Trump aide partnered with firm run by man tied to KGB
Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, partnered this year with a controversial technology company co-run by a man once convicted of trying to sell stolen biotech material to the Russian KGB espionage agency.
Subu Kota, who pleaded guilty in 1996 to selling the material to an FBI agent posing as a Russian spy, is one of two board directors at the company, Boston-based Brainwave Science.
During years of federal court proceedings, prosecutors presented evidence they said showed that between 1985 and 1990 Kota met repeatedly with a KGB agent and was part of a spy ring that made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling U.S. missile defense technology to Russian spies. Kota denied being part of a spy ring, reached a plea agreement in the biotech case and admitted to selling a sketch of a military helicopter to his co-defendant, who was later convicted of being a KGB operative.
Flynn served more than three decades in the military and rose to become director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before he was fired by President Barack Obama in 2014 over policy disagreements. He formed a private consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, which has sought business with an array of cyber security firms and defense contractors. He began collaborating with Brainwave Science last spring.
Flynn, who has been widely criticized for close associations with Russia, has declined repeated requests during the past month to be interviewed about his company’s business ties. A spokesman for the Trump transition team, Jason Miller, said in an email that Flynn has never met or spoken with Kota and that he has ended his association with Brainwave Science.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Kota described his criminal charges and dealings with the KGB as misunderstandings. He acknowledged selling biotech material to a federal agent posing as a Russian spy, but said the incident was a patent dispute, not espionage.
Brainwave is seeking to develop a market for its innovative - but broadly disputed — technology called “brain fingerprinting” which tries to assess an interrogation subject’s honesty through a brain scan. Flynn was brought onto the company’s board of advisers to help sell the product to defense and law enforcement agencies, Brainwave President Krishna Ika said in an interview.
Ika said the company has not sold anything to U.S. federal agencies yet and is looking for investors. He runs the day-to-day operations while Kota brings business and technological expertise and helps make strategic decisions.
Although undercover federal agents testified that Kota bragged of his involvement in a KGB spy ring, Kota says he has never been a spy. He acknowledges meeting with Vladimir Galkin, a KGB agent, on at least four occasions and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for information about technology related to U.S. missile defense systems. But Kota said he thought Galkin was a businessman and that the information he provided was from public sources.
Galkin was arrested at Kennedy Airport in 1996. Prosecutors were unable to build a case in the military spy ring they said he ran involving Kota and others after the U.S. State Department allowed him to leave the country.
Since pleading guilty to the biotech and tax evasion charges, Kota said he has steered clear of anything remotely illegal.
“Not even a parking ticket,” he said.
Kota also runs a consulting company called The Boston Group. Federal court records show that after pleading guilty in the biotech case, he testified against his co-defendant and received a reduced sentence of four years’ probation and a $50,000 fine.
Flynn has met with Brainwave officials at least 10 times, according to Ika, and signed a collaboration agreement to help drum up new business with U.S. agencies. Flynn also agreed to train any national security or law enforcement agency that purchased Brainwave products at Flynn Intel Group headquarters, Ika said. Flynn’s company, based in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, promised to provide “world-class training services led by qualified security professionals with experience in intelligence and investigation,” Brainwave’s website says.
Headpiece with sensors
Flynn tested the product himself, Ika said. He put on the helmet-like headpiece fitted with sensors, which is said to read a subject’s brainwaves in an attempt to detect information.
“He found it very convincing,” Ika said.
Flynn’s activities with the company continued after he began receiving classified intelligence briefings in mid-August as part of Trump’s campaign. In late September, Ika said, he and Flynn pitched Brainwave to officials from the Bangladeshi defense forces during a meeting at Flynn’s offices.
After Trump won the election in November and named Flynn his national security adviser, the collaboration stalled, Ika said. Lawyers are now negotiating how to continue Brainwave’s collaboration with other partners from Flynn Intel Group.
Flynn has been criticized for making a paid speech at Russia Today, a state-run news agency, and sitting with President Vladimir Putin at a dinner in Moscow in 2015 to celebrate RT’s anniversary. Flynn and his son also helped spread internet conspiracies on social media, and last February the elder Flynn tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
For defense employees and private-sector military contractors such as Flynn who want to check on potential business partners, the Department of Defense publishes a periodic report entitled “Espionage and Other Compromises of National Security.” The 2009 edition, available online, includes a description of Kota’s conviction.
Brainwave’s product line is built on a technique developed by inventor Lawrence Farwell in the 1990s. The process received so much attention as a potential breakthrough for law enforcement that Congress ordered the General Accounting Office to study it. In a report released in 2001, the GAO found that its claims of effectiveness could not be validated and were not worth trying.
Ika said that after the 9/11 terror attacks, which inspired him to use his background to help fight terrorism, he heard about the technique and eventually collaborated with Farwell. Ika said he was convinced that skepticism about brain fingerprinting had been fomented by the “polygraph lobby” which did not want to lose business to a more effective technology. Brainwave now markets its product as an enhancement to polygraphs.