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New Intelligence Cooperation Between Moscow and Tehran

Given the difficult, indeed parlous, relationship between many Western states and both Russia and Iran, any collaboration between Moscow and Tehran is an important factor for Western capitals to consider. While relations between the Iranian revolutionary regime and the Kremlin have often been poor, and sometimes actively hostile, there has been detectable warming in recent years as the Russians and Iranians find themselves on the same side in the bloody wars in Syria and Iraq.

An indication of how cozy things are getting between Moscow and Tehran came this week with a visit to Iran by Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s National Security Council, who met with Iranian counterparts to discuss mutual threats. As Patrushev explained, “Iran has been one of Russia’s key partners in the region and it will remain so in future … [we] have similar and close views on many key regional issues and we had a serious exchange of views on the situation in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

But this was not just a diplomatic gab fest. In the first place, Patrushev is a career intelligence officer and one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants. A Brezhnev-era counterintelligence officer with the Leningrad KGB, just like Putin, Patrushev served as head of the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB) from 1999 to 2008, leaving that position to take over the National Security Council.

Patrushev has all the hardline anti-Western views one would expect from a devoted Chekist. In a recent interview, he explained that the West, and especially the United States, are behind a comprehensive plot to destroy Russia, using nefarious diplomatic and economic means. Patrushev, stating explicitly that Russia and America are again in a Cold War, blamed Washington, DC, for the wars in Chechnya and Ukraine, adding that, through international economic institutions, the Americans destroyed Yugoslavia and plan to do the same to Russia, citing alleged US/NATO plans for the “dismemberment of our country.”

I’m sure Patrushev and the Iranians therefore saw eye-to-eye on a great many things when they sat down to chat. Of greatest importance is the new intelligence cooperation agreement between Moscow and Tehran that Patrushev nailed down during his visit. The main agenda item is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the countries’ national security councils, which was signed this week. This is the vehicle for increased intelligence sharing between Russia and Iran and, while it will focus heavily on issues of mutual concern in the Middle East and Central Asia, Russian media reports make clear that this is the beginning of a strategic intelligence partnership.

Although Russian and Iranian intelligence, once bitter enemies, signed a limited MOU back in 2001 focusing on counterterrorism, that led to little actual cooperation. The wars in Syria and Iraq, however, have changed things. Last year, the two interior ministries agree to cooperate on police intelligence matters. Now, however, a full intelligence alliance has been agreed to. As a Russian report on Patrushev’s visit explained:

The events in Syria and Iraq, where contacts between the Russian and Iranian special services have not only been resumed but have also proven their mutually advantageous nature, particularly in assessing the threats and plans of local bandit formations, both “secular” and Islamist, with respect to Russian facilities in Tartus in Syria, have impelled Moscow and Tehran to the idea of the need to formalize these contacts in the shape of a permanently operating mechanism. Russian special services also valued the volume of information, voluntarily conveyed by Iran to our specialists, on the potential activity of the Israeli Air Force against the Russian humanitarian convoys to Syria in the period of the sharp aggravation of the situation in that country in the summer of last year.

Let there be no doubt that this new espionage alliance is aimed directly at the United States and Israel. As the report added, “the Iranians are prepared to provide Russia on a permanent basis with information on American military activity in the Persian Gulf obtained from their own technical intelligence facilities” — in other words, the Russians and Iranians will be sharing SIGINT, the most sensitive of all forms of intelligence gathering.

Relations between Putin’s Russia and revolutionary Iran have been warming up in recent years on all fronts — diplomatic, economic, and military — and now there’s an important intelligence dimension too. Given the power and long reach of the intelligence services of both Iran and Russia, this is a development that should cause serious concern in Western capitals as well as many in the Middle East.


Iran’s Secret New Balkan Spy-Terror Offensive

An important European security issue I’ve tried to raise awareness about for years is the nefarious role played by Iranian intelligence in Southeastern Europe, above all in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Tehran’s covert tentacles in that unfortunate country reach deep, since Iran began extending its malign influence there back in 1990, as Communism collapsed in Yugoslavia, and the mullahs dispatched spies with cash to Sarajevo to buy politicians, spread radicalism, and recruit and train terrorists. Iranian intelligence, meaning both its civilian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) and the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), became very influential among Bosnian Muslims in the 1990’s thanks to their secret alliance with the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which has ruled in Sarajevo for most of the post-Yugoslav period. I’ve explained this messy saga in detail in my book Unholy Terror.

When the United States and NATO intervened in Bosnia’s civil war in the latter half of 1995, the presence of hundreds of Iranian spies in the country was a major concern, and pressure from Washington, DC, forced the SDA to become more discreet about its links with Tehran. Yet these have never disappeared, and for VEVAK and Pasdaran, Bosnia remains very much “their” playground. As Sarajevo would ultimately like to join NATO and the European Union, they understand that every few years the Americans and the EU will put pressure on them to reduce their ties to Iran, particularly to its intelligence services. A sort of Balkan kabuki theater inevitably follows, with promises by the SDA to crack down hard, this time. A few Iranian “diplomats” are discreetly asked to leave the country, some of the more overt Iranian intelligence fronts in Bosnia shut their doors, usually only temporarily, and the Americans and Europeans are bought off for a couple years. And the Iranians remain.

The result of all this is that Iran has a considerable espionage base in Bosnia, which they view as a safe haven for their secret operations in the rest of Europe. Of greatest concern are the detectable ties between Iranian intelligencers and Salafi jihadist groups in Bosnia, some of which operate more or less openly (Sunni-Shia disputes notwithstanding, Tehran is happy to arm, train and equip Salafi jihadists, and nowhere more than Bosnia, where they have been doing that for over two decades). This Tehran-Sarajevo spy-terror nexus cannot be divorced from radical activities in Vienna, since Austria’s capital in many ways is the de facto capital of Salafi jihadism in Southeastern Europe, as well as a major playground for Iranian spies. These form an extended web of malevolence that stretches across Eastern and Central Europe.

Things came to a head in the spring of 2013, however, when the behavior of Iranian spies in Bosnia became so dangerous that Sarajevo was forced to do something about it. In addition to their normal sponsoring of jihadist fronts and radical NGOs in the country, Iranian operatives were visiting known jihadist training camps, distributing cash and weapons, and making little effort to hide this activity. In particular, Iranian spies were seen visiting the jihadist colony at Gornja Maoča in northeastern Bosnia which, despite occasional police raids, has operated for years as a more or less open training camp for jihad-minded radicals. Gornja Maoča has long been the base of Nusret Imamović, the leading extremist cleric in the country, who since late 2013 has been in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida faction fighting the Assad regime.

Regular visits to Gornja Maoča by Iranian intelligence officers were too much for even Sarajevo to stomach, so Bosnia’s Ministry of Security took the unprecedented step of ordering two Iranian “diplomats,” specifically Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, ostensibly the second and the third secretaries in the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Sarajevo but known by local counterintelligence to actually be spies, to leave Bosnia by the end of April 2013, or they would be officially declared persona non grata and expelled. 

Then, in a telling revelation about who really calls the shots in Sarajevo, that deadline passed and the Iranians were still in Sarajevo, an almost unimaginable breach of diplomatic protocol. Nearly two weeks late, the Iranian “diplomats” finally left Bosnia, and for a time VEVAK and Pasdaran activities in the country adopted a somewhat lower profile, in a manner that pleased Western governments as well as the many Bosnians who do not like their country being used as a spy-terror safe haven by revolutionary Iran.

Yet now the Iranians are back to their old tricks. This week the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz reported, based on Bosnian intelligence sources, that Tehran’s spies have resumed their old operational tempo, and their nefarious activities have been rising fast since early September. Over the last six weeks, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security has noticed a significant increase in the activities of known Iranian intelligence officers in Bosnia. Outreach to local jihadists by VEVAK and Pasdaran operatives has been observed, and visits to Gornja Maoča are happening again. Although these activities are more subtle than what Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab had been doing, namely driving up to the jihadist camp in their car with Iranian diplomatic tags, Bosnian officials are nevertheless deeply worried. As an anonymous Bosnian security official explained:

There have been a number of contacts with individuals from the Wahhabi community in Gornja Maoča. In recent months, associates of this [Iranian] service have been crossing the border frequently. Many of them use identification documents from Bosnia-Hercegovina, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel, which they received via HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Worse, many top Iranian intelligence officials have been visiting Bosnia in recent months, including Abolghasem Parhizkar, one of the most senior VEVAK officials, who has visited Bosnia twice in 2014 on a diplomatic passport. Pasdaran officers have also been showing up, customarily including a visit to Vienna along with their drop-in in Sarajevo, as the Bosnian security official explained: 

Nasrolah Pezhmafar and Mohamad Mahdi Fadakar Davrani have used their diplomatic passports to enter Bosnia, while Vahid Hozouri and Sorouh Jusefi have been using their official passports.  During entry, particular attention was paid to one suspect “diplomat,” who came to Sarajevo, having previously spent time in Thailand, India and Georgia, where [Iranian-backed] terrorist attacks had been carried out previously.

Of particular concern is the large number of Iranian intelligence fronts operating in Bosnia that provide cover for operations and funding of terrorists and radicals: NGOs, charities of various sorts, and schools. For the Pasdaran, its most important cut-outs in Bosnia are the “Ibn Sina” Research Institute and the Persian-Bosnian College, but there is a long list of Iranian-linked fronts in the country (my analysis of these and how they provide cover for VEVAK and Pasdaran is here) that play an important role in Tehran’s secret war in Europe.

Then there is the knotty question of just how many spies from Middle Eastern countries are actually in Bosnia. The Ministry of Security assesses that about one thousand secret operatives are present, counting those employed in various front organizations, with the lion’s share from Iran, but with significant representation from the secret services of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait too. (Western security agencies place the figure around 650, but this has more to do with counting methods, i.e. who is actually a spy, than disagreements about the extent of the threat.) For Bosnian counterspies, monitoring so many targets is a simply impossible task, particularly considering the country’s deep financial problems and limited budgets.

For years, Bosnian counterintelligence has been well aware of Iran’s nefarious activities in their country, but customarily there has been little political will to do much about this threat, not least because important SDA officials are on Tehran’s payroll, and have been for many years. Privately, Bosnian security officials express their exasperation to Western friends, but barring a major crackdown, which can only happen if NATO and the EU demand it in exchange for any progress on Bosnian membership in Atlantic and European institutions, nothing will change. Since Iran views Bosnia as a safe haven for its espionage and terrorist activities elsewhere, one which they have enjoyed for a generation, we ought to be asking what this current surge of VEVAK and Pasdaran activity in Southeastern Europe means for regional security. It can’t be anything good.

Update on Poland’s New Espionage Scandal

The other day I explained what we knew so far about the major espionage scandal that emerged last week with the arrests of a Polish army officer and a dual-national attorney in Warsaw who are suspected of spying for Russian military intelligence (GRU). As usual, case details are starting to emerge, and here they are.

New information from inside sources close to the counterintelligence investigation indicates that the officer in question, Zbigniew J., is a lieutenant colonel serving in the Ministry of Defense (you can see a blurred photo of him here). He has been working for GRU for several years, and has been on the radar of Polish military counterintelligence since 2011, and his motivations were financial as well as vague “personal problems.” That said, he came cheap, as the total compensation package for his espionage came to less than 100,000 zlotys — about USD 30,000 — presumably because his information was not assessed as particularly valuable by the Kremlin.

His job in the education-morale affairs office of the MoD allowed him to visit military units across the country and report to GRU what he found. While such information — about unit morale and movements — would not be without value to Moscow, neither should it be confused with high-priority intelligence. Based on current information, it appears that there is no significant threat to NATO based on Zbigniew J.’s case. He met with his handler, a GRU officer serving at Russia’s Warsaw embassy under diplomatic cover, every few months, exchanging information for relatively small sums of cash. There is no doubt his actions were witting: “J. knew full well what he was doing. He was aware of his involvement in foreign intelligence,” stated a Polish investigator.

I already profiled the other suspected spy, Stanisław Szypowski, in some detail. The lawyer-lobbyist, unlike the colonel, did not spy for money, rather out of patriotic (i.e. pro-Russian) motives. He, too, met regularly with GRU “diplomats” in Warsaw; only in this sense do these two cases appear to be connected. Szypowski was considered reasonably effective by Moscow at getting access to influence in Polish governmental circles, and he aspired to getting a job in the economics ministry. Indeed, it was his pushiness about getting such a job that seems to have caused Polish counterintelligence to take action to shut Szypowski down, as he knew what he was doing: “He operated with full awareness. He provided the Russians with information concerning the Polish energy sector. He was cautious. For example, he would go to meet with GRU residents without his telephone, so as not to be traced,” explained a Polish spy-hunter working the case.

Since both suspects were known to Polish counterintelligence for some time, the question to be asked is why Warsaw decided to arrest them publicly now. The answer is not difficult to determine. In the aftermath of Russia’s war on Ukraine, which was spearheaded by GRU and its “little green men,” the Poles are deeply worried about espionage and covert action. As well they should be, as GRU is assessed to have at least a dozen officers serving at Russia’s Warsaw embassy, plus others undetected. Russian espionage against Poland has been rising in recent months, to include drone flights over Polish territory, and with these arrests Warsaw is letting the Kremlin know that it does not have a free hand to engage in Special War against Poland. While neither of these men is exactly James Bond, there is a message here that will not be missed in Moscow.

It has been reported that Warsaw now plans to declare several GRU “diplomats” persona non grata and expel them from Poland. Such would be the logical step in the aftermath of the arrests, and a standard part of the spywar, and it will cause GRU some trouble, as it will have to rebuild damaged networks. But nobody in Warsaw expects that the expulsion will buy more than a bit of time to improve their counterintelligence methods against the rising Russian espionage threat. All of NATO should be doing the same.


Poland — and NATO’s — New Espionage Scandal

Two days ago, Polish security officials arrested two men on suspicion of espionage for Russia. Given the current climate of high tension on Poland’s eastern frontier, thanks to Russia’s war on Ukraine, the timing of this arrest is important. For NATO, too, the stakes are high.

Polish officials have been tight-lipped about the case and the names of those under arrest have not been released. However, we know that one man is a colonel in the Polish military, assigned to the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in Warsaw, while the other is an attorney in Poland’s capital, a dual Polish-Russian national who works on economic matters.

Although the men were arrested on the same day, their cases were investigated independently; it is not yet clear whether they are linked. Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) has said little about this affair, officially not citing which country the men are believed to have spied for, although an ABW spokesman stated coyly, “I think you can probably guess which country.” Yesterday, however, a member of the parliamentary commission for the security services revealed that the men had been secretly working for Moscow, specifically for Russian military intelligence (GRU).

Anytime a colonel in the defense ministry is suspected of espionage is a moment to worry — Polish counterintelligencers will be very busy in the weeks ahead trying to assess the damage — but to make matters worse, it has been revealed that the officer had access to NATO secrets, so the Atlantic Alliance must now assume the worst. Polish counterintelligence has a long history of tangling with GRU, and the results have not always been edifying for Warsaw, as I’ve previously explained, because the Russians excel at espionage.

We can take the Polish MoD’s word that the charges facing these men are “very serious” indeed. Warsaw has promised to reveal more details of this case in a few days, and I’ll be reporting on that and giving my analysis. Watch this space.

UPDATE (18 OCT, 1400 EST): It has been confirmed that the lawyer under arrest, Stanislaw Sz., works for the Warsaw firm Stopczyk & Mikulski, where he was engaged on a project to build a terminal for importing LNG at Poland’s Baltic Sea port of Świnoujście, which has strategic significance as it is intended to reduce Poland’s high dependence on Russian LNG. He only received Polish citizenship two years ago, and according to today’s reports his main target for GRU was the Sejm, the Polish parliament, and he had compiled lists of possible recruits. In other words, he was not merely an agent but was charged with recruiting others — “news analysts, PR specialists and experts, politicians, and those employed in the energy sector.” A new statement from an anonymous source that Stanislaw Sz. “had patriotic motivations. He was professionally trained in espionage and behaved very carefully,” implies that he may be a GRU Illegal, i.e. a spy operating under what U.S. intelligence terms “non-official cover” (although the Russian concept of Illegal is a good deal more specialized in tradecraft terms) which represents a more serious problem for ABW and the Polish government. More is sure to emerge in this case.

Stach_na_stronUPDATE (18 OCT, 1630 EST) A Polish website has revealed that the lawyer suspect’s full name is Stanisław Szypowski (left), who goes by the nickname Staszek. The site includes a video clip of Szypowski discussing (in Polish) business opportunities in Belarus. He is a well-known lobbyist in Warsaw who made his presence known at the Sejm and at key NGOs, which is standard GRU practice, as I’ve explained before.


The Ebola Crisis and Medical Intelligence

There’s now no denying that West Africa’s Ebola outbreak has become a global crisis. After months of downplaying the threat, Western governments are facing the painful fact that the situation is deteriorating fast. It’s now plain to see that the world is at the precipice of something genuinely awful, with official predictions of more than a million new infections by the new year. Given that the death rate among those infected with Ebola is roughly fifty percent — and a good deal higher in underdeveloped regions like West Africa — serious concern is warranted.

Now that a Liberian visitor has brought Ebola to American shores, the assurances of officials that the situation is “under control” are being viewed skeptically by many. Our self-reporting system for preventing diseases entering the United States has failed, and investigators are reaching out to a hundred or more travelers who might have been exposed to Ebola as Thomas Duncan made his way from Liberia to Texas.

The White House is facing awkward questions about the crisis, with even the reliably liberal Chris Matthews repeatedly lambasting President Obama for low-balling the Ebola threat to the public, in an “effort to try to downplay concerns at the expense of being a truth-teller.” Now that Ebola as become a domestic, not just foreign issue, Americans are paying attention more, and many don’t like what they see.

Then there’s the reality that the White House’s much-ballyhooed efforts to fight Ebola in Africa aren’t faring so well. While this has much to do with the chaos that is shaking West Africa due to the outbreak, to say nothing of that region’s weak medical infrastructure, nobody in the West Wing will welcome headlines in The New York Times asserting that America’s anti-Ebola campaign is “barely off the ground”. Like George W. Bush in Iraq, Barack Obama has sent the U.S. military into a deteriorating situation, in a misplaced belief that the powerful Pentagon can work magic.

Fortunately for the Department of Defense (DoD), it possesses the only full-fledged medical intelligence outfit on earth. That’s the decidedly unique National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that’s located at Fort Detrick, Maryland. It’s been around, in one guise or another, since the Second World War, doing intelligence analysis of medical threats to the American military. DIA was given the medical intelligence mission in 1963, and since 1979 it’s resided at Fort Detrick (which, if you believe one of the better-known KGB disinformation operations, is where DoD invented AIDS). It was known as the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center (AFMIC) for years, being rebranded as NCMI in 2008, getting a $7.8 million facility upgrade two years later, since the agency had outgrown its spaces; in a typical Intelligence Community story, NCMI lacked sufficient office space and, critically, parking for its 150 staffers.

NCMI is made up of personnel from all the armed services plus DoD civilians. Many are doctors of various sorts, both M.D.s and Ph.D.s, specializing in the full range of relevant disciplines, above all epidemiology. Its mission is producing medical intelligence (known, of course, as MEDINT for short), which is defined by the Pentagon as:

That category of intelligence resulting from collection, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of foreign medical, bio-scientific, and environmental information that is of interest to strategic planning and to military medical planning and operations for the conservation of the fighting strength of friendly forces and the formation of assessments of foreign medical capabilities in both military and civilian sectors. 

In English, this means that NCMI tracks medical threats to the U.S. military and, more broadly, the United States. The Pentagon every day sends men and women into regions teeming with weird and often deadly diseases that are seldom encountered in the developed world, and it’s NCMI’s job to provide senior military and civilian decision-makers the specialized intelligence they need to understand and mitigate these threats.

This isn’t a bunch of 007s in lab coats. NCMI is made up of analysts, not collectors, and most of them are medical professionals who learn the intelligence trade, not the other way around. As NCMI’s director explained in 2012, “We take these very smart people and turn them into intelligence officers.” This center, while tiny by the standards of America’s vast seventeen-agency Intelligence Community, punches well above its weight, partnering closely with many IC agencies — there are liaison officers from the whole range of IC alphabet-soup agencies at NCMI, while they send experts out to work at those agencies in return — as well as a wide range of U.S. Government entities, including the Department of Agriculture and especially the Centers for Disease Control, who have fully cleared people embedded at Fort Detrick to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing.

As an all-source intelligence analysis organization, NCMI is dependent on raw intelligence provided by other agencies — signals intelligence and satellite imagery, especially — as well as open-source reporting from many places. Surprising as it may sound to many Americans, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency, among others, have longstanding intelligence requirements for things such as disease and epidemics, and it’s the job of NCMI to make sense of what’s coming in, since there aren’t many epidemiologists working at Langley or Fort Meade.

While NCMI puts out some very detailed and specialized reporting, it also provides DoD and the IC with assessments that, I can attest, are written in refreshingly normal English, since the average consumer of medical intelligence isn’t a medical professional, but a layperson who needs to understand the complex issues. NCMI has worried about Ebola for a long time, and here its Infectious Disease Division, which assesses potential epidemics in literally every country on earth, walks point.

We can be assured that NCMI is providing Washington, DC, with detailed medical intelligence about the nature of the Ebola threat, both in West Africa and to the American homeland. This is vitally important, given the remote yet extant possibility that Ebola might mutate and be transmitted in any airborne fashion, which represents every epidemiologist’s nightmare scenario. No doubt NCMI has some classified assessments on that too.

So far, America has been spared serious worry about Ebola, and let’s hope that remains so. But hope is not a strategy, as every wise strategist knows, and we must soon begin contemplating unpleasant things like quarantines and travel bans to stave off catastrophe. Here NCMI and its medical intelligence will be critical to decision-makers in Washington, DC. Given recent revelations indicating a cavalier attitude towards intelligence in the Obama White House, let’s hope that NCMI reports are making their way to the highest levels of our government, and are being read closely.



Diamonds (and Disinformation) Are Forever

My recent post What If Everything You Know About Terrorism is Wrong?, which explained the important (and neglected) role of intelligence services behind a lot of terrorism, got considerable feedback. I highlighted the fact that the Russians invented the dark art of provocation, what they term provokatsiya, and still today Moscow is rather adept as such tactics.

Inevitably this led to mentioning of “false flag” operations, a term which is used casually, and almost always incorrectly, by the tinfoil-hat crowd. False flag ops do exist, but they are little understood by those unfamiliar with real-world espionage. Predictably, I got questions about U.S. intelligence and terrorism. The truth is that American counterterrorism operations lack anything like the nefariously imaginative flair that the Russians bring to the table; this neglect may be good for our democracy but I think we can learn something from the Russians here.

Like clockwork, I got questions about the shadowy Operation GLADIO, which is especially beloved by those seeking to “prove” U.S. and NATO malfeasance. The GLADIO myth is based in certain facts, namely that in the early days of the Cold War, when a Soviet invasion of Western Europe seemed like a real possibility, many European NATO countries established stay-behind networks that would operate in the event their lands wound up under the Kremlin’s heel.

Such stay-behind programs were wanted by European NATO members that had suffered occupation by Nazi Germany: setting up networks that would operate after capitulation was a “lesson learned” from the Second World War. These secret efforts were run by these countries’ intelligence services with assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Most of these stay-behind programs languished in the latter half of the Cold War, as the threat of Soviet invasion loomed less ominously, but many NATO countries maintained some sort of secret program along these lines through the 1980’s.

The mythical GLADIO, the existence of which was leaked as early as 1990, became an obsession for some with the publication of the book NATO’s Secret Armies in 2005 by the Swiss historian Daniele Ganser. Although it was published by an academic press and possesses the footnotes one expects from such a turgid tome, Ganser’s work was lacking in academic standards. However, it made headlines with its explosive claims, especially that NATO-linked intelligence networks were responsible for acts of terrorism, particularly in Italy.

Such claims were met with enthusiasm by many Italians, including those on the Left who tend to see the CIA lurking behind every tree. (Let it be said that Italians of all political stripes love conspiracies to explain complex things, so much so that they have a word, dietrologia — roughly “behindology” — for this tendency.) Here at last was an explanation for the admittedly murky “years of lead” from the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s, when Italy was plagued by terrorism, including mysterious bombings that have never been officially resolved. Leftists had long fingered Italy’s intelligence services for what they termed a “strategy of tension” hiding behind some of that terrorism, and here comes Ganser to prove they were right, and the CIA was really behind it all. Needless to say, to certain Europeans this was catnip.

The only problem was that it isn’t true. With few exceptions, specialists in the history of intelligence considered Ganser’s book to be a shoddy work of scholarship. In the first place, he made no effort to hide his biases, noting that he considered CIA covert action to be “terrorist in nature.” Then there was the problem that Ganser was making incendiary assertions he could not prove, as he himself admitted to “not being able to find any official sources to support his charges of the CIA’s or any Western European government’s involvement with GLADIO.

Peer reviews were harsh. One academic dismissed Ganser’s tome as “a journalistic book with a big spoonful of conspiracy theories,” while another concluded: “A detailed refutation of the many unfounded allegations that Ganser accepts as historical findings would fill an entire book.” Phil Davies, who is a bona fide expert on intelligence, expressed the book’s problem concisely:

marred by imagined conspiracies, exaggerated notions of the scale and impact of covert activities, misunderstandings of the management and coordination of operations within and between national governments, and… an almost complete failure to place the actions and decisions in question in the appropriate historical context…The underlying problem is that Ganser has not really undertaken the most basic necessary research to be able to discuss covert action and special operations effectively.

This is the polite British academic way of stating that Ganser is at best uninformed, at worst a charlatan. Lacking any grounding in this complex subject, Ganser leapt to conclusions for which he had no evidence, but for which presumably he knew there would be a hungry audience.

The CIA stated publicly that Ganser had no idea what he was talking about, and had seriously distorted facts, while the State Department took the unusual step of issuing a public statement attacking the book. The most serious matter it noted was Ganser’s use of a supposed U.S. Army Field Manual 30-31B that gave instructions on all sorts of nefarious activities. The problem is this document is a Soviet forgery, and has been known to be fake for decades. This “Field Manual” was cooked up by the KGB as a disinformation operation, and it became something of a sensation on the European Left in the 1970’s as “proof” of American malfeasance, being pushed by Kremlin mouthpieces like the CIA defector Phil Agee, the Edward Snowden of the polyester era.

There’s been ample evidence available for years about KGB Cold War dezinformatsiya, including forgeries like FM 30-31B. The so-called Mitrokhin Archive, compiled by a KGB archivist and brought to Britain after the fall of the Soviet Union, makes up two weighty volumes by the eminent intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, including considerable primary source documentation of KGB disinformation operations and how they worked.

Either Ganser has not bothered to read and understand these works, making him the least informed intelligence historian in all history, or he simply ignored evidence that did not suit his theories, for which he did not have any primary source evidence. Of course, this did nothing to tamp down enthusiasm for Ganser’s GLADIO theorizing by those who wanted such myths to be true.

To this day, almost any act of terrorism in Europe will be met with cries of “GLADIO!” in certain quarters, with implications — there is of course never any evidence — that the CIA is “really” behind the crime. Such is the cost of fiction masquerading as fact.

Daniele Ganser has gotten off the GLADIO beat, having milked the topic for all the fame and fortune it was worth, and unsurprisingly he has moved on to 9/11 Trutherism, another arena where the absence of evidence is no impediment to those who simply want to believe. His recent work has been in the field of — you knew this was coming — “peak oil.”

Obama’s Big Fat Intel Scandal

The rise of the Islamic State* has engendered a full-blown foreign policy crisis in Washington, DC. After more than three years of an extended “Mission Accomplished” victory lap following the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, the Obama White House has hit the wall with the sudden appearance of the decapitating jihadists of the Islamic State, who now control substantial chunks of both Syria and Iraq and a lot of oil to boot.

The September 2012 disaster at Benghazi ought to have been a wake-up call that Salafi jihadism was down but not out, and still bent on killing Americans, but wasn’t. Now the administration is confronted with a major problem that it’s not exactly been quick to deal with; I’ve explained how the Islamic State can be defeated, but the White House doesn’t seem to be in any big rush to do that. Moreover, Obama’s policy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State is riddled with contradictions, thanks largely to the confusion-masquerading-as-strategy that has plagued Obama’s Middle East forays since the beginning of his presidency, and nowhere more than Syria.

Not surprisingly, Obama has played defense with the media and commentariat about all this, and that came to a head Sunday in a TV interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. Kroft pitched Obama a lot of softballs, some of which the president handled better than others, but it was the Commander-in-Chief’s comments on the Intelligence Community (IC) that have garnered the most attention, especially this part:

Steve Kroft: How did [ISIL] end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?

President Obama: Well I think, our head of the Intelligence Community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

Steve Kroft: I mean, he didn’t say that, just say that, we underestimated ISIL. He said, we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.

President Obama: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.

To anyone even passingly acquainted with inside-Beltway politics, the president just blamed the IC for the ISIL debacle, make no mistake about it. A couple weeks back, Jim Clapper gave an interview to David Ignatius, the doyen of Washington, DC intelligence reporters, in which he indicated that he felt the IC indeed had underestimated ISIL’s “will to fight,” while overestimating the battle-worthiness of Iraq’s U.S.-built military, drawing an analogy to flawed intelligence assessments of the Viet Cong, a war that Clapper participated in as a junior intelligence officer. But Clapper did not say that the IC got the rise of ISIL wrong, per se, and there is the critical rub.

Spies don’t take kindly to being thrown under the bus by the Commander-in-Chief, particularly on national television, and within hours the leaks began to flow, and it was soon apparent that Obama had misspoken, to be charitable. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” explained a former IC insider to Eli Lake of The Daily Beast.

It soon emerged that three top administration officials had explicitly warned about the rise of ISIL since the fall of 2013, to no apparent effect on the White House. One of them was Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the outspoken former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who minced few words about his views on the rising ISIL threat. Perhaps not coincidentally, Flynn was ousted at DIA this summer in a rather public fashion, a defenestration that cannot look very wise in retrospect.

To make matters worse, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, stated Monday that actually the IC had been warning the White House about the emergence of ISIL as a serious threat in Iraq and Syria for  “over a year,” to no effect. “This was not an Intelligence Community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat,” Rogers explained, adding that the incompetence of the Iraqi military, which fell apart before ISIL, was well known to anybody in Washington, DC who cared to know — clearly implying that the White House did not.

It has since emerged that President Obama has not exactly been paying attention to intelligence. This has been rumored for years, but now we have some data. Every president gets a tailor-made President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a very closely held and highly classified document (for the background of the PDB this is a good primer). It turns out that, since becoming Commander-in-Chief, Obama’s overall attendance rate at his PDB is only 42.4 percent, while in his second term so far it’s lower, 41.3 percent. Moreover, in 2014, Obama has attended his PDB only 37.5 percent of the time.

Presidential interest in intelligence varies considerably, with some occupants of the Oval Office taking a hands-on approach to secret matters, while some are more aloof, but it’s safe to say that an attendance rate of hardly more than one-third at a time of crisis, with the world spiraling out of control between Ukraine and ISIL, to cite only the most pressing security problems today, is difficult to explain.

It’s easy for Obama’s defenders to dismiss this as mere partisanship, but it’s not. I’ve long defended Obama against unfair and sometimes unseemly charges from the Right about his alleged anti-military attitudes or supposed lack of interest in security issues. That said, we need to get to the bottom of this, given the extent of the strategic debacle surrounding the rise of ISIL. Partisanship is not the issue here. Indeed, the analytic element of the CIA that produces the PDB, the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), is pretty much the NPR demographic, so efforts to dismiss this issue as more right-wing posturing are wide of the mark.

Obama has created a scandal where one did not need to exist, for reasons I cannot fathom. Picking a fight with the IC is a very bad idea, as anybody acquainted with how Washington, DC, works is well aware. When “thrown under the bus” by any White House, the spooks retaliate with leaks that are often highly damaging to the administration; this is a venerable game inside the Beltway that wise politicians avoid as a lose-lose situation. This about turf, not ideology: ask George W. Bush what happened to his plans for war with Iran once the IC, led by CIA, put out its dovish 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Tehran’s nuclear program, escorted by a barrage of anti-White House leaks.

The IC is a behemoth of seventeen different — and sometimes mutually hostile — agencies residing in six different cabinet departments. Turf issues matter, and the addition of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI — that’s Clapper) in the aftermath of 9/11 has added another layer of bureaucracy rather than fix fundamental problems with the American intelligence model, some of which are caused by its gargantuan size rather than mismanagement. There was debate inside the IC about the rise of ISIL, and Obama’s opening the IC’s performance on this issue to public scrutiny on national television means that we have to get to the bottom of this.

Obvious questions present themselves. How often did Obama really get his intelligence briefings? What did those PDBs say about ISIL? Did Obama or his key staffers interact with any IC analysts on the ISIL matter? What role (if any) did differing views between agencies, especially CIA and DIA, impact the information the White House was getting? Above all, what was the role of the National Security Council and its director, Susan Rice, in the failure to anticipate the rise of ISIL, despite multiple intelligence warnings?

We need an investigation on a bi-partisan basis, eschewing politics-as-usual, just like the 9/11 Commission, to get to the bottom of this. The appearance of ISIL is the biggest terrorism story since the 9/11 attacks, and the American people deserve answers, given the seriousness of the threat to the United States and our allies posed by the murderous Islamic State.

I have no doubt that the intelligence backstory to this matter will turn about to be complicated, between conflicting raw intelligence and the usual bureaucratic cat-fights between agencies, but the essence of this scandal is simple. The White House chose to repackage a major policy failure as an intelligence failure and the spooks — who have not been happy about Obama’s cavalier attitude towards intelligence, neither did they appreciate how slow the president was to come to the IC’s defense during the Snowden debacle last year — took umbrage and are pushing back with leaks. More, and worse, leaks are coming; this is how DC works. The IC are not the people to throw under the bus if a White House wants smooth sailing. How Obama and his staffers did not seem to know this almost six years into this administration is the only real mystery in this story.


*Some call it ISIS, the administration prefers ISIL, but if you want to be pedantic Da’ish (for al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah) is correct.


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