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A Brief Intelligence Reality Check

Our right wing is in a flutter over recently declassified and released Pentagon intelligence documents regarding Middle Eastern events in recent years. FoxNews is blaring about failures to miss the rise of the Islamic State and (of course) about Benghazi, in its customary way, but without much context.

Worse is this piece, which has a pronouncedly conspiratorial bent, implying that the Pentagon was somehow in on the rise of the Islamic State — which is precisely what Tehran and Moscow want you to think. The documents in question, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a right-wing group, can be seen in full here, but the report generating the most heat, if not light, is this one.

This is an early August 2012 field report to the Defense Intelligence Agency, known in the trade as an Intelligence Information Report or IIR. As it states clearly, this is an “information report, not finally evaluated intelligence.” Its contents are deemed explosive by those seeking explosions. According to outraged observers online, this DIA IIR is “proof” that “the Pentagon” and “the Intelligence Community” knew more about the rise of the Islamic State than they let on. At best, they’re fools; at worst, they’re deceivers who have lied to the American people.

It’s time for a reality check. Having written my share of IIRs, let me explain a few things to you. First off, this report, which is classified SECRET/NOFORN (i.e. it’s far from “highly classified”) is so heavily redacted that it’s difficult to say much meaningful about it. Who filed this IIR has been taken out, and its distribution list (at least what we can see of it) is the usual alphabet soup of DoD and IC headquarters and agencies. Nothing special here, not one bit.

As for the pronouncements in this IIR, which are taken as highly meaningful by the conspiracy-minded, they are routine, the sort of thing found in the thousands of IIRs that DIA generates annually, on a wide range of subjects. Is this the take of a U.S. defense attaché somewhere in the Middle East, and therefore a reflection of his/her personal views only? Is this the rant of someone who claims good access, who may (or may not) have that? Are these the ramblings of a partner security service — in other words, glorified hall gossip — that an attaché felt obliged to report back in that mixture of “FYI” and “CYA” that dominates inside the Beltway? Given the heavy redactions, it’s simply impossible to say.

What we can say with certainty, however, is that this IIR is not the view of “the Defense Intelligence Agency” or “the Pentagon,” much less “the Intelligence Community.” The IC is a sprawling enterprise of seventeen different agencies, some of which don’t play well with each other. Plus, not to put too fine a point on this, DIA isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the IC shed, being viewed as a bit of an also-ran by CIA and NSA, who are the Big Dogs of American intelligence in terms of mission, budgets, and prestige.

This is but one IIR, whose provenance we know basically nothing about. Don’t read too much into it. There is nothing conspiratorial here to those who understand the IC. Raw intelligence like this is often wide of the mark, and DIA’s reputation here is less than stellar. Has everybody forgotten about CURVEBALL so soon?

I am pretty critical of the Obama administration’s policy towards the Islamic State, as I’ve written about many times, and it’s clear that calling them the “JV team” was a stupid mistake. As I’ve reported, there has been robust debate inside the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community for several years about what the Islamic State exactly is, and what should be done about, and it’s safe to say that most of DoD and the IC today are out of step with the White House’s soft-touch approach to its pseudo-war against this virulent and fanatical enemy.

This lone IIR is but a single data point that serious analysts will not get worked up over, as opposed to those who have ideological axes to grind, to say nothing of the tinfoil-hat brigade. After 9/11, the Intelligence Community was exhorted to “connect the dots” better. I would caution all to observe that this is a mere dot, one whose provenance and reliability we do not know.

On a final note, let me add that, while I am in favor of the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community releasing more classified documents to promote greater public understanding — an area where this administration, contrary to its grandiose promises of transparency, has a dismal track record — releasing documents that are so heavily redacted as to be almost incomprehensible does not actually promote understanding of complex issues, rather the contrary.

100 Years Ago: Italy’s Terrible Folly

I’ve made the point here more than once that it’s a serious error to view the coming of the First World War as some sort of mistake or accident. The European-wide conflagration that broke out in the summer of 1914 was the product of conscious, if terrible, choices, by more than one country. It was no mere error or misunderstanding.

Similarly, I’m regularly at pains to point out that the “lions led by donkeys” mantra that informs so much popular culture about the Great War is wide of the mark. There were bad generals in the 1914-1918 conflagration — there are in every war — but there were good ones too, and those tend not to get a lot of credit in popular memory. The wreckage of U.S. military decisions since 9/11 ought to remind that military incompetence didn’t stop a century ago and is not just associated with trenches.

All that said, this weekend — fittingly the Memorial Day long weekend in America — we commemorate something that stands apart from my usual caveats about the First World War. One hundred years ago Italy chose to enter that terrible conflict. It did not need to, this was an unforced error by Rome. And an awful one, greatly exacerbated by unimaginably flawed generalship that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and in the end made Italy a worse place. I’ve castigated America’s entry into the war, two years later, as a bad idea. But that wasn’t obvious at the time, while it should have been clear to anybody with open eyes in the spring of 1915 that no sensible neutral wanted anything to do with the Great War.

Cool heads, who did exist, did not prevail in Italy a century ago. There was some irrationality and some bad intelligence; the term “cherry-picking” did not yet exist yet perfectly describes what happened in Rome in the last months of peace when leaders, military and civilian, chose to see what they wanted to see. Above all there was greed.

Italy sat out the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914, when Rome reneged on its alliance obligations to Germany and Austria-Hungary, winning the undying enmity of Berlin and Vienna. Most Italians favored neutrality, diplomatic niceties be damned, a choice that was confirmed when word of the horrors of trenches and mass death on the battlefield reached them. Yet there were some Italians who favored entering the war — on the Allied side. There were nationalists who craved Austrian land, some of it occupied by Italians who were Habsburg subjects, that they grandly called Italia irredenta: “unredeemed Italy.” A few militarists favored war for its own sake. More were those who became fired up by rising nationalism and the promise of easy pickings off the increasingly putrid corpse of Austria-Hungary, which was bleeding to death on multiple fronts.

By the end of 1914, intervention had loud champions in Italy, among them a rabble-rousing socialist-turned-nationalist named Benito Mussolini, who forcefully argued that joining the Allies would get Italy easy conquests as well as a much-needed social revolution at home. Influential generals and politicos increasingly agreed, helped along by covert action by British and French intelligence, which wanted to get Rome in the war on their side, and facilitated that by secretly funding vocal interventionists, Mussolini included.

Most appealing was the dismal state of Austria-Hungary, which lost over a million dead and wounded in the first six months of fighting and appeared to be on the verge of total collapse. By March 1915, as the bad news for Vienna arriving from the Eastern Front was getting worse by the day — Habsburg forces were losing an average of more than 6,000 soldiers to the Russians every twenty-four hours — Rome decided to take the secret deal that the Allies were proffering. With what Italian politicos memorably termed sacro egoismo — sacred egotism — in late April they accepted the Anglo-French offer, ironed out in the Treaty of London. This promised Rome vast swathes of Austrian land across the Adriatic (London and Paris were nothing if not generous with Vienna’s territory) in exchange for attacking the Habsburgs.

That looked like a mere technicality by the end of April, as the Habsburg military, if press reports were to be believed, was coming apart at the seams. Ailing on the Russian and Balkan fronts, the Austro-Hungarian Army couldn’t possibly withstand the opening of a third front, in its exposed rear, facing Italy. Optimistic generals in Rome spoke of a walk-over; talk of an imminent march on Vienna — beginning with the taking of Ljubljana, the main Slovenian city, within a few days — focused on the big picture, since hardly any Italian leaders expected the Austrians to resist for long.

It turned out that Italy’s opting for war in late April 1915 was a mirage, a fantasy, and a tragic one at that. In the first place, Italian planning took no account of the geography. Literally everywhere along the front, the Austrians held the high ground, in some cases mountains, rock fortresses, thousands of feet high. The Italians would be attacking uphill, into fire. Plus whatever their shortcomings, Austrian regiments had at least learned to fight since the previous summer, while the Italian Army was profoundly unready for war and had embraced none of the tactical lessons — machine guns, rapid fire artillery, trenches — that all the belligerents had been exposed to, at terrible cost.

Neither did the Italians think about the enemy’s will to fight. While many Habsburg subjects — the army was half Slavs — were ambivalent about fighting Russians, everybody hated the Italians, the faithless ally who had stabbed Vienna in the back the previous summer. For Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, whose land had been promised to Italy, this was a war for national survival. Morale in Habsburg forces surged once news of Rome’s declaration of war was received in Vienna on May 23, and all units burned to kill Italians.

boroevic2Vienna also dispatched its toughest general, Svetozar Boroević (left), to hold the Italian front. He was a master of defensive tactics who wasn’t squeamish about pushing his troops to their limit. A Serb from Croatia, Boroević viewed the war with Italy as a personal indeed racial one, as did many of the soldiers under his command. In a terrible mistake, Italy waited a month between signing the Treaty of London and actually declaring war on Austria-Hungary. Since Vienna soon learned of Rome’s intentions, thanks to good intelligence, that gave the Austrians four vital weeks to rush the meager reserves at the army’s disposal to the Italian front.

That Vienna had any reserves left to spare at all was thanks to the biggest Italian misstep of 1915. Just days after Rome signed the Treaty of London, the Prussians and Austrians launched a major offensive in Galicia, at Gorlice-Tarnów, that succeeded beyond wildest expectations. Pound for pound this turned out to be the most successful big push by any army in the Great War, tearing a gaping hole in the enemy’s defenses and forcing the Russians into a chaotic retreat that lasted for months. By the time the Eastern Front stabilized in the late summer of 1915, over a million Russian prisoners had been taken and the tide had turned in favor of the Central Powers.

3655639072_b0eefa4b14In late April, Rome agreed to go to war against an Austria-Hungary that seemed destined to final defeat within days. But before the ink was dry on that secret treaty, the war in the East shifted decisively. By the time Italy actually entered the war in late May, Austria-Hungary was very much alive and had managed to build rudimentary defenses all along its border with Italy. On the critical Isonzo front, named after the fast-moving river (see right) that snaked into the high Alps north of Trieste, Boroević had managed to dig in several divisions of veteran troops.

This was just enough to stop the Italians in their tracks. The fault was not that of Italian soldiers, who showed astonishing bravery in their assaults on the Isonzo, but of their generals, who were unskilled and often arrogant. None was worse than the top general, Luigi Cadorna, who displayed callousness and stupidity in equal measure. With no regard for the lives of his men, Cadorna threw regiment after regiment against Boroević’s Isonzo defenses, where they were shattered again and again. Exhausted units that showed insufficient ardor for the slaughter had their suspected malingerers executed by firing squad. Four major Italian offensives on the Isonzo front in the latter half of 1915 gained essentially nothing for Italy except vast casualties.

Cadorna_LuigiNeither did matters improve. Cadorna (left), who made Douglas Haig look like Napoleon, kept launching futile offensives on the Isonzo through the late summer of 1917. Eleven of Cadorna’s “big pushes” on the Isonzo failed to achieve any strategic breakthroughs — by August 1917 the Italians were still only one-third of the way to Trieste, to say nothing of Ljubljana, sixty miles east of that — but at the cost of over a million Italian soldiers killed and maimed.

Throughout the Isonzo fighting, Austro-Hungarian troops displayed a forceful determination that was often lacking on other fronts. In the first Isonzo fight in the spring of 1915, as the Italians launched their first major assault on that front, the commander of an Austrian battalion holding a key hill overlooking the river told his men — Slavs from Dalmatia like himself, whose home province had been promised to the enemy by the Allies — that they were defending “Slav earth.” That battalion fought nearly to the last man, holding off more than ten times their number of Italians, setting an example that many other Habsburg troops would follow.

Cadorna was eventually cashiered for gross incompetence, following the disastrous Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, a combined German-Austrian offensive in October 1917, the first of its kind on the Italian front, that shattered the Italian line and pushed Rome’s shambolic forces deep into Venetia. In his place came generals both more skilled and less cruel, who managed to rebuild the shattered army. In the autumn of 1918, the Central Powers lost the war for reasons that had little to do with Italy, and when Austria-Hungary was collapsing in late October, Rome launched its victory offensive.

But after the war, Italy did not get all the lands that Rome had been promised in the Treaty of London, an affront by friends that many Italians viewed as a mortal insult to national honor. This disappointment so radicalized Italian politics that Benito Mussolini reemerged as a fiery orator, having recovered from the wounds he sustained while fighting on the Isonzo front in 1917, promising angry combat veterans that they would get their due from Rome. He sold this as trincerocrazia — trenchocracy — and it caught on like wildfire. By 1922, Mussolini was in power, leading his battalions of veterans, calling themselves Fascists, to Rome.

But none could hide the terrible cost of it all. Some 650,000 Italians lost their lives in the Great War, most of them killed on the Isonzo front, while over a million more soldiers had been maimed. To put this in perspective, the Italian death toll, adjusted for population, would be like America today losing 5.7 million dead, which represents a figure more than four times greater than the dead of all America’s wars ever, put together.

To say nothing of how needless it all had been. While Italy did gain some land from their war of choice, and under the Fascists they proceeded to abuse Slavs there just as the natives had feared, this was nothing like the walk-over that Rome had expected in the spring 1915. Mussolini and his regime built grandiose war monuments and mausoleums up and down the Isonzo front to glorify the sacrifice, but what exactly it was all for remains nebulous a hundred years later. This weekend, Italy honored a national moment of silence to commemorate their entry into the Great War, but many continue to wonder why it happened at all.

88wpDKTTKhJwtSGfgOLkyX7o+3U4JPGihGN9One of those who wonders still is Pope Francis, who few months ago made a pilgrimage to Redipuglia (right), on the border with Slovenia, on what was once the Isonzo front. This vast monument, carved into the karst, is the greatest of the Fascist-era ossuaries, housing a hundred thousand Italian dead, many of them unknown in perpetuity. The pope’s grandfather fought on the Isonzo (with the elite Bersaglieri, the same corps Mussolini belonged to; and like the Duce he was wounded but survived) and passed tales of horror on to his grandson, who castigated the “madness” of it all in moving terms. For madness it was and shall remain.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about this subject, read my book, Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, which is available in English and Italian.

America’s Top Five Mistakes in Iraq

The fall of Ramadi to the fanatical forces of the Islamic State, a big strategic win for the insurgents, has concentrated minds about just how badly things have gone in Iraq for the last dozen years, since American forces annihilated Saddam Hussein’s Ba’thist regime. As at Mosul last year, small numbers of Da’ish mujahidin in Anbar have pushed away far greater numbers of Iraqi troops like a wet rag. An Islamic State drive on Baghdad now seems a question of when, not if.

President Obama continues to engage in public denial, and his incantation that he doesn’t “think” we’re losing in Iraq does not inspire confidence that a much-needed strategic reassessment is taking place inside the White House. To be fair, American policies towards Iraq since 2003 have been one huge trillion-dollar escapism, with many sub-varieties, but Obama’s unwillingness to admit there’s a big problem at hand smacks of his predecessor’s escapism in 2004-06 about just how badly things were going in that troubled country.

There seems little doubt that Who Lost Iraq? will feature prominently in the 2016 election cycle, and we’re already getting a taste of how nasty and a-historical that debate will be. Gotcha questions will feature prominently, as will completely unreality-based discussions that have nothing to do with how the 2003 invasion actually came to pass (for an antidote, read this). To aid any sort of meaningful — and very necessary — political dialogue about Iraq, allow me to present five issues that need dispassionate discussion.

These are the product of my own experiences, including working as an intelligence officer in the early stages of the Iraq war and later employment as a strategic consultant to the Pentagon on certain aspects of the post-Saddam disaster. These are jumping-off points for the discussion, not the final word on anything. But if they aid serious debating, not partisan shouting, that would be a good thing.

1. The Invasion: I fail to see how any serious person cannot now think that deposing Saddam Hussein was a terrible mistake. He was a genocidal monster, to be sure, but the essential wisdom of Bush 41 in 1991 — that throwing the Ba’thists out of Baghdad would only open the door to Iranian hegemony, a choice that got him much criticism at the time — seems fully justified by subsequent events. It must be kept in mind that, by 2001, Saddam felt — pretty much correctly, it must be said — that he had triumphed over a decade of onerous Western sanctions, and he was coming off his leash even before 9/11. Similarly, “regime change” in Iraq was the policy of the Clinton administration, in its second term, so starting history with hanging chads in Florida is deeply misguided. Given the strategic realities of the time, including the idées fixes of the Beltway smart set of the era, it’s frankly difficult to see how an Iraq invasion was avoidable in the hothouse atmosphere that swept the capital after 9/11: a President Gore would have very likely done the same thing, no matter what he says today.

2. That Phase IV: I can still half-defend getting rid of Saddam, who ruined his country well before U.S. troops reached Baghdad, but I cannot excuse, in any fashion, the appalling lack of Pentagon planning about what to do after his nasty regime fell. Simply put, there was hardly any serious planning done by Central Command for what was termed Phase IV of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Hence the chaos and catastrophic ad-hoccery that followed in the decisive weeks and months after Saddam fled his capital, the period when an insurgency could have been averted, but was not. While Donald Rumsfeld and his cronies bear a lot of blame for this, at least as much belongs on the shoulders of appallingly stupid CENTCOM leaders and planners who succumbed to wishful thinking of the highest order in 2003. The Royal Navy used to shoot admirals for a lot less than Tommy Franks did, and the greatest mystery of all is how this all happened, since under Franks’ predecessor at CENTCOM, Tony Zinni, war plans for Iraq consisted mostly of Phase IV stuff, since it was commonly understood that overthrowing Saddam, who had never rebuilt his conventional military power after 1991, would be the easy part — cleaning up the mess after constituted the real challenge.

3. About That Surge: As we know, chaos and insurgency did follow Saddam’s fall. It was probably inevitable that nasty sectarian-cum-ethnic struggles would emerge in Saddam’s wake, given decades of Ba’thist policies that inflamed those passions, but a war that consumed much of Iraq was avoidable, yet it was not avoided. Here, again, Rumsfeld and his Pentagon deserve a lot of blame for their willful escapism — which means that buck ultimately stopped with Dubya — but a succession of idiot generals in Iraq should get blame too. The U.S. Army at its worst was on display in Iraq, 2003-06; history will not be kind, nor should it be. These failures were then saved by the miraculous Surge of hoary Beltway myth. David Petraeus, using brainpower and cunning, turned the tide in Iraq in 2006-07, or so his fans and FoxNews talking heads have said nonstop for years. The Surge is a half-truth, the true part being that by 2006, it represented the least-bad strategic option on the table; but it is a myth all the same, as I’ve explained before, and in some ways a pernicious one. In particular, it white-washes the reality that, under the guise of The Surge, Baghdad’s Sunnis got ethnically cleansed away by their Shia enemies, while Sunnis in Anbar, who sided with Americans, temporarily and decisively, against fanatical mujahidin during The Surge — for the right price, as always — would eventually realize that we were going to leave them in a Shia-run Iraq that hates them

4. Pulling Out At Any Cost: Political illiteracy has been the signature feature of our all-but-endless Iraq war. A basic unwillingness to see Iraq as Iraqis see it — a country profoundly divided by sectarianism and hatreds that run centuries-deep — has meant that America has pursued inherently contradictory policies that guarantee long-term failure. This is much like the foolish hash Washington, DC, made of Bosnia, due to basic blindness about the country, but with far worse strategic consequences. The advice of Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden in 2007 to divide up Iraq into self-governing Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish entities, while maintaining a notionally united country (in other words, to make it like Bosnia: dysfunctional but not totally failed) was the least-bad outcome at the time, and its not being pursued looks like a tragic what-if, in hindsight (as does Biden’s sage advice, early in Obama’s first term, to scale-down U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, which the president ignored in favor of his own Surge in that country, which predictably failed to deliver as advertised: one suspects history will look upon Joe Biden as the Last Wise Man in our capital). Obama wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, and it’s hard to blame him for that, once he realized the full scale of the disaster he had inherited from his predecessor. That said, if you don’t want to make hard choices, don’t run for president, and by any fair accounting the list of Obama’s mistakes in Iraq — pulling out too quickly, not taming Shia abuses against Sunnis, leaving the Iraqi military unready to stand alone, and above all failing to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Baghdad — is long and painful.

5. Not Defeating Da’ish: Given the political errors of both the Bush and Obama administrations in Iraq, some sort of Sunni revolt against the rampant Shia thuggery emanating from the top in Baghdad was inevitable. Yet the insurgency that has emerged with a vengeance, which now threatens the Iraqi state itself, was not preordained, and represents the outcome of many things, including mistakes inside the Beltway. When Da’ish burst on the scene in a big way in Iraq last summer, trouncing far greater numbers of Iraqi troops, diligent use of Western airpower and special operations forces could have blunted it — as I explained here and here, in detail —  through attrition. That was still a viable option early this year, as I elaborated, but the lack of willpower in the Obama White House to employ lethal force persistently has led to a terrible outcome. For want of reality-based planning and toughness in Washington, DC, Da’ish is on the march and airpower and SOF alone may not suffice to halt their genocidal advance now. Certainly Obama’s diffident application of force against the Islamic State to date has been grossly insufficient to attrit the enemy in anything less than decades, as has been evident for some time. By wanting to avoid war, Obama may have helped cause a far greater one than anything yet seen in post-Saddam Iraq.

At this point, Obama’s Iraq war, which he tried and failed to get out of, has lasted longer than Bush’s Iraq war. Neither has been anything resembling a success. There is ample blame to go around. It is important now that our Iraq debates not become even more freighted down with partisan food-fighting than they already are, since the consequences of more Da’ish victories will be terrible. But we cannot assess what to do now if we cannot honestly reckon with the mistakes that we have already made in Iraq. Who Lost Iraq? We all did.

Putin’s Macedonian Gambit

Macedonia, a small, impoverished Balkan state, has appeared in the newspapers lately, which it seldom does outside of Southeastern Europe. Macedonia was the only Yugoslav republic to escape the collapse of Tito’s federation in the early 1990’s without bloodshed, but its history since then has been a tale of woes. As everywhere in the Balkans, crime, corruption and ethnic politicking have rendered Macedonia a less than fully functional state, and all-out war between the Slavic Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority was narrowly averted in 2001. Diplomatic intervention by NATO and the EU cooled heads and a bloody conflagration was headed off, but only just.

Now Macedonia is in turmoil again. Earlier this month, a massive cross-border raid led to the deaths of eight policemen and fourteen terrorists, said by the government in Skopje to be Albanian radicals who infiltrated the border city of Kumanovo to perpetrate mass murder. The country’s fragile ethnic balance has been thrown into chaos by the spectacular raid, the actual events of which remain shrouded in a good deal of mystery, in best Balkan fashion.

Macedonia has a long history of such never-solved major crimes. Back in 1995, President Kiro Gligorov, who got his country independence without bloodshed, was seriously injured by a car bomb, yet nobody was ever charged in the spectacular crime, though most Balkan spy-watchers detected more than a whiff of shadowy networks controlled by UDBA, Tito’s nasty secret police, behind the assassination attempt.

Similarly, it seems safe to expect that the real story behind the Kumanovo raid will remain shrouded in mystery, as some wish. In the absence of evidence, rumors have spread like wildfire. Most Slavic Macedonians attribute the attack to Albanian radicals bent on creating Greater Albania to include western Macedonia — it doesn’t help that some Albanian politicians state their goal openly — while most Albanians believe the raid was a “false flag” operation by Skopje to discredit them. Since false flag terrorism really does happen in the Balkans, it’s difficult to say with any certainty what really transpired in Kumanovo.

It should be noted that the Kumanovo atrocity was exceptionally well timed for Skopje, where the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is facing mass protests against crime and corruption during his near-decade in power. Confronted with public outrage, Gruevski has retreated into ethnic politics, per standard Balkan practice. On cue, the Kremlin has backed Skopje, suddenly remembering that they represent Russia’s Slavic Orthodox “brothers,” with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly stating this week, “The events in Macedonia are blatantly controlled from the outside.”

According to the Kremlin, Macedonia is being lined up by the Americans and NATO to be the next “color revolution” which, like the alleged “coup” in Kyiv early last year, will install a pro-Western government in power against the (alleged) popular will. It must be said that, as in Ukraine, Moscow is lining itself up with a coalition of corrupt cronies that, if widespread Balkan rumors are to be believed, is tracking to fall from power, and soon. The recent resignation of top officials, including Macedonia’s interior minister and intelligence chief, over revelations of their deep corruption has been taken as a bad sign by most impartial observers.

Never wanting to miss a crisis that could be geopolitically useful, the Kremlin has dispatched numerous “diplomats” — in reality, Russian intelligence officers — to their embassy in little Skopje, and they have been busy disseminating disinformation aimed at maligning the West and Macedonians who want a less corrupt government. A popular Russian rumor is that the Kumanovo terrorists were, in reality, American and British special forces who infiltrated Macedonia from the NATO base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel. Of course there is no evidence for this fairytale but that only makes it more popular among Macedonians who like spooky conspiracies.

Upping the ante in Kremlin Active Measures, to use the proper Chekist term, is a new piece in the right-wing Macedonian outlet Fakti by the Russian political strategist Sergei Markov, which posits a grand conspiracy theory about Western manipulation of recent Macedonian events. The root issue, he explains, is pipeline politics being orchestrated by the Americans and the Europeans, and Western intelligence is pulling the strings behind anti-government protests in Skopje, while NATO spy agencies were behind the Kumanovo terrorist raid. There is no evidence for any of this, but Markov goes one step further and explicitly fingers the National Security Agency and its partner the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, as the culprits behind the nefarious destabilization of Macedonia. Thanks to the Snowden Operation that Moscow has orchestrated over the last couple years, NSA is now the all-purpose boogeyman for Kremlin agitprop, though as the former technical director for NSA’s Balkan operations, I’m confident in stating that nobody at Fort Meade is “really” behind Macedonia’s grave crisis.

The Kremlin’s hand behind this Active Measure is revealed by the author of this hit-piece. Sergei Markov is not, as one might suspect, a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy monger, some sort of Russian Alex Jones webcasting from his basement. Instead, he is a very prominent Moscow academic and politician who just happens to be the guy Putin drags out to sound scholarly when propagating absurd Kremlin lies. He has denied that Moscow had anything to do with the assassination of FSB defector Sasha Litvinenko in London, while Tallinn has fingered him as a suspect in the massive 2007 cyber-attacks on Estonia; as a result, he has been banned from that country, and Ukraine has done the same over Markov’s vicious anti-Ukrainian statements. He has recently warned of deep Russophobia in Stockholm, threatening that Russia may start World War III if Moscow feels “backed into a corner” — by Sweden.

Moscow’s equally outlandish talking points in Macedonia have been made clear by Professor Markov. I explained a few weeks ago that Putin’s Kremlin has initiated a secret offensive in the Balkans, in both Bosnia and Macedonia, using Special War to open up another front as Europe slides towards greater crisis and perhaps wider war. Appealing to Slavic Orthodox “brothers” in Southeastern Europe, while sending spies and cash to stir up trouble, is a surefire way to exacerbate ethnic tensions in already damaged societies, but Moscow does not care about consequences. Russia seeks to cause problems for NATO and the EU in the Balkans, and it is doing so successfully. Shattering the fragile settlements of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession in the 1990’s, maintained with difficulty by the West, will be easy for the Russians. That the cost of this dirty and unnecessary war will be borne by innocent people in Southeastern Europe is no concern of Vladimir Putin’s.

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

For years I’ve warned the U.S. Intelligence Community to get serious about counterintelligence, the business of preventing penetrations of our side by hostile espionage services. Counterintelligence is actually a lot more than that — mastering its offensive side is the key to real espionage success — but Washington, DC, is still far off from mastering even the defensive part of this game. Ignoring CI, as we systematically do, has cost this country lives and treasure in abundance, and it will continue to right until the IC gets serious about counterintelligence.

However, what I’ve termed the counterintelligence imperative just doesn’t seem all that imperative to IC bigwigs, who continue to regard CI as a nuisance and an afterthought. This reluctance seems an immutable law of the vast, sprawling, and expensive Intelligence Community, having long ago been institutionalized. A dozen years ago, a former NSA director bemoaned American CI’s “dismal performance,” noting that counterintelligence is fragmented, under-resourced, and neglected, and none of that has improved since. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Counterintelligence continues to be regarded as something less than a full-time job by most IC leadership, who prefer not to think about it at all. Just how peripheral CI is to U.S. intelligence was made clear by an assessment done by the Congressional Research Service back in late April 2013. This detailed study, intended to be a primer on the Intelligence Community for Congress, was a walk-through of the entire IC, with analysis of which agencies do what as well as explanations of all the various -INTs. Yet, in this thirty-page study, the word “counterintelligence” never appears, not even once.

It’s perhaps fitting that this CRS study appeared just two months before Ed Snowden defected to Russia after stealing over 1.5 million classified documents, representing the greatest intelligence loss in the history of Western espionage. Such is the price of totally ignoring counterintelligence. One might have thought that the epic Snowden debacle would concentrate minds in the IC about the need to get finally serious about CI. Alas, one would be wrong.

6a00d83451f25369e200e54f258a118833-800wiThe IC has belatedly promised to clean up its totally dysfunctional security clearance process, while a crackdown on suspected insider threats is underway. Having seen this show before, I am pessimistic about this having much effect beyond terrifying thousands of perfectly loyal IC employees. Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, a few months ago announced the formation of a new, unified IC center to consolidate counterintelligence and security missions, which sounds promising but may just be another “reorg” designed to make things look better than they actually are, which is a venerable Beltway tradition.

Besides, how Clapper really feels about counterintelligence was made clear in his recent testimony before Congress about how the Intelligence Community views the world and what the spooks think really threatens America. Although the IC has been at pains lately to say counterintelligence is a high priority — after the Snowden disaster, how could they not? — Clapper never specifically addressed CI in his remarks, not even once. Perhaps worse, no Senators asked Clapper about the state of counterintelligence at all.

This gross neglect continues despite jaw-dropping headlines about Russians accessing the emails of the State Department and the White House, recent arrests and expulsions of Russian spies from America and other Western countries, as well as from NATO headquarters. Kremlin espionage against the West now equals the highest levels of the Cold War, and they are as aggressive as ever in their targeting of our politics, governments, and economies, yet U.S. intelligence continues to pretend that counterintelligence is unimportant.

Losing the SpyWar against the Russians will have grave consequences, not least because Putin’s forces are engaged in what I term Special War against us, and espionage constitutes the cornerstone of that campaign. Based on evidence available to date, it’s apparent that the Russians are winning the SpyWar and have attained what the Pentagon terms “information dominance” over NATO.

This was made clear by recent rather frank comments by General Phil Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Warning that more Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond may be imminent, Breedlove added that NATO faces “critical” intelligence gaps. As SACEUR told Congress:

Russian military operations in Ukraine and the region more broadly have underscored that there are critical gaps in our [intelligence] collection and analysis … Some Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise, and our textured feel for Russia’s involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited.

In other words, he’s worried that the Russians have the drop on NATO and we might not detect a sudden Kremlin attack on Ukraine — or worse, on a NATO country. It’s not everyday that SACEUR is this blunt in his public language, and Breedlove’s words should be taken as a warning of how bad things have gotten in Western intelligence. Since the lion’s share of U.S. (and often NATO) intelligence comes from signals intelligence, i.e. from NSA and its partners, it’s clear that Western SIGINT has taken a big hit recently. That hit was named Edward Snowden.

As I predicted almost two years ago, the Snowden Operation has been a huge win for the Kremlin, and right now its special services have an edge in the SpyWar thanks to Ed’s betrayal. His treachery is at least the equal, strategically speaking, of William Weisband’s at the onset of the Cold War, Weisband being the worst of our SIGINT traitors … until Snowden.

While the damage inflicted by Snowden on Western intelligence will eventually be repaired, that will be years off. In the meantime, the Russians are playing a strong hand, espionage-wise, leaving NATO guessing what Putin’s next move will be — and where. This is a bad place for the Atlantic Alliance to be, as any strategist or military historian will tell you. While NATO dwarfs the Russians in conventional strength, good intelligence can compensate for that weakness, particularly when combined with strategic denial and deception of the sort that the Kremlin excels in.

We are entering a dangerous period for Europe and the West, now that Putin has completed his Victory Day public extravaganza, and the risk of being strategically surprised by the Kremlin is very real. Just this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the Russians have bolstered forces in and around Eastern Ukraine and now possess “the capability to launch new attacks with very little warning time.” There is little that the West can do right now to make good the intelligence losses caused by Snowden, that will take time, but getting serious about preventing the next Snowden and blunting the impact of rising Russian espionage against NATO is absolutely imperative. There may be little time left to waste. We must get in the counterspy game with vigor and without delay, or be prepared to lose the SpyWar, and much more.

Kremlin Disinformation and Propaganda [VIDEO]

I recently was honored to participate at the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) conference in Washington, DC, where I took part in a discussion of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. My comments, on Chekist Active Measures and their relevance today, kicks off at 25:25, and the Q&A following the talks may be worth your time. Enjoy (and ignore that JBANC oddly called me a blogger, and that I got cut off in the middle of one of my all-time favorite KGB anecdotes)!

New Thinking on the Origins of World War I [VIDEO]

Given all the posts here lately on the Great War, I’m passing along a video clip of a talk I gave last year in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. My portion of the panel, which discusses Austria-Hungary’s disastrous missteps in the summer of 1914, begins at 43:45 (though the whole thing is worth your time if you’re a World War I buff), and a vigorous Q&A session follows the prepared remarks. Enjoy!


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