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John Schindler Talks Putin, Intel, and Hillary’s Campaign

Today on the Federalist Radio Hour, Ben hosts John Schindler, national security columnist at the Observer, security consultant, and former NSA analyst. They discuss Vladimir Putin’s activity in Syria and the reactions of Russian citizens as well as the White House. Schindler tells Ben, “We are getting to the point where valid intelligence is going to get shut down because it’s not what the Obama administration wants.”

They also discuss news of intelligence analysts at Central Command who have been commanded under the Chief of Intelligence to change their assessments. Schindler calls this a “cherry-picking of intelligence.”

Later in the hour, Schindler gives his take on what Congress should be asking Hillary Clinton about the motivations behind her emails and how the scandal has impacted her race for president. He suggests Democrats should be hoping for Joe Biden to enter the race and Ben offers that, “Joe Biden’s career is one long expression of YOLO.”

You can listen in right here ….enjoy!

Never Trust a Chekist

Russian intelligence officers are a congenitally cagey breed. They are never more deceptive when appearing to divulge important truths. Their memoir accounts in particular are to be taken with grains, perhaps bags, of salt.

One of my favorite memoirs from a KGB master-spy is Aleksandr Feklisov’s, published in English in 2001 as The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (the Russian original, published in 1994, has minor but not unimportant differences), which devotes a lot of attention to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as the title indicates.

Feklisov served under diplomatic cover in New York between 1940 and 1946. His actual job was with the Soviet intelligence station or rezidentura. During that long tour, he handled many Soviet agents in America, most famously the notorious Rosenbergs, who were executed by the U.S. government in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to Moscow. Feklisov had more than fifty meetings with Julius and his memoir is at pains to portray Ethel especially as innocent of espionage: a not very plausible claim, as I previously explained in detail.

Feklisov could never quite keep his story straight about the Rosenbergs — he gave a half-dozen differing accounts of their activities on Stalin’s behalf before his death in 2007 at age ninety-three — and he’s open about his bias: the memoir includes a photo of an aged Feklisov kissing the Rosenberg’s gravestone!

His later espionage career included bigger and better things, including heading up the KGB’s Washington, DC rezidentura from 1960 to 1964, at the height of the Cold War. His claim to fame was engineering a resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, a historic event that Feklisov’s memoir recounts in a somewhat truthful fashion.

As with celebrity autobiographies, nobody reads KGB memoirs to discover truths, you’re reading to see what hints they drop about dirty secrets not previously divulged. Here Feklisov does not disappoint, and his memoir drops numerous hints about KGB spies in the West never before revealed — though, of course, the author is too clever and gentlemanly to give actual names.

One of the most important accounts, from the perspective of American counterintelligence, is Feklisov’s telling of his encounter with “Rupert” in New York City in the waning days of the Second World War. He praises “Rupert” as a “real ghost” and states that this mystery man was never unmasked as a Soviet agent. Feklisov recounts his difficulty in actually meeting up with “Rupert.”

Meeting with American agents face-to-face was a risky proposition and such matters had to be handled with care. Every second Friday of the month beginning in July 1944, Feklisov took position outside the Astoria Theater on Broadway around 8:45 pm and waited for the mystery man to show. Feklisov only had a vague description and a fuzzy photo forwarded from the Center, Soviet intelligence headquarters in Moscow, to go on.

Months went by with no-show after no-show but Feklisov was a patient man and eventually, on the evening of second Friday of February 1945, he finally spotted somebody who might be his quarry, a man in the uniform of a major in the U.S. Army. He resembled the photograph so Feklisov asked him, “Excuse me, you’re waiting for Helen, right?” to which “”Rupert” replied, per prior arrangement, “You must be her cousin James.” At last the Chekist had his man.

They had a drink together and “Rupert” explained that he had just returned from overseas, where it was impossible to communicate with Soviet friends. He had a remarkable story to share with Feklisov. “Rupert” was assigned to Army intelligence, specifically its super-secret code-breaking arm, which was doing so much to win the war against Germany and Japan.

“Rupert” explained that Army signals intelligence was reading high-level encrypted Japanese military and diplomatic communications, a top secret program given the coverterm MAGIC. They were also reading Japanese diplomatic communications between Tokyo and their embassy in Moscow, and thus were gaining insights into certain Soviet activities and intentions.

U.S. Army SIGINT was not yet reading Soviet encrypted communications with regularity, according to “Rupert,” but there he brought bad news. He explained to Feklisov that American intelligence was working hard to crack Soviet codes and was making important early progress in decrypting the communications of the Soviet secret police. This above-top-secret program, subsequently termed VENONA, ran until 1980 and was one of the biggest secrets of American intelligence during the Cold War. And Moscow knew about it years before even President Truman was told about VENONA.

The big problem with Feklisov’s account is that it’s not true. It’s partly true, to be sure, but the lies told are as revealing as the facts. He is describing an actual clandestine meeting that happened in Manhattan between a Soviet case officer and an American intelligence officer in February 1945.

The planning for that meeting was detailed in a VENONA message that was not decrypted until well after the meeting took place. On February 16, 1945, Moscow Center instructed the New York rezidentura to prepare for a meeting with agent ZVENO (LINK in Russian) at nine p.m. on February 24, and included information about the passwords to be used.

ZVENO was William Weisband, a U.S. Army SIGINT officer who was a high-ranking Soviet secret agent from 1934 to 1950. Weisband has a good claim to be the most damaging traitor in the history of American intelligence (see details here), or at least until Edward Snowden. ZVENO/Weisband was also discussed in an earlier VENONA message from June 1943.

Weisband did inform the Soviets about VENONA, as subsequent accounts would reveal, but he never served in the Pacific (his time overseas was in the Mediterranean theater) and he was never an Army major; in 1945 he was a mere lieutenant. Who, then, was “Rupert”?

Feklisov pulled an old Chekist trick by running two different agents together to muddy waters, even decades later. Old school Soviet spymasters were sticklers for keeping secret the identities of foreigners who served their cause. Meticulous counterintelligence work, including rummaging through archives, reviewing yellowed case files, and interviewing the elderly, slowly revealed the identity of “Rupert.”

He was a prominent American who indeed did serve in U.S. Army intelligence in the Pacific during World War Two, achieving field-grade rank. And he was indoctrinated for a wide range of SIGINT secrets. U.S. intelligence files never hinted that he was a traitor, but he had been a hardline Communist before the war, though never an actual party member (often Soviet spies were told to steer clear of the Community Party, which was closely watched by the FBI).

After the war, however, “Rupert” had a change of heart and transformed into a Cold War liberal with anti-Communist views. His Bolshevism was a youthful indiscretion, and by the 1950s he was part of Washington, DC power circles and a friend to presidents, none of whom had any inkling of his secret past. Feklisov did not lie when he stated that he never met “Rupert” again after their drink in New York.

By the time we discovered the identity of “Rupert” there was no point in revealing his treason. He was long dead and, besides, his conversion to anti-Communism after 1945 seemed sincere and a mitigating circumstance of sorts. Reports were filed away and, like Aleksandr Feklisov, I’m not naming names when it’s not necessary. Perhaps someday the right FOIA request will ferret out who “Rupert” was. For now, I’m keeping mum like a good counterintelligence officer should.

Dodging Armageddon: The Third World War That Almost Was, 1950

Fifteen years ago I authored a piece for Cryptologic Quarterly, the National Security Agency’s in-house classified journal, about how close the world actually came to World War III in the early 1950s. Although this was little understood at the time, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 was a dry-run for the Kremlin, which was obsessed with silencing Tito’s renegade Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Had the United States not strongly resisted Pyongyang’s aggression, a Soviet bloc invasion of Yugoslavia would have followed soon after.

Of course, President Harry Truman did send U.S. forces to defend South Korea in the summer 1950, resulting in a conflict that has never formally ended. More importantly, he saved the world from nuclear Armageddon, as my CQ piece laid out in detail. Lacking much Western conventional defenses in Europe, any Soviet move on Yugoslavia would have resulted in rapid nuclear release by a hard-pressed NATO. I cited numerous still-secret files and as a result my article was classified TOPSECRET//SCI.

However, NSA has seen fit to declassify and release my article, minus some redactions, and even post it on the Agency’s open website. They have omitted my name, perhaps out of fear UDBA assassins will track me down decades after Tito’s death, but I’ll take my chances.

You can read the article here — enjoy!

Obama’s Collapsing War on the Islamic State

For the Obama administration, the news from the Middle East keeps going from bad to worse. Vladimir Putin’s power play, moving significant military forces into Syria to support his ailing client, Bashar al-Assad, caught the White House flat footed and unsure how to respond.

Although the administration gave the Kremlin de facto control over American policy in Syria some two years ago when it walked away from its own “red line,” granting Russia a veto on Western action there, President Obama and his national security staff nevertheless seem befuddled by this latest Russian move.

The forces Mr. Putin has just deployed to Syria are impressive, veteran special operators backed by a wing of fighters and ground attack jets that are expected to commence air strikes on Assad’s foes soon. They are backed by air defense units, which is puzzling since the Islamic State has no air force, indicating that the Kremlin’s true intent in Syria has little to do with the stated aim of fighting terrorism and is really about propping up Russia’s longtime client in Damascus.

The White House is left planning “deconfliction” with Moscow—which is diplomatic language for entreating Russians, who now dominate Syrian airspace, not to shoot down American drones, which provide the lion’s share of our intelligence on the Islamic State. The recent meeting on Syrian developments between Mr. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who clearly finds dealing with the Russian strongman preferable to parleying with President Obama, indicates where power is flowing in today’s Middle East.

Read the rest at the New York Observer

Obama’s Messy Iraq Intelligence Scandal

It’s happening again. A White House fumbling with the violent mess of Iraq finds itself surrounded by mounting accusations that it’s played dirty games with intelligence. A Pentagon facing charges that its analysts have skewed assessments on Iraq to tell top policymakers what they want to hear, rather than what is really happening in that troubled country.

If this sounds terribly familiar, it should. Only a dozen years after the George W. Bush White House was buffeted by allegations that it had “cherry-picked” intelligence to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq, Barack Obama is facing similar accusations. Intelligence Community analysts alleged that, in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, they were pressured to exaggerate Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Now, analysts claim that they have been pushed to present Obama’s war against the Islamic State as more successful than it really is.

Only the most optimistic Obama backers still portray that year-long air campaign (its proper name is Operation Inherent Resolve) as adequate, and most security experts agree that the Islamic State is winning the war on the ground, thanks in part to an American-led air war that is bombing too little and too cautiously. There is no indication that Western airpower is anywhere near inflicting decisive pain on the Islamic State, while our Iraqi partners, who serve as the ground anvil for the U.S. airborne hammer, increasingly feel left in the lurch by Obama.

Read the rest at the New York Observer

Who Really Won the Cold War?

A woman on the radio talks about revolution
When it’s already passed her by.
Jesus Jones, 1991

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party has sent shockwaves far beyond Britain. There has been disbelief that the United Kingdom’s storied left-wing party opted to be led by a man so obviously contemptuous of his own society. In the wake of their recent electoral debacle under the uninspiring Ed Miliband, Labour has chosen as its leader an activist who resembles a walking leftist cliché.

Corbyn’s radicalism is not in doubt. Aside from his embrace of socialist-throwback platitudes that linger on his party’s left flank on the full range of domestic issues, in adamant rejection of Blairism, Corbyn’s foreign-policy views merit attention. Openly hostile to NATO and Britain’s longstanding “special relationship” with the United States, Corbyn adds overt sympathy for numerous authoritarian regimes.

He blames the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not the Kremlin, for the Ukraine crisis and has endorsed Russia Today, Putin’s TV propaganda network. Corbyn opposes essentially all overseas military operations by Britain and wants to parley with Bashar al-Assad, four years into Syria’s fratricide, while viewing Tehran as a partner for Middle East peace.

Read the rest at The Federalist

John Schindler Won’t Back Down

[It’s rare of me to run something not written by yours truly but National Review has run a profile of me, which may be something that regular readers want to take a peek at.]

It takes a quick eye to keep up with John Schindler’s Twitter feed. Schindler, a former analyst at the National Security Agency, a former professor at the Naval War College, and a self-proclaimed “sometime provocateur,” fires off an average of more than 100 tweets a day.

Lately, his commentary has been directed toward the seemingly never-ending scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state. “Clinton, Inc. thinks they can win a liar’s match and leakfest with the [intelligence community],” he wrote on Twitter last week. While Clinton’s camp may try to dissuade the public from concluding that its actions were criminal, Schindler says those with intelligence experience aren’t fooled. “Spooks know just what they’ve been up to . . . for years.”

Schindler has amassed a loyal following, particularly among conservatives, for his blunt missives on cyber-security, foreign policy, and intelligence. His experience as an NSA analyst has made him a unique player in debates over the NSA metadata program laid bare by Edward Snowden, the Chinese hacking of the Office of Personnel Management’s database, and the Clinton scandal known in the Twittersphere as “#EmailGate.” His contribution comes in translating intelligence- and security-speak — often an impenetrable argot — for the uninitiated.

Read the rest at National Review


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