The New York Times went with a story by Messrs. Barnes, Goldman and Sanger on September 9 (September 10 in the print edition) bellowing that the C.I.A. “struck gold” with one of their “most important” and  “highly protected” assets who  revealed the “severity of Russia’s [2016] election interference with unusual detail.”

Fearing that the identity of the C.I.A.’s source would be revealed, it was decided to “extract” him from Russia like a diseased wisdom tooth.  After a false start, he was “exfiltrated,” jargon for “getting the hell out” of Russia.

The story was under the grave headline, “C. I. A. Informant Extracted From Russia Had Sent Secrets to U. S. for Decades.”

What a difference a day makes. The next day, the Times headline, with considerably less grandiosity hewed to humor stating, “What Spy? Kremlin Mocks Aide Recruited by C.I.A. as a Boozy Nobody.” The second story was written by Mr. Barnes alone.

No sooner had the first Times story been published on line than the Russians revealed that the subject of the Times story is Oleg B. Smolenkov, that supposedly valued informant, and that the story is “pulp fiction.”  NBC immediately rushed out to visit him at his house in Virginia purchased in his own name in 2018, the year after his extirpative departure from Russia. He was not there. (Nobody knows if Smolenkov is actually the American spy.)

The Russian response came from the incessantly pesky Dmitri Peskov, the Goebbels or “spokesman” to Vladimir V. Putin. Peskov says that Smolenkov had a modest position that the Times says was under Yuri Ushakov, a Putin foreign policy aide, and that Smolenkov had no contact with Putin.

It makes no difference to the quality of the information allegedly passed to the C.I.A. that the informant himself had no significant policy role. As an assistant, he could well have received a great deal of information intended for his boss. Secretaries to important persons know plenty.  And Peskov’s character assassination of the C.I.A.’s spy as an incompetent boozer could be disinformation.

This saga raises interesting questions about the nature of espionage and the people who practice it.

I have some experience with American spies in my role in declassifying C.I.A. documents about its use of Nazi war criminals as spies against the Soviet Union after World War 2. These scum ran to the American Zone to escape certain death if caught by the Soviets. They sold themselves as savants of Russian secrets obtained while working for Nazi Germany.

Not everyone at the C.I.A. (and its predecessor) believed these moral lepers.  The documents we disclosed through the Commission I served as a public member revealed that none other than James Jesus Angleton, a counterintelligence stalwart at the C.I.A., counseled against the use of these war criminals who wanted only to save their skins and were thoroughly incompetent or knew nothing of Soviet secrets. He was right. The United States got almost nothing from them.

The C.I.A, today and in the past, rightly sees its role as the recruitment of spies through convincing people to become traitors. In the past, many of those who worked to destroy their native nations did so out of principle. That has surely changed. Most spies today agree to take on spying to enrich themselves.

We do not know why Mr. Smolenkov, if he is indeed the informant, agreed to work for the C.I.A. And while he convinced the C.I.A. that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and it probably did, the quality of his information and the level of its corroboration is unknown. Thus, the intelligence community’s virtual certainty that Russia (especially the GRU) took substantial steps to thwart an honest election in 2016 is based on its judgment and cannot be independently verified.

The second Times story, in tone and in substance, appears to cast considerable doubt on the Times’ certainty about the first story averring that in fact Russia sought to subvert the 2016 election. That these doubts arose less than 24 hours after its first story and that the Times made no bones about their doubts in the second story ( omitting the usual “stand by” lingo)  is of considerable interest to this Times observer.