David Kocieniewski and Peter Robison: 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.
Daniel Engber: TThe weirdest scandal of the Trump transition—the one involving brain electrodes, Russian spies, Hillary Clinton’s email server, and an expert in kung fu—probably should have been a bigger deal. But I’m sorry to say that Bloomberg reporters David Kocieniewski and Peter Robison’s gift to journalism, published on the morning of Dec. 23, barely registered before it disappeared into the tinsel.
Their delightful scoop, headlined “Trump Aide Partnered With Firm Run by Man With Alleged KGB Ties,” describes a business link between Donald Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and a shady biotech startup called Brainwave Science. In February, Brainwave, which sells a “helmet-like headpiece fitted with sensors” as a sort of lie detector for law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts, brought on Flynn as an adviser. At that point, a biotech entrepreneur named Subu Kota was serving on Brainwave’s board of directors. As Kocieniewski and Robison point out, Kota (whose name has since been scrubbed from the company website) happens to have been indicted for trying to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen micro-organisms, as well as classified information on missile-defense systems and stealth bombers, to KGB agents during the Cold War. (He signed a plea agreement admitting to the sale of the biotech material in 1996). Flynn, who has been criticized for his own coziness with Russian officials, allegedly promised to help Kota’s company sell its sensor helmet to U.S. agencies.
This would seem to be the perfect story for the Age of Trump, encapsulating as it does a sad mélange of foreign intelligence, questionable business deals, and suspect science. But a closer look at the Brainwave scandal suggests an even deeper resonance with our present, post-factual predicament. It’s a story, after all, that layers lies on top of lies about lies: whether lies can be detected in a person’s brain waves; whether people have been telling lies about that method of detecting lies; whether other people have been telling lies about the telling of those lies; and, finally, inevitably—insanely—whether it means anything to “lie” at all, since according to the neuroscientist at the center of this mess, each one of us has the mental power to bend reality to our will.