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Five Spy Movies You Must See

I regularly get asked which movies dealing with espionage I would recommend people to see. That’s a tougher question than it might appear, since most of the movies out there that purport to be about spying and intelligence, in any reality-based sense, are simply dreadful — either as movies, or as depictions of actual espionage, or often both.

Perusing this “50 best spy movies list,” which includes most of the movies considered “classics” by the public, it’s difficult to count more than a handful of them as remotely reality-based about the world of intelligence, not to mention that many of them are just awful movies, and more than a few are approximately as accurate, espionage-wise, as any of the Austin Powers films.

Which films would I recommend then? Here are five of my favorites which I think anybody who wants to understand espionage a tad more, and have fun doing it, should see.

5. Charlie Wilson’s War, the 2007 film adaptation of George Crile’s excellent book on how CIA covert action changed the course of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980′s, offers a pretty accurate depiction of how the political game gets played in Washington, DC, and how that impacts intelligence operations. Tom Hanks is great as Charlie Wilson, the larger-than-life Texas congressman who combined hard-core partying in the coke-fueled 80′s with hard-core anti-Communism; if anything, Hanks’s portrayal of Wilson is understated (“Good Time Charlie’s” decadent ways got the attention of a young Federal prosecutor on the make named Rudy Giuliani). Even better is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives the performance of a lifetime as the legendary CIA operations officer Gust Avratakos. The film, made after 9/11, ends on an appropriately somber note, knowing what followed the Soviet defeat.

4. Burn After Reading, like many of the films made by Joel and Ethan Coen, is hilariously cynical. Its 2008 depiction of the Intelligence Community — here J. K. Simmons is masterful as a nameless, world-weary CIA higher-up — is dark and funny, and closer to many truths than most American taxpayers would be comfortable knowing. John Malkovich puts in a stellar performance as a stuffy and self-important CIA analyst of the kind anybody who’s had contact with Langley’s Directorate of Intelligence will immediately recognize. As is customary in Coen brothers’ films, the sub-plots mount in madcap fashion; all of them center on spreading idiocy (here Brad Pitt, as well-coiffed gym rat, outdoes himself). Be sure to enjoy the depictions of interaction with Russian intelligence to boot.

3. Watching 1987′s No Way Out today, the film is something of a Reagan-era time-warp, with shoulder pads and big hair to match. But it’s held up well as a spy story. I won’t give spoilers, but it centers on a Pentagon molehunt for a KGB sleeper agent, what Moscow would call an Illegal. Kevin Costner puts in a solid performance as the U.S. Navy officer, new to the Beltway circus, tasked with finding the Soviet mole, Sean Young reminds that she could act before she went off the deep end, while Will Patton is superb as the creepiest sycophantic Pentagon staffer ever. The film’s depiction of defense and intelligence politics on the Potomac holds true, while its subject matter — Kremlin penetration of the Department of Defense — could not be more timely today.

2. Signals intelligence is seldom the star of any spy movie: it’s too complex and not altogether sexy. The 2001 British film Enigma is an exception, as it centers on Bletchley Park, where WWII British codebreakers made and kept the famous ULTRA secret. The movie captures Bletchley’s culture of brilliant oddballs well, including the prominent role of women in the ULTRA effort (here Kate Winslet puts in a solid performance). Dougray Scott plays a brilliant young codebreaker — his character is essentially Alan Turing made heterosexual — who gets caught in a counterespionage web, which makes for a well-executed subplot. But ULTRA is the real star of the film, and its selling point is that its gets right the complex technical details of how this vast, industrial scale intercept and codebreaking effort enabled Allied victory in Western Europe. (As an interesting footnote, the film was co-produced and funded by Mick Jagger, a SIGINT buff who loaned his personal Enigma machine to the filmmakers.)

1. Colonel Redl, a 1985 film by the acclaimed Hungarian director István Szabó, won a raft of awards, including an Academy Award nomination, for its vivid depiction of a sensational espionage case on the eve of the First World War. Alfred Redl was a top Austro-Hungarian intelligence official who was unmasked in May 1913 as a Russian spy; interest in the case — which had mysterious death and lots of kinky sex as well as spying — has never waned in Vienna, a century later. Regrettably, Szabó’s take on Redl is historically quite inaccurate, as it is based on John Osborne’s 1965 play A Patriot for Me, rather than the facts of the espionage case (if you want the real Redl story, which is even more sensational than Szabó’s take, read this). Yet this inaccuracy is compensated for by its beautiful depiction of the sordid underside of the late Habsburg Empire, as well as its examination of issues of betrayal, loyalty, and identity — personal, sexual, and political.

Honorable Mention: John Woo’s 2002 movie Windtalkers is genuinely awful, with painful-to-watch performances by both Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater, who play U.S. Marines in the WWII Pacific assigned to the top secret Navajo code-talking program, which was a highly effective tactical encryption system — so effective that the Pentagon kept its existence classified until 1968, in case it might be needed again. This bad movie depicts how the Navajo code-talkers worked, and why the program was so helpful, with a high degree of accuracy (apparently money not spent on script-writing was given to technical advisors, to good effect). If you can stomach the dumb dialog and silly sub-plots, it’s worth it to see the Navajo code-talkers in action, pretty much as they really were. Let me add that, despite the film’s ludicrous central claim, there was never any order to kill code-talkers to prevent their capture.

Dishonorable Mentions: The list of bad espionage movies is so long that it would require a book, not a mere blog post, but let me list a couple that you might be likely to encounter, and should definitely avoid. (I am assuming my readers are intelligent enough to understand that any film involving Jason Bourne is less believable than YouTube footage of Bigfoot.) U-571, released in 2000, is a terrible movie whose awfulness would be difficult to overstate — it’s the perfect movie for you if your ideal submariner is Jon Bon Jovi — and manages to be deeply offensive to boot. It takes a real-life event, the seizure of an Enigma machine off a sinking U-Boat in 1941, adds ludicrous sub-plots and dialogue, and makes the heroes Americans, when in fact they were British. It was so bad that British Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced the movie as an “affront” on the floor of Parliament. That’s hard to top, but 2001′s Pearl Harbor, which is perhaps the worst movie ever released by a major studio, in addition to its long list of historical inaccuracies, manages to misconstrue the intelligence failure behind the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941, adding absurd dialogue along the way. Given the historical importance of this debate, which never dies and is shrouded in myth-making and outright lies, a chance to set the record straight was regrettably tossed aside. If you like this sort of thing, it has Dan Ackroyd (really) playing the fattest intelligence officer in naval history.

100 Years Ago: The Birth of the SIGINT Century, Part I

Yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported, based on high-level leaks, that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has been intercepting the communications of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, moreover, this important intelligence source has been providing valuable information about that regime, but also about its enemies, namely the Islamic State, with whom Washington, DC, is presently at war, albeit not very effectively.

Although it is rare that the public gets a glimpse at how the IC actually works in this manner, none of this story surprises anybody acquainted with the real world of intelligence. Of course the Assad regime is talking a lot internally about its enemies, and some of that information may even be accurate. The U.S. is heavily dependent on signals intelligence (SIGINT) to understand what is happening in Syria because that war-torn country is something of a denied area for traditional espionage, as American case officers running around Syria would likely soon be captured and butchered.

Yet, in truth, the U.S. Government is always heavily dependent on SIGINT, which for decades has been the bulwark of American espionage, providing something like eighty percent of the actionable intelligence the IC delivers every day to decision-makers, military and civilian. Hence the damage wrought by the Snowden Operation is a source of serious concern far beyond Washington, DC, given how important intelligence-sharing is to many key U.S. allies. Although Snowden’s blow to the National Security Agency and its international partnerships is unprecedented, NSA continues to do its job, providing the lion’s share of American intelligence, day in and day out.

SIGINT has been the most important form of intelligence in the world for exactly a century. The interception of messages for intelligence purposes has existed pretty much as long as there have been written messages. For millennia these were carried by mail and dispatch riders, and much effort was put into intercepting and decrypting them, since important messages have been written in secret code for centuries. By the Enlightenment, any state that wished to survive had its own Black Chamber, staffed with code-breakers who specialized in reading the purloined secret messages of rival states; Austria’s was considered the best in the eighteenth century, while royal France was highly proficient here also.

The invention of the telegraph pushed things forward, and by the middle of the nineteenth century states had a cost-effective way of sending messages quickly, thanks to Morse code, and rivals naturally tried to access these messages surreptitiously. However, this could be a challenge, as the telegraph cable had to be physically tapped, preferably without the owner knowing it.

The real revolution in communications that birthed SIGINT as we know it today was the invention of what was termed wireless telegraphy — we would call it radio — at the turn of the twentieth century. The military implications of this new technology were obvious, as were its vulnerabilities: anybody could intercept messages out of the ether, not just the intended recipients. In the decade before the First World War, navies in particular developed doctrines on how to use radio, including codes and ciphers to protect messages. For navies, this was a huge step forward in communications, a revolution without precedent in naval history, as any country that had sufficient radio relay stations — here colonial powers had an advantage — could stay in touch with their ships anywhere they sailed, enabling a degree of operational coordination that Nelson could never have dreamed of.

Most European armies, however, were slower to embrace radio before 1914, mainly because they liked what they already had to communicate, telegraph and telephone transmitted via landline, which were more secure than radio, plus a proven technology. Radio was expensive by comparison and untried. Most armies believed that, in event of war, their advancing forces would be able to lay enough new wires to stay in touch with their commanders in the heat of battle. Like so many ideas held by military minds before the First World War, this turned out to be an illusion.

But first, the war at sea. All Europe’s major navies entered the First World War with radio systems and doctrines that employed codes and ciphers to protect their communications. Through what is termed traffic analysis (TA), anybody listening could learn some important things about ships sending encrypted messages, thanks to message externals, and radio is always vulnerable to direction-finding (DF, the practice of triangulating a signal from multiple intercept sites to determine the sender’s location). While all that matters, it was not what intelligence officers wanted — the decrypted text of the original message.

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_134-B2501,_Kleiner_Kreuzer_MagdeburgHere fortune played a role, as it always does in war. On 26 August, less than a month after the war began, the German cruiser Magdeburg was conducting a reconnaissance sweep close to Russia’s Baltic Sea coast — too close, as it turned out, since her skipper ran her aground off what is today Estonia (see left). After a brief fight, the Magdeburg surrendered. Among the captives taken by the Russians included several secret codebooks: these were supposed to be tossed over the side in weighted bags to send them safely into the deep, which was hardly an option when her skipper ran the cruiser on the rocks in a few feet of water.

Russian naval intelligence, still in its infancy with radio, wasn’t quite sure what to do with these codebooks. In a momentous decision, they decided to share one of the codebooks with their British allies. This document arrived in London on 13 October, amid much secrecy, being delivered to Winston Churchill, the civilian head of the Royal Navy, who promptly turned it over to the man who knew exactly what to do with it.

640px-Admiral_Reginald_Hall,_1919He was Captain (later Admiral) Reginald Hall, known as Blinker for his pronounced facial tic, an old sea
dog who turned out to have a gift for espionage (see left). Appointed head of the Royal Navy’s intelligence division in October 1914, Hall established a super-secret office, colloquially known as Room 40 from its original location in the Admiralty in London. Here, behind tightly closed doors, British naval personnel began cracking encrypted German messages. They were helped by Britain’s cutting of all Germany undersea telegraph cables in the war’s first week, which forced Berlin to use radio, which was easily intercepted.

Hall was a good talent-spotter, and he assembled in Room 40 a motley crew of sailors, mostly new to the service, among them classical scholars, mathematicians, polyglots, and assorted adventurers who were not well suited to life in the peacetime navy but were talented at the arcane art of cracking codes. Here the codebook from the Magdeburg proved an enormous gift. It did not give away all German naval ciphers, but it was a good “crib” to start, and when bolstered by more codebooks captured from other German ships lost at sea, Room 40 was able to gain access to a high percentage of Berlin’s encrypted naval communications — a breakthrough that remained a closely-held secret throughout the war. Most importantly, the Germans never realized their communications had been compromised.

For Britain, Room 40′s success gave several decisive advantages that proved to have strategic importance. In the first place, it meant that the German navy could not launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack on the Royal Navy, London’s greatest fear, since Hall’s codebreakers had advanced warning of any major German naval movements before they happened. Just as important, Room 40′s prodigious intelligence output allowed Britain to enforce the distant blockade against Germany that, in the end, was the single greatest factor in the defeat of the Central Powers. Armed with SIGINT about which neutral merchant vessels were carrying contraband, the Royal Navy wrought havoc on blockade-runners, slowly strangling Germany’s vast economy.

Hall’s single greatest triumph, however, came thanks to Room 40′s success against diplomatic ciphers. This was the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, the January 1917 secret German message that offered Mexico its “lost provinces” of the American Southwest if they agreed to enter the war on Germany’s side. The message was obtained through subterfuge, and via cunning methods it was shared with the Americans. Hall understood that the resulting outrage would allow President Woodrow Wilson to overcome American reticence, including his own, and enter the conflict on the side of the Allies, who desperately needed American help to stave off defeat. And so it did: on 6 April, the United States entered the Great War, ensuring ultimate Allied victory. From that point, the defeat of the Central Powers became an issue of when, not if.

Room 40′s SIGINT triumphs under Hall’s leadership — he would head British naval intelligence until 1919 — enabled every other kind of intelligence, including human intelligence (HUMINT) and particularly counterintelligence. Intercepted German messages by Room 40 led to breakup of the espionage-sabotage network led by Franz von Rintelen, a naval officer and spy who had conducted terrorist bombings in the neutral United States, including the notorious Black Tom bombing of July 1916, to disrupt the delivery of war materials to Britain.

Room 40 did not cease operations once the war was won. For London, its espionage acumen would prove as important in peacetime as in war. It was rolled, together with British Army codebreakers, into the euphemistically named Government Code & Cipher School (GC&CS), the organization that would deliver the great ULTRA secret of the Second World War. In 1946, GC&CS was rebranded as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), as it remains today, perhaps NSA’s closest intelligence partner and a bedrock of the Anglosphere SIGINT alliance that was cemented in Allied victory over Hitler.

GCHQ, like NSA, has been damaged by the Snowden Operation, which shows every sign of being a deliberate Russian intelligence scheme to harm its enemies. As the direct descendant of Room 40, GCHQ continues to provide British and Allied decision-makers with unsurpassed intelligence to prevent wars whenever possible, and to win them should that become necessary. Every day they help thwart spies, saboteurs, and terrorists. The dominance of SIGINT in global intelligence is nothing new, in fact it is now exactly one hundred years old. Given the increasing dependence of governments, groups and individuals everywhere on electronic communications of a diversity and complexity that Blinker Hall could never have imagined, the dominance of SIGINT in the world’s never-ending secret espionage game seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Does Canada Need James Bond?

The recent terrorist attack in Ottawa which killed one Canadian soldier, and might have killed many more people, including parliamentarians, but for the heroics of one brave man, has forced Canada to rethink its intelligence posture. Several new ideas are on the table which are intended to improve the collection and analysis of intelligence relating to terrorist threats to Canadians.

One of the biggest agenda items is increasing the size and budget of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the country’s main security agency. Just two days before the homegrown jihadist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot up the capital, CSIS informed the Canadian Senate that it simply lacked sufficient manpower and resources to properly track the eighty Islamic extremists in Canada whom CSIS assessed as serious terrorism risks. That seems likely to change now, and is in fact long overdue.

Among the changes to Canadian intelligence and security that are on the table include substantial revisions to CSIS and its mission set. The proposed Protection of Canadians From Terrorism Act includes provisions “to do physical surveillance, covert operations, and to intercept communications of foreign nationals, as well as Canadians, anywhere in the world.” Perhaps most importantly, the bill would convert CSIS into a bona fide foreign intelligence (FI) agency.

This would change Canada’s anomalous status as the only major Western democracy lacking any part of its government devoted to collecting human intelligence (HUMINT) abroad. Canada’s sole FI agency is Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which is NSA’s close partner and a core member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” signals intelligence (SIGINT) alliance that dates to the Second World War. Implications of this new bill could be considerable from a privacy viewpoint since, no matter what Glenn Greenwald tells you, CSEC is expressly forbidden to spy on Canadians without court authorization, and this legislation may change that through a CSIS loophole.

Instead of that important discussion, I want to focus on the tabled proposal to transform CSIS into a real player in the global HUMINT game. Both Britain and Australia, whose intelligence models are very similar to Canada’s, have an FI HUMINT agency — SIS (popularly MI6) and ASIS, respectively — as well as domestic intelligence agencies, respectively the Security Service (popularly MI5) and ASIO, the latter being direct equivalents of CSIS.[1]

Ottawa likes to claim that CSIS does FI, after a fashion, and in a very strict sense that’s true, as it does collect things that look like FI HUMINT, but it collects them inside Canada. Just as the FBI does in the United States, CSIS targets foreigners of possible intelligence interest who are in the country, some of whom do provide FI information of value. Additionally, CSIS has officers abroad, known as Security Liaison Officers (SLOs), attached to Canadian embassies abroad, but they’re not James Bonds running around; rather, as their title implies, their job is sharing intelligence with partner services. While CSIS sends officers on short-term trips abroad to conduct something like FI outside Canada, these operations are rare, closely supervised, and do not amount to a major capability.

After 9/11, Ottawa pondered creating a real overseas spy agency, like those in Britain and Australia, but ultimately demurred on grounds of cost, plus CSIS, seeking to preserve its empire, argued it could conduct enough FI to meet Canada’s needs. In the aftermath of the Ottawa attack, the issue has again arisen, and this time Canada may at last enter the elite HUMINT club alongside CIA and SIS.

However, several things should be kept in mind before Ottawa embarks on this course. Why CSIS itself was created in 1984 may illuminate some of the challenges ahead. The storied Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had long served as Canada’s domestic intelligence agency, but in the 1970s its elite Security Service, which handled matters of counterterrorism and counterintelligence, got itself into hot water over how it targeted Quebec separatists. Mirroring some of the tactics employed by Hoover’s FBI against American domestic troublemakers, the RCMP harassed separatists and, despite the vaguely comic-opera nature of some of these shenanigans (burning down a barn, for instance), civil libertarians were sufficiently distressed that the RCMP’s Security Service was disbanded and the cops got taken out of Canada’s spy game.

In its place was created CSIS, which is explicitly not a law enforcement agency, consisting solely of unarmed civilians who, Ottawa hoped, would eschew the rougher “cop mentality” that had been commonplace in the RCMP’s Security Service. In this, the Canadian government succeeded, and CSIS soon gained a reputation as an efficient and orderly service, albeit one a bit too small for the job it was given, not to mention quite tightly constrained by laws and oversight, another legacy of the RCMP’s mistakes.

Things got off to a  bumpy start, and its less than glorious performance in the 1985 Air India bombing, a terrorist attack by Sikh extremists based in Canada that killed 329 people, 268 of them Canadian citizens, was a major black mark on CSIS, albeit one largely attributable to the growing pains of a spy service in its first year of life, when lines between CSIS and the RCMP remained fuzzy. In theory, RCMP is brought into cases when it appears someone being watched by CSIS for, say, espionage or terrorism, appears to have broken Canadian law (this relationship is much like that between the Security Service and Special Branch in Britain), and in general the day-to-day ties between the agencies are good.

Despite occasional errors — my favorite being the CSIS analyst in 1999 who left top secret materials in her car in Toronto while she was watching a hockey game, only to have them stolen by drug addicts — CSIS is a serious and professional security service. But becoming a proper HUMINT agency devoted to espionage abroad is another matter altogether. If Canada wishes to go down this bureaucratic road it must keep in mind that quality matters more than quantity most of the time in espionage, and establishing a first-rate service will take more time and money than you think.

Additionally, CSIS, being a domestic security agency, lacks the right skill set, especially the odd foreign languages and global savoir-faire, that any competent HUMINT agency needs to function properly in a dangerous world. Moreover, there will be mistakes and the Canadian public will learn things they may be disturbed to hear when foreign operations go wrong, as actuarially some will. The consequences will be more serious when you leave classified materials in your car in Karachi rather than Toronto.

Above all, it seems dubious to create a niche FI HUMINT capability inside an existing domestic intelligence agency, even a good one, since those skills are really quite different, as are the personality types, generally speaking. Just as the RCMP Security Service was a bad fit bureaucratically, as a bunch of semi-spooks among cops, leading to the embarrassing mistakes of the 1970s, a bunch of wannabe James Bonds nested inside CSIS seems destined to cause trouble in the long run.

If Canada is serious about generating a real FI HUMINT capability, it would be well served to establish a new agency, separate from CSIS. It will need help in doing this, since it will be starting from something like scratch, but small can be beautiful. Above all, do not seek mentoring and help from the CIA since, for all its espionage acumen, it is a gargantuan worldwide bureaucracy that bears no resemblance to what Canada will be doing. The British can help, as can the Australians, as both SIS and ASIS are quality services that know how to provide good HUMINT on a budget that the Americans would consider shoestring, mere beer money to Langley. If you want to get it right, place a call to Tel Aviv too, since nobody does small-is-beautiful in espionage like the Israelis. My two cents. Good luck to Canada’s spooks, it’s a tough job and a dangerous world out there.

[1] Those who like to quibble may note that New Zealand’s intelligence community exactly mirrors Canada’s, lacking an explicit FI HUMINT agency, but given that country’s tiny size I’m not counting it among “major western democracies” here.

Poland Prepares for Russian Invasion

As Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to threaten Ukraine, having stolen Crimea in the spring and exerted de facto Kremlin control over much of the Donbas this summer, war worries are mounting on NATO’s eastern frontier. New reports of Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border this week are not reassuring to those Atlantic Alliance members who suffered Soviet occupation for decades, and still live in Moscow’s neighborhood.

Neither are Russian air force incursions into Western airspace calming nerves with their reborn Cold War antics: yesterday, NATO fighters intercepted no less than nineteen Russian combat aircraft, including several heavy bombers. No NATO countries are more worried about Kremlin aggression than the Baltic states, with their small militaries and lack of strategic depth, which are frankly indefensible in any conventional sense without significant and timely Alliance assistance.

But Poland is the real issue when it comes to defending NATO’s exposed Eastern frontier from Russian aggression. Only Poland, which occupies the Alliance’s central front, has the military power to seriously blunt any Russian moves westward. As in 1920, when the Red Army failed to push past Warsaw, Poland is the wall that will defend Central Europe from any westward movement by Moscow’s military. To their credit, and thanks to a long history of understanding the Russian mentality better than most NATO and EU members, Warsaw last fall, when the violent theft of Crimea was still just a Kremlin dream, announced a revised national security strategy emphasizing territorial defense. Eschewing American-led overseas expeditions like those to Iraq and Afghanistan that occupied Poland’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) during the post-9/11 era, this new doctrine makes defending Poland from Eastern aggression the main job of its military. Presciently, then-Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, contradicting optimistic European and NATO presumptions of our era that conventional war in Europe was unthinkable, stated in May 2013, “I’m afraid conflict in Europe is imaginable.”

Particularly in light of the fact that both NATO and the Obama administration rejected my advice to seriously bolster Alliance defenses in the East with four heavy brigades, including the two brigades that Warsaw explicitly asked NATO — meaning, in practice, the United States — for after this year’s Russo-Ukrainian War began in earnest, the issue of Poland’s military readiness is of considerable importance to countries far beyond Poland. Instead of creating a militarily viable NATO tripwire that would deter Russian aggression, the Alliance, and Washington, DC, have opted for symbolic gestures — speeches, military visits, small exercises — that impress the Western media but not the Russians.

Simply put: Can Poland defend itself if Putin decides to move his aggression westward? Even if NATO rides to the rescue, as they would be required to under Article 5 — that is now an “if” question to many in Warsaw — will the Polish military be able to buy sufficient time for the Alliance to come to their aid? Notwithstanding that Poland (and Estonia) are the only “new NATO” members that take their Alliance obligations fully seriously, spending more than the required two percent of GDP on defense — a standard almost all longstanding NATO members can’t manage to meet — there are serious doubts about the ability of Poland’s armed forces to defend against a major Russian move to the West.

There is good news. When it comes to resisting what I term Special War — that shadowy amalgam of espionage, terrorism, and subversion at which the Kremlin excels — Warsaw, with its long acquaintance with sneaky Russian games, is probably better equipped than any almost NATO country to deter and defeat Putin’s secret offensive. The recent arrests of two Polish agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU), one of them a Polish military officer assigned to the MoD, sent a clear message to Moscow that Special War will be countered with aggressive counterintelligence.

When it comes to conventional defense, however, the news from Poland appears less rosy. Despite the fact that no one questions the basic competence of the Polish armed forces, nor the impressiveness of their current defense acquisition program, there is a matter of size. The recent MoD announcement that it is moving thousands of troops closer to the country’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, where any threat would emerge, is encouraging but not sufficient (thanks to the Cold War, when Poland’s Communist military was directed westward, most of its major military bases are closer to Germany than the East). Since the abandonment of conscription five years ago, a cumbersome process that caused readiness problems for some time, Warsaw’s armed forces come to only 120,000 active duty troops, with less than 48,000 in the ground forces (i.e. the army). That number is insufficient to man the army’s structure of three divisions with thirteen maneuver brigades (ten of them armored or mechanized).

A solution to this manpower shortfall was supposed to be found in the establishment of the National Reserve Forces (NSR), with 20,000 fully trained part-time volunteers who would flesh out the order of battle in a crisis. Yet the NSR, which was announced by the MoD five years ago with much fanfare, has had considerable teething problems, with shortages of recruits and inadequate training budgets. Recent reports indicate both morale and readiness are low among NSR soldiers, who feel poorly treated by the regular military, while none dispute that the force has only recruited and trained 10,000 troops, half the target figure.

Quality can compensate for deficient quantity to an extent, and Poland’s recent acquisition of more late-model Leopard II tanks from Germany, adding to the 124 it already has, means they will be able to replace most of their Soviet-model legacy armor, and meet any Russian incursion on an equal footing in terms of quality, if not quantity. By approximately 2020, the air force will have wholly replaced its Soviet-era helicopters, buying 150 modern airframes, while the MoD plans to purchase thirty-two late-model attack helicopters by 2022, which would pose a significant threat to Russian armor.

More interesting still are plans taking shape to give Warsaw asymmetric deep-strike capabilities to resist Russian aggression. The navy and the army intend to acquire long-range missiles to counter superior Russian numbers, but the cornerstone of the deterrence concept called “Polish Fangs” by Warsaw is the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), to be carried by the air force’s F-16 fleet (the wing of forty-eight F-16′s is the backbone of Polish airpower). Combined with drones and Poland’s excellent special operations forces, which are among the best in NATO, Warsaw believes that the American-made JASSM on the American-made F-16 will give them an important qualitative advantage over the Russians, including the ability to precisely hit targets up to 370 kilometers behind enemy lines.

Yet even the most optimistic forecasts predict that “Polish Fangs” will not be fully operational for three more years — five seems a more realistic estimate — so there is the pressing matter of deterring Putin’s rising aggression right now. To provide additional deterrence, Warsaw is taking the remarkable step of creating home guard forces to harass the Russians in the event of occupation, a condition that Poles are only too familiar with. Unlike Ukraine, Poland plans to be prepared should Putin opt for war.

Ever since Moscow’s aggression against Kyiv became overt in the spring, the Polish MoD began quietly standing up volunteer forces to bolster the armed forces, should the Russians come again. Word of this became public this week with a story in the Polish edition of Newsweek that details what’s been going on behind the scenes. Building on shooting clubs that exist all over the country, possessing several hundred thousand members, the MoD has been supporting the establishment of paramilitary units that would bolster the army if needed. Their intent would be to counter Russian irregulars, GRU’s “little green men” that caused such havoc in Crimea a few months ago.

How many volunteers have already been enrolled is unclear, though it’s evident that the number far exceeds the 10,000 belonging to the NSR. In late September, and explicitly invoking the legendary Home Army (Armia Krajowa — AK) that resisted Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the first volunteer unit was sworn in at Świdnik, near the eastern border, with modest public fanfare, despite the fact that the MoD considers the existence of this new shadow army to be officially classified.

Advocates of the reborn Home Army speak of finding 100,000 volunteers soon, but that seems a rather long-term goal. While this project has attracted the support of some Polish right-wingers — the sort who tend to join rifle clubs — its MoD manager is Major General Bogusław Pacek, the director of the National Defense Academy, a veteran of Poland’s Cold War Communist military not known for dirigiste views. Pacek’s quiet enthusiasm for a new Home Army has been noted and it can be expected that before long “AK 2.0″ may constitute more than a nuisance to any invader.

This begs that question why Poland, a leading member of the Atlantic Alliance, thinks it needs to worry about an actual Russian invasion. In the first place, the Poles have been invaded and occupied by Moscow too many times over the centuries, including twice during the last one, to think this is just a fantasy. Putin’s harsh and threatening language gets more attention in Warsaw than just about anywhere else.

The Poles also understand that Article 5 only works as a deterrent if everyone understands that NATO will actually go to war to defend a member under threat. Here, again, recent history gives room for doubt. All of Europe was happy to sit back and watch Poland fight off the Red Army in 1920, alone, while Kremlin sympathizers in Western Europe blocked desperately needed arms shipments headed to Warsaw. More germanely, the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 brought none of the Allied help that Poland was obligated to receive under treaty. Although both Britain and France were supposed to come to Poland’s direct military aid, they were content to declare war on Germany and essentially do nothing, letting Hitler and Stalin dismember Poland completely. Warsaw’s war plans assumed they needed to buy time — perhaps six weeks — until the British and French arrived. That promised rescue force never came, and every Pole today knows it.

Hence NATO assurances are met with a certain skepticism in Warsaw, including — perhaps especially — in defense circles. Then there is the touchy issue of President Obama. The Polish Right was never enamored of him, noting with disgust how Obama in 2009 cancelled a US/NATO missile defense system in the country, termed “betrayal” by Poland’s president, while making the announcement on September 17, the seventieth anniversary of Stalin’s invasion, added insult to injury. More than a few Polish right-wingers have doubted the staying power of Obama, particularly given his youthful dislike of President Reagan, a revered figure to many Poles for his major role in ending the Cold War and regaining Poland’s freedom.

Obama’s talky dithering on foreign and defense issues and his rough dealings with America’s friends have led to Polish worries spreading well beyond the country’s right wing. I deal regularly with Polish defense and intelligence officials, and over the last few years their doubts about Washington, DC’s courage and wisdom have mounted steadily. Poles understand that without American leadership there is no NATO in any military sense. Since the onset of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, those fears have multiplied and there are now many in Warsaw who wonder if Obama would really honor Article 5 in a crisis.

Yesterday I spoke with a top Polish MoD official, a man of sober and strongly pro-American views whom I’ve known for years. Referring to this week’s needless White House crisis with Israel, another American ally who has doubts about the current administration, he noted, “I didn’t need the Beltway media to tell me who the real chickenshit is.” “They really have no idea what they are doing,” he opined about Obama and his national security staff, “and we know it. You have no idea how many promises we’ve been given, even by the President himself, but there’s never any follow-up, it’s all talk. He thinks he’s on Oprah.” When I asked if he thought America would come to Poland’s aid in a crisis, he said laconically, “I’d flip a coin.”

In a similar vein, a senior Polish intelligence official, another veteran of long collaboration with Washington, DC, expressed his skepticism to me. “Is it 1939 again? I don’t know,” he explained, “but I think Obama isn’t even a Chamberlain,” citing the British prime minister who left Poland in the lurch at the beginning of World War Two. Given such doubts, combined with Putin’s obvious desire to break the Atlantic Alliance, Poland will prepare to resist the Russians alone, while hoping and praying it does not have to.

Why ChickenshitGate Matters

The talk of Washington, DC for the last twenty-four hours has been the sensational piece by The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, which pronounces, “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here.” The title may have been true when Goldberg’s piece appeared; it’s definitely true now, as its impact has been felt far and wide.

Goldberg, a supporter of Israel who has asked important questions about that country’s policies, got several White House officials to share their disgust and contempt for the Israelis, especially Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who clearly is the bête noire of the West Wing. Among the insults shared with Goldberg include the view that Bibi is many bad things, as the piece notes:

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.”

That’s right, a “senior administration official” said that. Which, if you understand DC journalist-speak, leaves a short list of suspects. In diplomatic terms, this is the equivalent of giving a wedgie to a close ally, and is conduct beneath banana republics, much less a great power. But this is exactly the sort of petulant, faux-macho acting out I’ve come to expect from Obama’s profoundly dysfunctional National Security Council.

The irony here is that I’m anything but an uncritical supporter of Israel, and I’ve been sharply critical of Netanyahu, whose policies seem to be leading Israel down a dangerous road in the long run. On settlements, Bibi is playing with fire. Moreover, Netanyahu indeed has acted out against the Obama administration. But, instead of dealing with that in a constructive fashion — tough diplomacy, back-channel wrangling — we get “chickenshit.”

There’s no small irony there since Bibi, whatever his many shortcomings — I would include short-term thinking, cynicism, and sometimes outright mendacity — is anything but a chickenshit, having served as a decorated officer with Sayeret Mat’kal, Israel’s top special operations unit, equivalent to Delta Force or Seal Team Six. Bizarrely, White House officials signaled to Goldberg that they think Bibi is basically a wimp, all talk and no action, who’s afraid to actually bomb Iran. Why on earth the White House wants that message out there, in the middle of negotiations with Tehran, I simply cannot fathom.

Predictably, this juvenile West Wing outburst has had exactly the opposite effect the administration wanted, as it has bolstered Bibi at home as someone who stands up to Obama, who is frankly hated by a majority of Israelis. As explained by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister and a rising star on the Right, this outburst is “an insult not just to [Netanyahu] but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe.” Now Bibi can wait out the Obama administration on settlements and look like a national hero, rather than an obstructionist, by doing so.

The worst aspect of ChickenshitGate is how it confirms the belief, held by many on the Right, that Obama likes to kiss our enemies while kicking our friends. It is surely notable that we have not heard similar derogatory language said to reporters about our actual enemies. Moreover, dropping this needless error shortly before midterm elections that Democrats are already facing with trepidation is nothing short of inexplicable. But I find an increasing number of decisions made by the Obama White House fall short of basic political sense and logic. Obama’s is far from the first U.S. administration to find dealings with the Israelis exasperating, but it is the first to tell the media that Israel’s leader is a “chickenshit.” This is one for the history books.

Precedents for this sort of public badmouthing of close allies are hard to find. A certain parallel can be found in the bad feelings between President Richard Nixon and Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, between whom there was little love lost. The differed on ideology plus lots of hot-button issues like U.S. draft-dodgers in Canada and knotty trade problems. In 1971, in exasperation, Nixon referred to the leader of our closest ally as “an asshole,” “pompous egghead” and “a son of a bitch.” Please note these were private utterances, not within earshot of any media. But Trudeau was a political pro, and sometimes a class act, and when he learned of this, he explained, “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” and the leaders patched up their differences.

The Obama administration at a high level lacks the restraint to keep their anger at allies to themselves, neither do I expect Netanyahu to show the magnanimous spirit that Trudeau did. Given the extent of the crisis unfolding across the Middle East, between Syria, Iraq, and turmoil of many kinds, to say nothing of the open intelligence alliance just inked between Moscow and Tehran, it would be good for America and Israel to patch up their differences as soon as possible. ChickenshitGate will make that more difficult, needlessly. For a White House that claims its foreign policy doctrine amounts to “don’t do stupid shit,” this is worse than a disappointment.

The Mysterious Case of David Drugeon

Three weeks ago, McClatchy made worldwide headlines with a remarkable scoop: recent U.S. missile strikes on Al-Qa’ida forces in Syria, the so-called Khorasan Group, explicitly targeted a French national who was a defector from his country’s intelligence services. Citing unnamed European intelligence officials, the article provided considerable detail, though it did not name this mystery man (“Two people, independently of one another, provided the same name, which McClatchy is withholding pending further confirmation.”) Although sources could not agree whether this Frenchman gone rogue had belonged to the French military’s special forces or the country’s foreign intelligence service (DGSE), or perhaps both, the piece left no doubt that this was a very serious problem as the defector, said to be skilled with explosives, represents a grave threat to his former employers. Needless to add, from any counterintelligence viewpoint, such a defector into the jihadist camp — the first from the West by a bona fide intelligence officer — would be very bad news indeed. Worse, the U.S. missile strikes did not manage to kill this most wanted renegade.

While U.S. intelligence officials did not comment to McClatchy on the piece, the reaction in Paris to its publication was swift and solid. Following custom, DGSE had no public utterance on the allegations, but the French Ministry of Defense (MoD) minced no words, declaring that the story was patently false. While Paris admitted they were worried about a mysterious Frenchman, whom they did not name, who is serving Al-Qa’ida, officials stated repeatedly that the wanted man has no connection to French intelligence. One official simply derided the McClatchy report as “stupid.” Whispers followed that the piece may have been a hit job engineered by U.S. officials who are displeased with Paris of late (“Some American leaders do not welcome Paris’ criticisms of the inconsistency or errors of Washington’s policy in Iraq and Syria,” opined one French official). 

My old counterintelligence spidey sense smelled something amiss with this sensational story, so I made the usual inquiries. Old friends in European intelligence circles, including French, were adamant that McClatchy’s scoop was simply wrong, and had to be, since if a French spook had gone over to the mujahidin, European counterintelligence circles — it’s a small world actually — would have talked about little else, and none of my friends had heard any whisper of a high-placed defection. They were as surprised by the McClatchy piece as everyone else was; it was the talk of every water cooler in every European spy agency for a week or more.

Within days the true story began to emerge, and thanks to a comprehensive analysis of this sensational case by L’Express magazine, we now know the truth of the matter. The target of U.S. cruise missiles in late September was a twenty-four year-old French national named David Drugeon, who indeed did cheat death as American missiles rained down on him. His is the unlikely story of a Catholic boy from Brittany who grew up to become an important member of Al-Qa’ida, achieving the youthful success in the jihadist underworld that eluded him in normal life.

islam-radical-le-chemin-des-armes-du-vannetais-david-drugeon_1863737Born in 1989 in the Breton town of Vannes, into a working class family, Drugeon’s upbringing was
normal. While his mother was a devout Catholic, his neighborhood was ethnically and religiously diverse, with many North Africans. Close to his brother and an avid soccer fan, David seemed like a typical young French boy until 2002, when his world fell apart when his parents divorced. He was thirteen. In a pattern that’s sadly typical, David filled the void in his shattered life with extremist religion.

This was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and Salafi radicals were in David’s neighborhood, stirring up trouble. He quickly accepted a hardline version of Islam, as did his brother, and began calling himself Daoud. One local Salafi played a father-figure role for the lonely boys, who stayed with their mother after their parents divorced.

Daoud soon had scant interest in anything not relating to extremist Islam. Soccer was in the past, as were his studies. While he had wanted to become an architect, that dream fell to Salafism, as Daoud’s hours and days became devoted to politico-religious indoctrination. As his father explained, “We gave him a choice: either study or religion. He opted for religion.” Back in the neighborhood, Daoud got on the radar of the local police for his extremist activities, while his brother, though a pious Muslim convert, eschewed violent radicalism. By his late teens, the police knew of Daoud’s tendencies, but as he was just a teenager they considered him to be of no real importance, threat-wise, evaluating his small, rag-tag group of local Salafis as “a joke,” conceded a security official.

Daoud came to the attention of the DGSE due to three trips he made to Egypt in 2008-2010. He worked odd jobs in Vannes to finance his visits to Cairo and Alexandria, which he undertook for periods from three to six months, studying at Islamic schools in Egypt, perfecting his Arabic to boot. Yet he remained in touch with his family throughout this period, and outwardly seemed little different: “As far as I could see, he had not changed. He was still the same young man, smiling, sporty, nature-loving and fond of forest walks,” recalled his father.

At no point was Daoud engaged with the French military or its intelligence agencies, Paris has stated more than once. McClatchy made a mistake here, according to the French MoD. Daoud attended a sports training course in the Breton town of Coëtquidan, which happens to be the home of St-Cyr, France’s West Point. This apparently was misread by American reporters. An MoD source, however, was adamant about Drugeon: “He never tried to join the Army. He was never approached by our services. He trained with a civilian organization, and that is all.”

By the spring of 2010, the emerging jihadist abandoned his old life altogether, as L’Express explains:

In 2009 he worked continuously for six months, earning enough money for a visit that he told his father would be similar to his previous ones. On 17 April 2010, his father saw him for the last time.  David/Daoud set off secretly on the road to jihad. He traveled by carpool from Vannes to Brussels, where he boarded a plane. He stopped over in Rome before landing in Cairo. According to our information, he did not travel alone, but was accompanied by a close associate of the imam of the [Vannes] “mosque.”

david-1_5134001Where exactly he went after Cairo is uncertain, but within months Daoud (see picture) was in Pakistan, specifically in the border tribal region of North Waziristan, in the Al-Qa’ida-infested area of Miranshah. He spent the next three years there, going on active campaign with the Taliban for months at a time, gaining a reputation as a skilled bomb-maker and assuming the nom de guerre Souleiman. He was part of a French-speaking jihadist cadre, many of them from the Maghreb, becoming close to their leader, Moez Garsallaoui, a noted Al-Qa’ida fighter and fellow French speaker. In late September 2011, they were joined by a fanatic young Frenchman, Mohamed Merah, who after undergoing weapons training with this group, went back to Toulouse and engaged in a terrible killing spree.

It may not be a coincidence that Merah made his way to the back hills of Miranshah, a place few Europeans can find. Drugeon is possibly the connection between Merah and Al-Qa’ida, as it is difficult to see how the petty criminal from Toulouse could find his way to Pakistan’s wild tribal areas without a friendly sponsor; the two may have met when they were both in Egypt in 2010.

Moez Garsallaoui was killed by an American drone strike in October 2012, while Drugeon survived the attack. Not long after, he abandoned Pakistan and made his way to Syria, like much of Al-Qa’ida’s best cadres, to continue the jihad against the Assad regime. By now he was a leader of the mujahidin himself, despite only being in his early twenties. Legends of his exploits in Syria are widespread but, like nearly all such jihadist tales, impossible to confirm.

His family last heard from Drugeon in June 2010, when letters to both his parents arrived from an unknown location. He had already pressured his mother into converting to Islam, and in his final communication, he exhorted his father to do likewise, promising that the family would “meet in heaven.” Since then, his father has waited for a knock at the door by policemen to tell him of his lost son’s violent end.

Drugeon avoided that American-led end, again, in Syria a few weeks ago. The odds of war suggest that he cannot escape the long arm of U.S. drones and cruise missiles — or perhaps the savage infighting among jihadist groups in Syria — indefinitely. Until then, he will continue to rise in Al-Qa’ida ranks and burnish his legend of the convert from Brittany who led the fight against the “infidel” in several countries.

We can put to rest McClatchy’s claim that Drugeon is any sort of French super-spy gone rogue. It cannot be ruled out that, to cover up something that might look bad, Paris is leaving out parts of the Drugeon tale, perhaps even important parts. Frequently jihadists are approached by security services to cooperate, sometimes with more than a whiff of coercion, and the story that is presented to the public later is too simple (Merah’s case certainly was more complicated than initially believed). It is possible that Drugeon cooperated with French intelligence at some point, Parisian denials notwithstanding, but McClatchy’s account of a top operative, some sort of French James Bond, defecting to Al-Qa’ida is simply untrue. It belongs in the movies, not the newspapers.

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.



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