[Swiftwater Gazette] Understanding Russia’s Spy War Against Our Election
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Tue Dec 20 12:35:56 EST 2016
UnderstandingRussia’s Spy War Against Our Election
UnderstandingRussia’s Spy War Against Our ElectionThereare Kremlin moles among usByJohn R. Schindler • 12/15/16 http://observer.com/2016/12/understanding-russias-spywar-against-our-election/
Inthe latest twist in the evolving story of how Moscow and its spies nterfered with America’s 2016 election cycle, U.S. intelligencehas determined that Vladimir Putin himself was deeply involved in the secret operation to discredit the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.
Accordingto NBC News, our Intelligence Community has “a high level ofconfidence” that Russia’s president ”personally directed howhacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used.”Putin’s motivation was revenge, according to unnamed senior ICofficials, since he despises Clinton, plus the Kremlin sought tocreate confusion in the United States to make us appear an unreliableally and an ailing global power.
Toanybody acquainted with Putin and his Russia, this is entirelyunsurprising. The Russian president grew up in the KGB and longworked in counterintelligence. To his core, Putin is a secretpoliceman, what Russians call a Chekist—a term worn with pride inthe Kremlin.
It’san easy bet that Putin was briefed on this most special intelligenceoperation daily; it was very likely the first item in his morningbriefing from Russia’s spy services, a quotidian event thatPutin—unlike our president-elect—takes seriously.
Fora former KGB officer, humiliating the hated Americans bydisseminating the embarrassing emails of our top politicians is thesummit of glee. The takedown of Clinton, Inc.—and no matter thereality, this is unquestionably how it’s being sold, with smilesall around, by Putin’s inner circle—was by any standard a verysuccessful operation. A century hence, it seems likely that Moscow’sspies will rank this achievement among their “greats” like theTRUST operation and the Rosenbergs.
However,some salient facts about this secret Kremlin operation need to beunderstood. In the first place, there wasn’t much “hacking”going on here. Instead, most of the purloining of emails from top Democrats fell under normal 21stcentury signals intelligence operations of the kind done by Russia,the United States, and pretty much every technically advanced countryon earth. Everybody spies—among adults this isn’t acontroversial statement.
Whatset this year’s election games apart, however, was how the Kremlinweaponized what its spies in the ether had systematically purloined,disseminating it through its Wikileaks front to harm the Democrats.Russians intelligence has countless emails from Americanpoliticians of every stripe—if you’re a Washington macher of anyvariety who uses email, it’s a safe bet Moscow reads them—butthis year it only wanted to expose the ones from Democrats.
Russianscall this kind of nasty covert action scheme Active Measures,and Moscow’s spies have been doing it a long time. The only noveltyhere is that the Internet makes it devilishly easy to disseminatesuch disinformation, to use the proper term, quickly and anonymously.As the Internet has sped up our news cycle dramatically, it’s made spreading disinformation faster and easier, too.
Ourbiggest problem resides in the Russian moles in Washington whohaven’t been caught.
TheKremlin has done this sort of thing many times to countries itdislikes or fears, indeed it’s old hat to a seasoned Chekist likePutin. But the Russians have never done anything quite this brazen totheir “Main Adversary”—as they called America during the ColdWar and today do again. To be clear, Putin ordered his spies toexecute strategic Active Measures against the United States and topDemocrats in 2016 because Moscow possessed enough stolen informationto do so. He didn’t fear retribution.
Herewe need to see this from the Russian point of view, briefly. Putinhas a very different way of looking at espionage than American spiesdo. Russian intelligence culture is its ownbreed of cat—cagey, conspiracy-minded and dangerous when cornered.They play the long game and take risks that no Western spy servicewould. For Chekists, the crown jewel in the SpyWar—the never-endingclandestine conflict between states, seldom seen by the public—isoffensive counterintelligence, that is gaining control of the enemy’s intelligence apparatus to deceive him. Russian intelligence aims tocreate what counterspies term the “wilderness of mirrors,” andover the last century the Kremlin has gotten very adept at thiscunning game.
Viewedin this manner, several important spy stories in recent years comeinto focus and can be understood for what they really are. Americancounterintelligence, which has never been a high priority inWashington, suffered complete collapse during President Obama’s twoterms. In matters of basic security, Obama’s inattention andescapism amount to presidential dereliction of duty. Pretty much allour Federal agencies have been hacked by Russia and/or China,including the White House itself, while the pillaging of the Officeof Personnel Management ranks as a security debacle without parallelin espionage history.
Thenthere’s the case of Edward Snowden, who, contrary to vast mediamyth-making, did enormous damage to Western intelligence by stealingand leaking 1.5 million classified documents, many of them relatingto enormously sensitive intelligence programs. Snowden has beenworking for the Kremlin since he landed in Moscow in late June2013—and perhaps before. It’s no coincidence that he was shippedto Moscow by Wikileaks, since that vaunted “privacy organization”has been doing Putin’s bidding for years, long before JulianAssange went on a crusade to take out Hillary Clinton.
Ourbiggest problem, however, resides in the Russian moles in Washingtonwho haven’t been caught. There was one clearcounterintelligence success on Obama’s watch, the roll-up of 10deep-cover Russians spies in the United States in the summer of 2010.That operation, called Ghost Stories by U.S. counterintelligence, wasa genuine coup, although it had been in the works for years, longbefore Obama moved into the White House. Putin was furious at ourunmasking of his network of “Illegals” (to use the Chekist term)in America and he wanted revenge—which he got in 2016.
Themost important aspect to Ghost Stories, however, was the dog thatdidn’t bark. In the course of the extended IC investigation ofRussia’s Illegals network, it became obvious that Moscow hadseveral moles in Washington, including inside our intelligence agencies—with one or more burrowed into the National SecurityAgency, our most important spy service—and Snowdenwasn’t one of them. The evidence for their existence going back atleast to 2007—and perhaps even earlier—is overwhelming to anyonewho understands Russian spy tradecraft, what the Kremlin callskonspiratsiya (yes, conspiracy). Since no Russian moles in ournation’s capital have been unmasked over the last six years, it’ssafe to assume they’re still active.
Inthis light, the events of 2016 come intoproper focus. Putin confidently executed a strategic spy operationagainst our election, specifically to harm the Democrats and theirpresidential nominee. Russia’s president didn’t fear retribution,as he correctly assessed that Obama was too timid and eager to winRussian favor to respond in any meaningful way. After all,the White House in 2015 quashed a tiny State Department effort tocounter Kremlin disinformation, which was taken in Moscow as a greenlight to put their spies-telling-lies machine into overdrive.
Moreover,Putin knew what the Obama administration would (and would not) do about this massive and aggressive jump in the SpyWar thanks to hismoles in Washington. It seems highly likely, based on availableevidence, that Russian intelligence has beenreading secret U.S. communications for years—that’s what molesinside NSA are for—which would give Putin the ability to beatAmerican spies every step of the way, not to mention deep insightsinto top-level decision-making in Washington.
Thisall resembles the famous XX Committee of World War Two fame, afterwhich my Twitter feed and my blog are named. That was the remarkableBritish counterintelligence program which first caught all the Germanspies in the UK, then turned them into double agents without Berlinnoticing. They became a channel for disinformation with war-alteringimpact. Patiently, British counterspies fed bogus intelligence to theturned German agents, fooling the Nazis time and again. Mostimportantly, they provided Berlin with wrong information about thetime, size, and location of the Allied invasion of France in June1944.
Thekey part of the XX Committee was the fact that British spies couldread secret German communications, unbeknownst to the Wehrmacht. Thiswas the famous ULTRA secret. Cracking the Enigma code machine, thanksto the Poles, gave London the ability to see that theirdisinformation was believed by the enemy. They knew that turned German agents were really working for Britain, not their originalmasters, and they could see that their lies were accepted as truth.This made the XX Committee one of the great successes in the annalsof espionage.
Lookingat the available evidence with the eye of a counterintelligencer,it’s alarmingly plausible that Russia has done something similar tous in recent years. Putin acted so brazenly in 2016, subverting ourelection, because he knew he could get away with it.
Moreover, as someone who’s been critical of President Obama’smany foreign policy missteps, particularly regarding the Russians, itbears pondering that some of his underperformance may be attributableto the serious possibility that the Kremlin has been reading hismail.
Weneed to get to the bottom of the SpyWar which Putin and hisintelligence agencies are waging against the West. Before we canfight back we need to see things as they really are. America fellvictim this year, but it’s a safe bet that Germany and France—both of which are electing new leadership in the coming year—will be thenext targets for Kremlin spies-telling-lies. Democrats desperatelywant to know the truth about what happened in 2016, and rightly so.However, answering that complex question—which can only beaddressed by going back to 2009, at least, with fresh eyes andbracing honesty—will reveal unpleasant truths they will notwelcome. The critical first step to unraveling Chekist Gate isadmitting what really happened.
JohnSchindler is a security expert and former National Security Agencyanalyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionageand terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War Collegeprofessor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at at 20committee.
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