is not leaving.

So there's no, how do you talk peace? That is the central thing to remember. By the way, pick up a great book, Brett Forrest, a Fantastic Reporter, Lost Son, an American Family Trapped Inside the FBI's Secret War, and read everything Brett writes. Brett, thanks so much. Thank you, Ryan.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-03 00:40:20 / 2023-06-03 00:47:30 / 7

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