This summer is the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, the “great seminal catastrophe” of the last century, in the memorable phrase of the diplomatist-scholar George Kennan. As a historian who has spent much of his life studying the events of 1914, I had long looked forward to this centenary, and the necessary reexamination of the July Crisis of that fateful summer that the anniversary would bring. I did not expect it to include a second July Crisis.
Exactly one hundred years ago today, Vienna presented its fateful ultimatum to Belgrade, demanding that Serbia clarify its role in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo some three weeks before. Vienna expected their demands would be rebuffed, getting Austro-Hungarian generals the war against “Dog Serbia” that they had long craved, and so they did. That did not work out quite as planned, but then again practically nobody’s war plans did that terrible August.
Today Europe faces a new July Crisis, brought about by the Moscow-engineered Special War in Ukraine and particularly Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to accept any responsibility for his side’s downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last week, killing 298 innocents. Instead, the Kremlin has given the world lies, obfuscations, tampering with evidence, and worse. Anyone expecting minimal decency from the Russians has been shocked to witness drunk “separatists” (who are actually under Moscow’s control) hiding mangled corpses and sawing apart wreckage. Those better acquainted with Putin and his ilk are less astonished.
Showing their intent, Russian proxies in southeastern Ukraine today shot down two Ukrainian Su-25 attack jets: there will be no backing down by the Kremlin, in the face of world pressure, rather the doubling-down that has worked well for Putin many times in the past. His tenure has faced numerous crises that might have cut short his drive to absolute power in Moscow — the Ryazan apartment bombings in 1999, the loss of the submarine Kursk in 2000, the Beslan terror atrocity in 2004, the death of the Polish government in an air crash at Smolensk in 2010, to name only a few — yet by pushing back and baldfaced lying, Putin and his retinue held on to power. So they are again.
Those who expected anything different now were uninformed or naive. It would be wholly in his Chekist character for Putin to engineer a distraction elsewhere (Moldova ought to be on alert), and the West should be prepared for it. It was evident last year, finally, that the post-Cold War era was firmly over, as the Poles realized first, as they know the Russians too well. The Dutch, having lost almost 200 citizens on the Malaysian Boeing, are talking tough today about firmer sanctions on Moscow. This is to be welcomed but the West must be prepared for more and worse.
Putin views the West with almost undisguised contempt, as ineffectual and weak decadents set on self-imposed decline. The Kremlin expects NATO and the EU to fold, and perhaps they will. But if Moscow’s proxy war in southeastern Ukraine waxes rather than wanes now, the trajectory of this conflict will soon become difficult to predict. Kyiv has made clear that it intends to liberate its territory, with consequences that the Kremlin will not approve of and will probably resist with greater force. There is no end of painful irony in the fact that Russian intelligence has brought about this July Crisis, just as it did the last one.
We have heard for decades that another “1914 scenario” has been rendered impossible for myriad reasons: interconnected economies, no more secret-yet-entangling alliances, people are so much smarter and more civilized now, and above all nuclear weapons mean nobody would be stupid enough to risk great power war. Let us hope that the optimists are as right today as they were wrong exactly a century ago, as Europe slipped into the abyss and ten million died. The consequences of failure now are unimaginable.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has just held a press conference on the downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), lost last week in southeastern Ukraine, in territory under the Kremlin’s control. Moscow’s handle on disinformation is slipping, as current spin is transparently implausible. This bodes poorly for peace and stability in Europe, and speaks volumes — none of them edifying or pleasant — about the Kremlin’s state of mind at the moment.
Propaganda works, and there is no doubt that most Russians believe Kremlin lies about MH17. However, there is dissent, even if not much of it. Today, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, practically the last independent media outlet in Russia that’s willing to strongly criticize Putin and the intelligence services (not coincidentally, four NG reporters, most famously Anna Politovskaya, have been murdered since 2001, usually under “mysterious circumstances”), published a dissenting account. The piece by Yuliya Latynina is titled, “The Main Thing is — Whose ‘Buk’ is This?” and is a stinging indictment of Kremlin disinformation and flat-out lies about MH17 and much else in Ukraine. I pass it on in its entirety, as it deserves a wide audience:
On 17 July at 17:50 a “report from the home guard” summary was published “From Strelkov, Igor Ivanovich”: “In the region of Torez an An-26 aircraft was just shot down somewhere beyond the ‘Progress’ mine. They had been warned: do not fly in our skies. And there is a video confirming the latest ‘bird strike.’ The bird fell beyond the mine dump, the residential sector was not hit, and the peaceful people were not injured.”
But the joy of the avengers of the crucified boy on Channel One* proved to be premature. Within ten minutes it was revealed that it was not an aircraft of the Ukrainian fascists that was shot down, but a Malaysian Boeing flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Almost three hundred people died. The debris and the remains were scattered over the territory for nine kilometers.
There is practically no doubt that the aircraft was shot down by the separatists.
In the first place, they proudly reported this themselves, and the Ukrainian side has already published an intercept of their conversations about this (incidentally, the authenticity of the audio recording still needs to be verified, of course).
In the second place, yesterday, also at a very high altitude, a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack bomber was also shot down.
In the third place, there is no reason for the Ukrainians to use air defense assets in the zone of the Anti-Terrorist Operation: the separatists do not yet have combat aviation.
In the fourth place, the Malaysian aircraft was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, i.e., from the side of Ukraine, it was being controlled by Ukrainian dispatchers, and the Ukrainian side was perfectly well informed of the presence of this aircraft in this section of the air space. The separatists had not been informed about anything, except of the crucified boy on Channel One.
They could have had a Buk able to shoot down aircraft at altitudes up to 18,000 meters. On 29 June, the separatists themselves boasted that they had taken a battery of Buks in Donetsk, and on the morning of 17 July the local supporters of Ukraine recorded the movement of at least one Buk, from Torez to Snezhnoye, and they reported this to the Ukrainian military. Judging from all accounts, the Ukrainians also recorded the launch of the missile, and it was precisely recorded by the Americans who are attentively tracking the increasingly expanding flow of weapons across the Russian border and who had just imposed the latest set of sanctions against Russia for precisely this reason.
Much will now depend on just where the Buk originated. Was it a trophy of war or something worse? But in any case what happened was a consequence of the fact that the separatists have been armed with serious weapons. Imagine who could be competent to sit behind the fire control panel of this Buk? A professional military person? Really? Or an ordinary soldier who had found no place in civilian life, who was unqualified, but now was heaping all of his resentments on the “Ukrainian fascists”? Give a Buk to a “group of miners” and sooner or later you will have problems.
What happened was a consequence of the complete impunity that is evident in the public relations war. And what does one have to be ashamed of? After all, every shell that hits a peaceful home is transformed in TV reports into a round launched by “Ukrainian fascists.” The passage “a peaceful aircraft shotdown by Ukrainian fascists in order to blame Russia” occupies its rightful place beside the crucified boy in Slavyansk and the local population cut off in the village of Schastye. And the divide between Russia and the civilized world will become even deeper.
Even the Palestinian terrorists do not have Buks and therefore they are not able to realize the eternal dream of the Arab people, to shoot down a passenger liner over Tel Aviv. The Donetsk separatists, judging from all accounts, in one sweep have even surpassed both the Syrians and the Palestinians and they have indeed realized the eternal Arab dream.
*This is a reference to a recent Kremlin lie about Ukrainian forces crucifying Russians, which appeared in global media and was later refuted entirely.
As the world tries to answer the question of who exactly fired the missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 innocent people, Moscow is doing its best to lie, obfuscate, shift blame, and evade responsibility. The Kremlin’s best-case scenario now is that local rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk region who are under the operational control of Russian military intelligence (GRU), took it upon themselves to shoot down a passenger aircraft, using a Russian-supplied Buk (SA-11) anti-aircraft system, having mistaken it for an unarmed Ukrainian An-26 transport plane. The reality may be worse, and it will take time to establish the facts, particularly with Kremlin proxies obstructing the investigation, destroying evidence, hiding bodies, and acting as if the world is not watching this closely. The extent of Russian push-back suggests that Moscow has a great deal to hide.
Nevertheless, even if the shootdown was entirely the work of Donetsk locals, self-styled Cossacks with an itchy trigger finger and an excess of vodka, it bears noting that the pseudo-state there is in fact under the tight control of the Kremlin, in particular of its powerful intelligence agencies, what the Russians call the “special services.” The premier of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) is Aleksandr Boroday, a Russian citizen who, Pravda reported back in 2002, is a member of the special services, specifically the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB).* Boroday was appointed an FSB major-general at the tender age of thirty-five. In the FSB, Boroday worked in the sensitive “political field” and has been tied to Russian nationalist causes. Right now he is busy keeping investigators away from the MH17 crash site.
The DNR’s “defense minister” is the shadowy Igor Girkin, AKA Strelkov, another Russian citizen who has been the subject of much media commentary, given his belligerent actions and obvious power in the Donetsk area. Although he is reported to have an FSB background, he is a GRU asset now, according to U.S. intelligence, and serves as the local coordinator of Kremlin-controlled militias. Strelkov was gloating online about the Boeing 777 shootdown, thinking his forces had destroyed a Ukrainian An-26, then quickly deleted his comments. The DNR individual caught by Ukrainian intelligence on tape discussing the shootdown with GRU superiors is Igor Bezler, another longtime GRU operative with a murky past. It is important to note that the intercept confirmed that Bezler is fully within the GRU chain of command, as is the whole DNR military.
To illustrate just how tightly controlled by the Kremlin the DNR actually is, a little over a week ago it relieved its deputy premier for security, a Ukrainian, and replaced him with Vladimir Antufeyev, another Russian from the special services. Antufeyev previously served as the head of security in the Russian-controlled territory of Transdnistria. Russian media have reported that Antufeyev was brought to the DNR to “restore order” and tamp down in-fighting among some of the rebel bands. It is known that Boroday, Strelkov, and Antufeyev all worked together on behalf of the Russian special services during the 1990s conflict in Transdnistria.
Regardless of who exactly fired the missile that killed 298 innocent people, and who issued the order to do so, the Donetsk pseudo-state is a wholly-owned Kremlin subsidiary, with its top-three “power ministries” all in the hands of Russian citizens who are longtime creatures of Moscow’s special services. The only law in the DNR is Putin’s, as exercised through GRU channels. As such, it is difficult to imagine anyone undertaking any important decision there without Kremlin approval and the go-ahead of Russian intelligence.
*It has recently been claimed that this article was a “joke” — some joke — but Boroday’s affiliation with the special services since the 1990s is admitted by the Russian media.
Yesterday, a Boeing 777 airliner belonging to Malaysian Airlines fell from the sky over the war zone that is Southeastern Ukraine, killing all 298 souls on board. This was not an accident, rather the huge jet was shot down, very likely by a 9K37 Buk (SA-11 to NATO) mobile surface-to-air missile system. Based on current reports, U.S. intelligence believes that the kill shot came from Russian-backed militias in the Donetsk area, inside the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, which seems likely based on signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts made public by Ukraine’s Security Service, as well as the suspicious conduct of militia leaders themselves, who are controlled by Russian military intelligence. For Putin’s Kremlin, this is a public relations nightmare that will be impossible to evade. For Russian foreign policy, this is a genuine disaster, coming after a long string of victories in the Kremlin’s Special War in Ukraine. The cliched term “game changer” would seem to apply.
Much more will be coming out in the days ahead, but for now I want to note that shooting down civilian airliners, whether by accident or by design, sadly is more common than many people realize. Several incidents since the Second World War have resulted in major loss of life, starting with the shootdown of an El Al Lockheed Constellation in July 1955 by Bulgarian MiG-15s after the Israeli airliner strayed into Bulgarian airspace and refused orders to land; all fifty-eight passengers and crew died. Israel did something similar in February 1973 when a Libyan Airlines Boeing 727 strayed into Israeli-controlled airspace over the Sinai and refused orders to land; Israeli F-4 Phantoms shot it down, killing 113.
In September 1978, terrorists downed an Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount with an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile; of the fifty-six passengers and crew, thirty-eight died in the crash, while ten more were brutally murdered by terrorists at the crash site. Only five months later, another Air Rhodesia Viscount was shot down by an SA-7 in the hands of terrorists, killing all fifty-nine passengers and crew on impact.
In a still mysterious case in June 1980*, an Aerolinee Itavia DC-9 was blasted from the sky off the Italian coast, killing all eighty-one aboard. The cause of the fatal explosion remains controversial. While the official Italian position, after several extended investigations, is that the DC-9 was downed by an air-to-air missile, fired during a never-admitted air battle between NATO and Libyan fighter jets, others claim that a terrorist bomb of unknown origin was the true cause.
The most infamous airliner shootdown, at least before yesterday, was the loss of Korean Airlines 007 in September 1983*, killing all 269 aboard, including a U.S. congressman, when it was downed by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor. This caused worldwide outrage and was a serious blow to the Soviet Union’s international image. The Boeing 747 was lost near Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East, having twice strayed into Soviet airspace due to an apparent navigational error. The Soviets, believing the 747 jumbo was a U.S. Air Force RC-135 spy plane, blasted it from the sky. The incident betrayed a very Soviet amalgam of brutality and incompetence. This was actually the second Korean Airlines jet shot down by the Soviets. In April 1978, a KAL Boeing 707 strayed into Soviet airspace near Murmansk, and did not respond to warnings, so was downed by two Su-15s. The Korean pilot managed to crash-land his damaged aircraft and miraculously only two passengers were killed.
In a tragic case that may have parallels with the loss of the Malaysian Boeing 777 over Ukraine, in July 1988, the U.S. Navy cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew*. This was the result of a tragic misunderstanding, as the Vincennes believed the airliner was an Iranian Air Force fighter closing in on it to attack, and the disaster occurred during the undeclared war between the United States and Iran that was being waged in the Persian Gulf throughout the spring and summer of 1988.
The former Soviet Union has witnessed all the major cases of civilian airliner shootdowns since the end of the Cold War. Over a three-day period in September 1993, Russian-backed Abkhaz separatists destroyed three Tupolev airliners belonging to Transair Georgia (two were shot down by missiles, one was hit by artillery fire while on the ground), killing a total of 136 people. In September 2001, a Siberia Airlines Tu-154 was blasted from the sky by a surface-to-air missile while flying over the Black Sea, killing all seventy-eight passengers and crew. Blame eventually was assigned to a Ukrainian air defense unit participating in a military exercise — a terrible accident.
The tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 is certain to cause international outrage as well as diplomatic problems for Moscow. So far, the Kremlin has shown little desire to come clean about what actually happened, though the aircraft’s black boxes will have much to tell. There is no doubt that U.S. and Allied intelligence possess information that will demonstrate who exactly was behind the shootdown, and perhaps why they did what they did. Here SIGINT will be critical, particularly electronic intelligence (ELINT, meaning intercepts of radar and other emissions like missile launch data) perhaps supplemented by communications intelligence (COMINT, meaning actual voice intercepts), and it is hoped that, as the Reagan administration did in 1983, when it revealed NSA SIGINT to the world at the United Nations, proving Soviet responsibility for the loss of KAL 007, the Obama administration will take this matter seriously and challenge what appears to be a gross act of lawlessness by Moscow-backed criminals.
*The excellent documentary program Mayday has presented episodes based on these cases; while I do not necessarily agree with all their conclusions, the programs are well researched and presented, as well as available on YouTube.
It’s now been over a year since Edward Snowden, the most famous IT contractor in intelligence history, defected to Moscow. This blog has followed the twists and turns of this remarkable case in detail, particularly in its counterintelligence aspects, but one of the most vexing and important issues remains undefined. Namely, how much damage to U.S. and Allied intelligence and security did Snowden’s unprecedented theft of classified materials actually do?
The National Security Agency and others have been involved in developing a damage assessment virtually from the moment the story broke; it’s what intelligence services do when they have a defector or compromise, since it’s vital to understand what programs have been damaged or lost. Snowden’s theft was so vast — perhaps “only” 1.5 million purloined documents rather than the 1.7 million previously suggested — that it will take years for the Intelligence Community (IC) to assess what damage has actually been wrought here. Moreover, it may be impossible to ever fully answer that question in detail, particularly if Snowden stays in Moscow, which he shows every sign of doing. The damage here stretches across so many agencies of the IC and the whole Department of Defense that this will be truly the mother of all damage assessments, and it is to be hoped that the public will allowed access to some sort of unclassified version of it, even if only a summary, to understand what the Snowden Operation has done to the security of the United States and its allies.
As a political effort, the international propaganda campaign against NSA that is driven by the Snowden documents has failed to shut down the Agency, which continues to do its mission with only modest changes, as this blog predicted months ago. Nevertheless, it’s obvious to anyone acquainted with intelligence that the operational and strategic damage to NSA and the IC, in particular to its international partnerships that are so vital to Western security, is vast and unprecedented. There has never been a compromise like this, or even close, in the annals of espionage, dwarfing even the famous case of the KGB’s Vasily Mitrokhin.
It is therefore surprising to hear recent statements from NSA and IC leadership that the current crisis just isn’t all that bad. Admiral Mike Rogers, NSA’s new director, has stated that the Snowden damage is “manageable” while making it clear that from where he sits, the “sky isn’t falling.” James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, has similarly observed that the damage caused by Snowden is not as great as he and the IC had initially believed.
There are undoubtedly audiences who wish to hear this good news, and one cannot fault leaders who try to shore up flagging morale in a crisis. There can be no doubt that NSA morale today is at its lowest ebb ever, with a workforce dealing with the damage on a day-to-day basis while worrying about a security overreaction to the Snowden disaster, which is what the IC usually does in the wake of this sort of lapse. There are numerous allies, close intelligence partners, who want to be told that all is well, that NSA is as effective as ever and has brushed off the Snowden case in record time – and that it won’t happen again.
Unfortunately, this is not true. It is difficult to reconcile statements from Rogers and Clapper with ones previously made by General Keith Alexander, the former NSA director (“What Snowden has revealed has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.”) or by Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the former DIA director (“this has caused grave damage to our national security”), who added that the wreckage goes far beyond the IC, and has serious and disturbing implications for the Pentagon and the U.S. armed forces too. The unclassified version of DIA’s damage assessment describes Snowden’s impact as “staggering.”
Key allies have been even more frank. Andrew Parker, head of the British Security Service (MI5), stated that the Snowden-caused leaks from GCHQ, NSA’s British partner, “hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,” a view that was endorsed by Prime Minister David Cameron. Comments by Paul Taloni, director of the Australian Signals Directorate, NSA’s partner Down Under, were even more detailed: “Snowden has effectively informed Indonesia and PNG’s military that Australia knows how to decrypt their comms … They will immediately change them as a result, which will directly impact on Australia’s ability to minimize future threats.”
Dr. Taloni notes an important point, namely that letting targets know they are being listened to usually means that they change how they communicate, and access is lost, often for an extended period, and sometimes forever. Thus is intelligence diminished. Unlike the world of human intelligence (HUMINT), where even a major setback means a human source, or several, are compromised, in the arena of signals intelligence (SIGINT), a compromise can shut down a vast array of collection programs and effectively render you deaf against whole countries. Given the unprecedented extent of the Snowden compromise, it would be foolish to assume that the SIGINT losses it has engendered are not commensurately vast.
It needs to be noted that NSA has a long history of avoiding unpleasant truths in cases of defection and betrayal. The Agency had little to say publicly about the case of William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, two disgruntled analysts who defected to Moscow in 1960, while noting internally, in language that seems apt today as well, that the men possessed “greatly inflated opinions concerning their intellectual attainments and talents” and defected to satisfy social aspirations. The Agency was similarly tight-lipped three years later about the case of Jack Dunlap, an Army sergeant assigned to NSA — for a time he was the director’s driver — who passed classified materials to the Soviets in exchange for cash; as Dunlap committed suicide before he was convicted of anything, he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Perhaps the most relevant case is that of William Weisband, who is the only case in NSA history that compares with Snowden in terms of damage to U.S. and Allied SIGINT. As I’ve explained before, Weisband was a longtime Soviet spy and mole inside U.S. intelligence who compromised everything he could get his hands on, including BOURBON, the top secret American-British program that listened in on high-level Soviet communications, which “went dark” in 1948 after Weisband told Moscow about it. He also told them about VENONA, the extraordinarily compartmented program that decrypted Soviet intelligence communications; thanks to Weisband, the Kremlin knew about VENONA several years before President Harry Truman was briefed on it. In short, Weisband practically shut down Western SIGINT against the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War, when it was most needed, and that damage lasted for years and cost lives.
NSA’s reaction to the case was revealing. In the first place, there was no NSA when Weisband was arrested in 1950, when another Soviet spy, revealed by VENONA, fingered Weisband, who was then working in the heart of the SIGINT system, as his Soviet intelligence handler back in the early 1940s. Weisband was a Russian linguist (it was his native tongue) for the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), NSA’s direct predecessor, where security was somewhat slipshod. Weisband should have been caught earlier, his efforts to hide his betrayal were hardly impressive, but nobody was paying attention.
Seeking to cover up this epic disaster, which AFSA leadership had been quietly expecting ever since BOURBON was suddenly and inexplicably lost two years before, U.S. intelligence clammed up. Nobody wanted to admit that our SIGINT system had been penetrated, and in the climate of the time, Washington, DC, didn’t even want to state publicly that it had an agency that was breaking foreign codes. Weisband was allowed to slip away without comment.
He did a year in Federal prison for the obscure crime of lying to a grand jury about his secret Communist affiliations, and was never charged with anything relating to espionage. He continued his life, becoming an insurance salesman in Northern Virginia, dying of a heart attack in 1967 (ironically, just at the time the KGB wanted to give him a bag of cash to help out the “old master” who had done so much for the Soviet Union). There was not a peep to the American public about what Weisband had done.
Internally, it was obvious that the damage was so serious that it must never happen again. Part of the problem was that AFSA was not really a unified agency, rather an amalgam of preexisting Army, Navy, and Air Force SIGINT services; in particular, it lacked any unified security and counterintelligence program. President Truman ordered the establishment of a committee led by the New York attorney George Brownell to look into improving the flawed AFSA model. Their recommendation was the establishment of a fully unified cryptologic unit, under the Department of Defense, with a single security effort to prevent future moles. Thus was the National Security Agency born in November 1952.
After that, NSA pretty much forgot about Weisband. His co-workers were told to never discuss the case with anybody. For decades, he simply did not exist; he was not even mentioned in internal Agency security briefings, and most counterintelligence officials at NSA possessed only a vague awareness of the Weisband affair, so total was the amnesia. That only began to change in the mid-1990s, when NSA and CIA jointly declassified the remarkable VENONA story, in which Bill Weisband had played a sordid part. Only a half-century after his betrayal did the American public learn about what Weisband had done, and it was not until 2003 that NSA officials offered a full, unclassified look at the case to the public, revealing long-suppressed details about what the traitor had done, and why.
It’s natural for the leaders of secret agencies to want to keep their disasters hidden. Deep down, all spy services want to be like surgeons who bury their mistakes. Yet this is an unhealthy impulse that must be resisted. NSA will not prevent another Snowden if the Agency does not honestly assess exactly what happened here. Moreover, the public has a right to know the actual story, at least in outline, while our allies deserve better than happy-talk. It is at best odd that IC leadership seems content to pronounce the case not so big a deal when, in fact, it has been enormously painful for the Western diplomats from many countries who have had to contend with the considerable problems caused by the Snowden Operation, to say nothing of the numerous American firms that have lost business, including huge contracts, thanks to this affair.
NSA and U.S. intelligence won’t be getting past the damage wrought by Edward Snowden and his partners for many years, and neither will Western diplomacy and the many businesspeople who did nothing to deserve the loss of income they are now facing, and may be for a long time. It would be wise of senior U.S. Government officials to keep this in mind. Moreover, it’s best to face the painful truth now, because the full story of this debacle will come out eventually. It always does.
[As always, the author's comments are his own entirely.]
New details continue to emerge about the brewing SpyWar between Berlin and Washington, DC, over alleged U.S. espionage directed at the German government. While significant questions remain, it’s becoming clear that Markus R., the thirty-one year-old employee of the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst – BND) who was spying for the CIA, fell well short of James Bond, having been caught by German counterintelligence when trying to sell classified materials to the Russians too. The second espionage suspect, a Defense Ministry official, although under suspicion, remains free, and that case may be misunderstood: time will tell.
What’s not in doubt is that Germany is a full-fledged panic about American spying that has already resulted in the departure of the CIA’s station chief in Berlin and will surely bring extra scrutiny to a lot of U.S. activities in Central Europe. Coming on top of the Snowden Operation, with its clear aim of harming U.S.-German relations, the timing of all this must be considered suspect as well as inopportune for the West. In response, German counterintelligence is conducting a molehunt for more U.S. agents who may be lurking in ministries and agencies, above all the BND, while new press reports that more than a dozen such spies exist promise that this story is far from over, and the already rocky relationship between Berlin and Washington, DC, may worsen further.
Given all this, it’s worthwhile to ask what exactly the U.S. Government secretly wants to know about Germany. The answer isn’t straightforward and it’s much more nuanced than most media treatments would have you believe. While the CIA isn’t likely to turn away German officials who volunteer their services to them, neither is there much active recruitment of German partners. In situations like this, where spy agencies work closely with each other — it’s called liaison in the trade — occasionally lines get crossed and information gets overshared in a manner than can veer into actual espionage, sometimes gradually. Personal relationships develop and, well, things happen; it should be noted that this is fully a two-way street.
Helpfully, Eli Lake over at The Daily Beast has written a nice article that explains what it is U.S. intelligence actually wants to know about Germany; it sheds light on things that are understood among spooks but not much among normals. The bottom line is that American espionage priorities in Germany can be boiled down to the Three C’s: Counterintelligence, Counterterrorism, and Counterproliferation.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which we must not forget were staged from Hamburg, under the not-very-watchful eye of German intelligence — they managed to shut down the notorious mosque where Mohammed Atta and co-conspirators used to hang out … in 2010 – counterterrorism became the obvious priority, and so it has remained for years. After that debacle, German security agencies, above all the domestic intelligence arm, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz – BfV), began to treat the terrorist threat more seriously, with considerable assistance from U.S. intelligence partners. Nevertheless that relationship can never be seamless, given politics and bureaucracies, and in reality counterterrorism operations in Germany (or most any partner country, for that matter) boil down to this. In the event that CIA or NSA (it’s more often the latter) gets information about possible terrorist activities in, say, Bielefeld, U.S. officials tell the Germans about it and there are then three possible responses from Berlin:
A) Great idea, let’s run a joint operation against them and figure out what’s going on (the preferred answer).
B) Thanks, but they’re not doing anything illegal under German law, so get back to us if you develop that sort of information (the lawyerly answer, and German security agencies are very lawyerly).
C) We know about this, and we’ve spent the last six months placing an agent inside this group, we’ll get back to you if we learn more (this may or not be true).
Any answer other than “A” may result in a U.S. operation on German soil, without German assistance, what spies term a “unilateral,” which always runs the risk of getting caught and something embarrassing happening. Per the old MOSSAD joke/curse: “May we read about you in the newspapers!” But in the post-9/11 world, U.S. intelligence has not been inclined to err on the side of caution when terrorism may be involved.
Then there’s counterproliferation, especially Iranian. Tehran has a lot of businessmen running around Germany, and some of them are not what they seem to be; many are engaged in efforts to circumvent international sanctions on their country, and U.S. intelligence particularly takes an interest in Iranians who are looking to buy materials that could support the construction of weaponry and, worse, weapons of mass destruction. There are perennial concerns about German export control officials not being sufficiently diligent, plus shady German businessmen who will illegally sell contraband to Iran for the right price. There’s a considerable Iranian intelligence presence in Germany, and they too can get involved in proliferation, when they’re not assassinating people in restaurants, so interest in this in Washington, DC, is understandably high, and has been for many years.
But we must not forget counterintelligence, which is a longstanding German weakpoint and, given rapidly rising Russian espionage in that country, something that U.S. spies rightfully fret over, given the very close defense and security relationship between Washington, DC, and Berlin. Some of this Russian outreach is overt, including former German chancellors who work for Russian state companies and celebrate their birthday with Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin’s influence operations in Germany, particularly since the Ukraine crisis erupted, cannot be evaluated as anything less than highly successful. More than a few prominent German journalists are serving Russian intelligence, wittingly or otherwise.
But actual espionage, meaning the penetration of government ministries by spies, is a deep concern too, as it’s common knowledge that the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and military intelligence (GRU) have as many officers, including illegals (meaning deep-cover types posing as civilians without any ties to Russia), in Germany today as they had at the height of the Cold War. And West Germany’s counterintelligence record during the Cold War was frankly dismal, for many reasons. East Bloc services had no trouble penetrating West German institutions at the highest levels. To cite only some of the most famous cases: Heinz Felfe, the BND’s head of counterespionage, was revealed to be a Soviet spy in 1961, while Otto John, the very first director of the BfV, defected to East Germany in 1954, and 1974 saw the unmasking of Günter Guillaume, a top adviser to Chancellor Willy Brandt, as a spy for East Germany’s legendary Stasi. The Stasi in particular had no difficulty swiss-cheesing West German institutions with their agents, many of whom volunteered their services to them; in some cases, these Stasi agents changed the course of Germany history in unlikely ways that have only come to light in recent years.
Given the extent of attention paid to Germany by the SVR and GRU, U.S. intelligence would be foolish not to be watching this closely, especially because even closely allied spy agencies seldom spill the beans about penetrations, which are embarrassing to admit. Moreover, for all its skills in combating extremism and terrorism, particularly Neo-Nazis — with whom they have a complex relationship — the BfV has never been a first-rate counterintelligence service, despite serious efforts now being devoted to the Russian espionage threat. It is to be expected that German security agencies are currently penetrated by the Russians and their friends, as they have been since the Second World War.
None of this is to deny that U.S. intelligence has made mistakes here. Running agents inside a friendly spy service is always a gamble, and must be assessed based upon risks and rewards, as may not have been done here properly. At a minimum, it would have been wise to have put all these agents “on ice” when the Snowden Operation put the U.S.-German intelligence relationship in serious jeopardy. Above all, if media reports are correct and the CIA failed to inform the president of their BND agent Markus R.’s arrest in advance of Obama’s phone conversation with an agitated German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is a puzzling mystery why CIA Director John Brennan still has a job at Langley.
Much more will emerge about these cases in coming days, but it’s important to maintain perspective about what U.S. intelligence really cares about. It would be unfortunate if the BfV’s scarce counterintelligence resources will now be devoted to blunting American espionage, as seems almost certain, rather than against the far greater Russian threat. But such are the ways of the SpyWar …
Germany has been in an uproar since the arrest last week of a thirty-one year-old employee of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) who stands accused of spying for the United States. He reportedly began passing over 200 secret documents to the CIA back in 2012, receiving 25,000 Euros as payment. He was caught when he offered his services to the Russians as well, an email which German counterintelligence intercepted. While it cannot be denied that allied spy services do in fact spy on each other, this seems an unusually flagrant operation, given the already parlous state of U.S-German relations over intelligence matters.
The reaction to all this in Germany has been highly negative, since this scandal comes on top of months of allegations of NSA espionage against Germany, care of the defector Edward Snowden. This has become a major political issue between Washington, DC, and Berlin, and the revelation that a BND staffer was betraying secrets to the CIA has only worsened the situation. Reactions have been swift and harsh. Germany’s interior minister called for a new “360-degree approach” to intelligence, meaning treating the United States as a serious counterintelligence threat to Germany, on a par with Russia and China, while the justice minister hinted at criminal proceedings against the U.S., observing that “American intelligence services are obsessed with surveillance.” President Joachim Gauck was blunt: “If it actually happened that way — that a service probably employed one of our employees from a service in that manner, then indeed one must say: enough is enough, for once.”
And now things have gotten considerably worse. The German media today is filled with reports that a second German official is under investigation for espionage on behalf of the United States. The suspect is a member of the Bundeswehr, the German military, who is reported to have come on the radar of the military’s counterintelligence arm (MAD) due to his regular unreported meetings with U.S. intelligence personnel. Experts have already judged the case “more serious” than last week’s BND scandal. The soldier’s residence and office have been searched by police and prosecutors are preparing to act.
The timing of all this, given the fragility of U.S.-German relations on security matters, literally could not be worse. Already many Germans were wondering what sort of ally the United States actually is. In reaction to last week’s espionage debacle, the Left Party’s chair Katja Kipping stated, “There were enough apologies on the phone” — meaning the White House reaction to last year’s NSA brouhaha — “Now Obama should quickly get on a plane to Berlin and eat humble pie.” One wonders what will be required now to smooth all this over.
Watch this space, more is coming …
UPDATE [10 Jul]: German media, which is filled with denunciations of U.S. espionage by politicians across Germany’s political spectrum, is today reporting that the Bundeswehr espionage suspect, who has yet to be arrested, though is considered to be under “suspicion of being involved as an agent in intelligence activities,” worked in the MoD’s Policy Department and is reported to have been in charge of International Defense Cooperation.