The Kremlin on Tuesday played down U.S. media reports of a CIA spy inside Russia’s presidential administration, calling them “pulp fiction,” but said a low-level official who Russian media suggested was the agent had worked there before being fired.

CNN reported on Monday the United States had successfully extracted one of its highest-level covert sources inside Russia in 2017. The New York Times later said the informant had sent secrets to Washington for decades.

Two sources familiar with U.S. monitoring of Russian activities confirmed to Reuters that such a CIA informant did exist inside the Russian government and had been extracted and brought to the United States.

The sources indicated that U.S. officials were seriously concerned that Kremlin officials had made public what they claimed was the individual’s name.

Russian daily newspaper Kommersant said Tuesday the official may have been a man called Oleg Smolenkov, who is reported to have disappeared with his wife and three children while on holiday in Montenegro in 2017 and is now reported to be living in the United States.

The newspaper cited unnamed Russian law enforcement officials as saying Moscow had initially opened an investigation into his suspected murder in Montenegro before concluding he was alive and living abroad.

Kommersant published a picture of a house in Virginia that it said had been bought by a man called Smolenkov in 2018.

Asked about the matter, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Smolenkov had really worked in the Russian presidential administration, but had been fired in 2016-17.

One U.S. official familiar with the background to the story said it was not necessarily totally stupid or against standard spy practice for a defector to buy property in his own name. He did not say why.

But now that the story had become public it was highly likely the U.S. government would have to make serious efforts to protect the defector, said the source, who did not dispute the mole was Smolenkov.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at a White House briefing, dismissed reports that the CIA pulled the informant out of Russia over concerns the asset’s identity could be exposed.

“The reporting there is factually wrong,” said Pompeo, without elaborating.

‘A bull’s-eye on his face’

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief with deep expertise on Russia, said the informant is a marked man because Putin cannot risk Russian officials “thinking they can get away with betraying Russia.”

“This means that guy has a bull’s-eye on his face,” said Hoffman, who noted that a 2006 law empowers Putin to order extrajudicial killings outside Russia. “When Vladimir Putin has known about high-value sources who he says betrayed Russia, he tried to kill one of them with a Soviet nerve agent, and he killed another with polonium.”

He was referring to the 2018 attempted murder in Britain of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer and double agent for British intelligence, with the nerve agent Novichok and the 2006 killing with radioactive polonium of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian intelligence officer who received political asylum in Britain.

No access to Putin

Putin, seen here on Sunday, reportedly tried to have a former Russian military intelligence officer and double-agent killed in 2018 with a suspected nerve agent, former CIA station chief Daniel Hoffman said. (Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters)

Asked about the matter, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Smolenkov had worked in the Russian presidential administration but had been fired in 2016-17.

“It is true that Smolenkov worked in the presidential administration, but he was fired several years ago. His job was not at a senior official level,” said Peskov.

Smolenkov did not have direct access to Putin, Peskov added, declining with a laugh to confirm whether he had been a U.S. agent or not.

“I can’t confirm that.… I don’t know whether he was an agent. I can only confirm that there was such a person in the presidential administration, who was later sacked.

“All this U.S. media speculation about who urgently extracted who and saved who from who and so on — this is more the genre of pulp fiction, crime reading, so let’s leave it up to them,” said Peskov.

Smolenkov at different times worked at the Russian Embassy in the United States, in the Russian government administration and in the Russian presidential administration, open-source documents inside Russia show.

His wife worked in another Kremlin department, Kommersant said.

It cited some unnamed sources as saying they thought Smolenkov had only done routine work and could not have passed anything more than “two-bit rumours” to the Americans.

But other sources were cited as saying that Smolenkov worked with and enjoyed the trust of Putin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov who does have access to the Russian leader.

“This is serious,” it cited one unnamed Russian official as saying.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said separately on Tuesday he had never heard of Smolenkov.

“I have never seen this man, have never met him and have never monitored his career or movements,” Lavrov said.

CNN reported on Monday that the U.S. decision to extract its informant had occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office, in which U.S. President Donald Trump had discussed highly-classified intelligence with Lavrov.

Lavrov said Tuesday that nobody had divulged any secrets to him at the meeting with Trump.

A U.S. government source also insisted that Trump did not disclose secrets, such as the informant’s existence or identity, at any meeting with Russian officials.