This general view taken on July 8, 2018, shows the Kremlin and Moscow State University (back) in Moscow, Russia. (MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP)
MOSCOW / LONDON - The Kremlin said on Wednesday it didn't know if one of its former employees had been a CIA informant, but that Russia's intelligence services were looking into the case.
I can only state that this employee existed, that he was fired, and that we don't know whether he was a spy or not. This is a question for the intelligence services - they are doing their job
Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman
CNN reported on Monday that the United States had successfully extracted one of its highest-level covert sources inside Russia in 2017.
The official may have been a man called Oleg Smolenkov, Russian daily newspaper Kommersant reported on Tuesday. He is reported to have disappeared with his wife, Antonina, and three children while on holiday in Montenegro in June 2017.
"I can only state that this employee existed, that he was fired, and that we don't know whether he was a spy or not. This is a question for the intelligence services - they are doing their job," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
Two sources familiar with US 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 Russian daily 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.
It published a picture of a house in Virginia which it said had been bought later by the Smolenkovs and linked to details of the property's purchase, including its exact address, in a real estate listing and a local county tax filing.
One US 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 US government would have to make serious efforts to protect the defector, said the source, who did not dispute the mole was Oleg Smolenkov.
US 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.
Asked about the matter, Kremlin spokesman 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 US 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 US 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.
HONG KONG NEWS