The OPM Hacking Scandal Just Got Worse

The other day I explained in detail how the mega-hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s internal servers looks like a genuine disaster for the U.S. Government, a setback that will have long-lasting and painful counterintelligence consequences. In particular I explained what the four million Americans whose records have been purloined may be in for:

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86, here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

The bad news keeps piling up with this story, including reports that OPM records may have appeared, for sale, on the “darknet.” Moreover, OPM seems to have initially low-balled just how serious the breach actually was. Even more disturbing, if predictable, is a new report in the New York Times that case “investigators believe that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.”

We can safely replace “may” in that quote with “almost certainly did” since for Chinese intelligence that would be some of the most valuable information in any of those millions of OPM files. Armed with lists of Chinese citizens worldwide who are in “close and continuing contact” (to cite security clearance lingo) with American officials, Beijing can now seek to exploit those ties for espionage purposes.

This matters because, while many intelligence services exploit ties of ethnicity to further their espionage against the United States — Russians, Cubans, Israelis, even the Greeks — none of the major counterintelligence threats to America are as dependent on blood ties as the Chinese. Simply put, in its efforts at recruiting spies abroad, Beijing is often uncomfortable operating outside its ethnic milieu. Spies run by Beijing who are not ethnic Chinese are very much the exception. This poses less of a problem for them that it might seem, however, as there are something like fifty million “overseas Chinese” worldwide, including about four million living in the United States.

Nearly every espionage case in the United States involving Beijing comes down to the ethnic angle, somewhere. To cite only a few examples, among many, Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a CIA translator/analyst, passed highly classified information to Beijing for over thirty years. Katrina Leung managed to severely damage FBI intelligence against China for years, in a complex and messy operation that confounded the Bureau. Then there’s the messy case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, whom U.S. counterintelligence believed passed significant amounts of classified nuclear information to Beijing. Most recently was there was the case of Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, a Federal worker who was caught having unreported meetings with a Chinese regime official.

It should be noted that all the persons mentioned in the previous paragraph were born in China (Lee was born in Taiwan) then immigrated to the United States. They seem to have been persuaded to betray their adopted country on behalf of their native land. Ms. Chen, against whom serious charges were recently dropped, has alleged ethnic bias in the FBI’s pursuit of her, as did Wen Ho Lee. Members of Congress and ethnic activists have joined that chorus too. Interestingly, Beijing has sung the same tune, with regime outlets alleging that anti-Chinese prejudice is at the root of U.S. counterintelligence efforts. However, whatever blame here lies in Beijing, not Washington, DC, since it is China that is exploiting its nationals abroad to further their espionage.

Beijing also uses its citizens abroad to facilitate espionage. An interesting recent case in Hawaii, which is something of a hotbed of Chinese spying, given the large number of U.S. military commands housed on Oahu, involved a retired U.S. Army officer and defense contractor working at U.S. Pacific Command who apparently got honey-trapped by a fetching young Chinese student (this is being a common Chinese tactic). Benjamin Bishop has been sentenced to more than seven years in jail for stealing classified information from work and passing it to a Chinese woman less than half his age, who was in the United States on a student visa.

The modus operandi of Chinese intelligence and its operations abroad are understood by the FBI and the Intelligence Community. However, the extent of the information loss in the OPM hack is so vast that all the counterintelligence awareness in the world may not be able to offset the advantage in the SpyWar that Beijing has won with this vast data theft. If you are (or have been) employed with the Federal government and have listed Chinese persons in any way on your SF86, it’s time to be vigilant.

Hacking as Offensive Counterintelligence

Washington, DC, is reeling from revelations that the Office of Personnel Management, the Federal government’s HR hub, has been extensively hacked. OPM is an obscure but important agency since it holds the personnel records of Federal workers, past and present, and even more, it conducts background investigations for security clearance holders across many Federal agencies.

Based on available information so far, the records of some four million Federal workers, going back to 1985, have been compromised, of whom 2.1 million are currently serving. In what has become the custom inside the Beltway, OPM had repeated warnings about its slipshod computer security practices but not much was done despite the enormously rising threat of foreign hackers. The extent of this needless debacle is truly disastrous, as I explained in a series of tweets the other day.

1/ Let me explain a bit about why the compromise of OPM information is so serious from a security & counterintelligence (CI) viewpoint ….

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

2/ We can take it as a given that career/HR type info has been compromised on 4M FedGov employees (2.1M current) whose data got hacked…

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

3/ That’s important — but far more is background investigation (BI) info which OPM first denied was compromised, now admits it has been…

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

4/ A USG BI, which OPM handles a lot of for many different agencies, is NOT some sort of glorified credit check, it’s much more than that…

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

5/ BI contains very personal & private information, supplied by security clearance applicants then verified (one hopes) by adjudicators …

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

6/ BI data includes your personal life, travels, full bio, details on finances and any “troubles” — legal, private, sexual, you name it…

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

7/ BI also goes into great detail about “foreign national contacts” of clearance holders and applicants — a goldmine for foreign intel ….

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

8/ Whoever has this info now can say about FedGover X that they know more about them than that person’s best friends, even spouse/partner…

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

9/ This is EXACTLY the sort of information any FI service would love to have in order to influence, recruit, or compromise USG personnel …

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

10/ From any CI viewpoint, OPM hack is a certified disaster that it will be difficult to repair in less than decades. A truly epic #FAIL

— John Schindler (@20committee) June 6, 2015

Speaking as a former counterintelligence officer, it really doesn’t get much worse than this. For our Intelligence Community to get hit by this and the Snowden debacle within two years speaks to systemic failure, not “oversights” and “mistakes” any longer. We’re not serious about stemming foreign espionage, as I recently explained, and now that neglect has caused serious pain that will last decades. Some of the damage may not be repairable, ever.

The IC is pointing the finger at China, tentatively, apparently at hacking entities that have a “close relationship” with Chinese intelligence. The case for official Chinese culpability is growing. It seems that Beijing is using aggressive hacking to establish a database of information about millions of Federal workers and security clearance holders.

Why China would do that isn’t difficult to guess. While defensive counterintelligence, the preventing and uncovering of enemy spies, is the “JV” level of counterespionage, as President Obama might put it (notwithstanding that the IC can’t manage even this), the real pros engage in offensive counterintelligence, which aims at recruiting spies inside the enemy camp, particularly inside the opposing intelligence service. That’s how you gain control of the enemy’s central nervous system: You know what he knows about you, hence you can deceive him at a strategic level. This is the essence of SpyWar, as I’ve explained, the secret struggle between the West and adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran, a clandestine battle that never ceases, yet that the public seldom gets wind of, except when something goes wrong. “May we read about you in the newspapers,” is the old Mossad curse/wag for a reason.

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86, here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this is not merely that four million people are vulnerable to compromise, through no fault of their own, but that the other side now so dominates the information battlespace that it can halt actions against them. If they get word that a American counterintelligence officer, in some agency, is on the trail of one of their agents, they can pull out the stops and create mayhem for him or her: run up debts falsely (they have all the relevant data), perhaps plant dirty money in bank accounts (they have all the financials too), and thereby cause any curious officials to lose their security clearances. Since that is what would happen.

If this sounds like a nightmare scenario for Washington, DC, that’s because it is. Decades of neglect have gotten us here and it will take decades to get us out of it. The first step is admitting the extent of the problem. Getting serious about security and counterintelligence, finally, is the closely related second step. Back in the 1990’s, CI professionals warned the U.S. government about the hazards of putting everything online (we also pointed this out about internal databases that were supposed to be “secure”). Any cautions or caveats were dismissed as “old think,” out of hand. We were right about this, just as we were right about insider threats like Snowden. The past is the past, it’s time to move forward and do better without delay. The SpyWar is heating up and there’s no time to waste.

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.

6a00d83451f25369e200e54f258a118833-800wi

The 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.

Putin Turns Up His Special War Against Europe

Over the last year, since the Russian theft of Crimea, I’ve unambiguously warned that Vladimir Putin means what he says and he will not shy away from confrontation with the West, even at the risk of major war. Opportunities to deter this resurgent Russia, which I counseled many months ago, were punted on by the U.S. and NATO, so we now face a serious risk of war with Putin over his mounting hegemony in Eastern Europe. Ukraine is just the beginning.

As I’ve long made clear, Russia does not play by Western rules, and Putin and his Kremlin, being Chekists to their core, place great value on what I term Special War, meaning a shadowy amalgam of espionage, propaganda, and terrorism that Western states are poorly positioned to counter. At the end of the last year I predicted that the Kremlin’s Special War against the West was sure to rise, and so it has in the first quarter of this new year.

Last week I explained how Russian espionage against the Czech Republic — no congenital hater of the Russians like, say, Poland or the Baltics — had become so serious that Prague had expelled three Russian spies in recent months, amid warnings from Czech counterintelligence that at least a quarter of the outsized number of Russian diplomats in the country were actually spies posing as diplomats.

Over the last year I’ve explained in detail how Russian intelligence abroad, encompassing the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), have increased the scope and intensity of their operations against many NATO countries, including France, Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Most of these operations are undertaken by SVR or GRU officers serving under what the Russians term Legal cover, meaning they are pretending to be diplomats, trade representatives, and whatnot.

But in recent years there has also been an uptick in operations by spies whom the Russians term Illegals, meaning intelligence officers who serve abroad without any official protection, often posing as third-country nationals. The massive 2010 round up of a whole network of SVR Illegals in the United States proved a serious blow to the Kremlin, and their espionage still exhibits weaknesses, as evidenced by the recent arrest of an SVR Illegal operating in New York, a second-rater who did not belong to the elite of Russian spies.

Such Kremlin activities extend beyond NATO as well, and now it’s Sweden’s turn. A neutral that’s prone to downplaying threats on political grounds, and is always careful not to needlessly aggravate the Russian bear looming across the Baltic Sea, Stockholm has nevertheless had enough of clandestine Russian shenanigans in their country. This week they have gone public with the extent of the Kremlin’s Special War being waged against Sweden.

According to the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), at least one-third of the Russian diplomats in the country are actually spies. Recent months have seen repeated incidents of Russian intelligence provocations — submarines off the coast, SVR and GRU ramping up clandestine in-country operations — and Stockholm is worried, particularly because Kremlin efforts to recruit spies inside Swedish military and political circles are increasingly obvious.

Gone are the bumbling, vodka-swilling Russian spies of the 1990’s, when the Soviet collapse curtailed much espionage abroad. Since 2006, SVR and GRU operations against the West have risen steadily, to the point that current activities are as intense in number and audacity as they were at the height of the Cold War. Sweden is no exception, and Säpo’s chief analyst noted that Russian spies today are “highly educated and often younger than during the Soviet era. They are driven, goal-oriented and socially competent.” Not to mention that this is only talking about Russian Legals, not Illegals, who can be assumed to add to the ranks of Kremlin spies in Sweden, perhaps considerably.

As always, these spies are recruiting sources, disseminating disinformation, and fomenting dissent in the host country, per longstanding Russian espionage practice. This has become so serious that Stockholm now considers Russia to be the top threat to Swedish national security. The Säpo analyst bluntly explained, “There are hundreds of Russian intelligence officers around Europe and the West. They violate our territory every day … We see Russian intelligence operations in Sweden—we can’t interpret this in any other way—as preparation for military operations against Sweden.”

There’s the rub. Every week of late, Putin turns up the heat on NATO and the West: diplomatic threats, aggressive maneuvers with combat aircraft, the movement of late–model missiles to Kaliningrad, putting Stockholm, Warsaw, and Berlin within easy range of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Now, Putin either wants open war against the West — not just the clandestine games of Special War — or we wants us to think he does: in either case, this is a terrifying situation.

Many believe that Putin thinks he can use the threat of nuclear blackmail to gain a free hand for Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and they may be right. Certainly there is little in NATO reactions to Russian aggression to date that suggests a backbone is forming in Berlin, Paris, or Washington, DC. Whether or not the Kremlin wants major war is known only to Putin and the tiny circle of advisors, all hard-edged Chekists like himself, whom the Russian leader listens to.

For now, Special War will continue to achieve Kremlin aims, possibly without major war, while laying the intelligence groundwork for that bigger conflict, should that happen. Today’s news brings word that Polish counterintelligence has detected an air force officer spying for Moscow. He is reported to have passed classified information about Poland’s wing of F-16 fighters, the backbone of Polish defense against the Russians, in what may constitute a serious blow to NATO readiness on the Alliance’s exposed eastern frontier.

Another day, another Russian spy in the West detected. You can expect more of this. If we’re lucky, our conflict with Putin, which is being orchestrated by the Kremlin, will remain confined to SpyWar. Yet how robustly the West confronts Russian Special War — which is ultimately a question of politics, not counterespionage — is a good benchmark for how effectively we can deter a major, and possibly nuclear, war. Without political will, all the West’s acumen in military and intelligence affairs will matter little compared to the robust will shown by Vladimir Putin, who is playing for keeps, and intends to win.

Is This the End of NATO?

The last few days have brought depressing developments for those who care about European freedom. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande went to Moscow to present a Ukraine “peace plan” that actually had been suggested to them by Vladimir Putin. Unsurprisingly, this went nowhere and Merkel has already pronounced that there is no military solution to the Russo-Ukrainian War, a message that was amplified by the Munich Security Conference, Bavaria’s best-catered talkshop, where the lack of Western resolve to confront Russian aggression was made abundantly clear. In Munich, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a rare European NATO leader who has a clear picture of events, told Merkel that the choice was “surrender or arm Ukraine” — to no effect.

To be fair to Europe, Washington, DC, has hardly been telegraphing resolve either. My proposal to send Ukraine defensive weaponry, which looked like it might be in the offing, by this weekend looked dead, though this White House sends so many mixed messages one can never be exactly sure. Late this week, the Obama administration unveiled its new National Security Strategy, amid less than fanfare, with the execrable Susan Rice explaining in “remain calm, all is well!” fashion that things are really much better globally than they look. This White House’s new foreign policy mantra is Strategic Patience, which seems to be the been-to-grad-school version of “don’t do stupid shit.”  Since nobody inside the Beltway is taking this eleventh-hour effort to articulate Obama’s security strategy seriously, it’s doubtful anyone abroad, much less in Moscow, will either.

It’s therefore unsurprising that European leaders are in full-panic mode about what Putin will do next. The serious possibility that the Chekist-in-Charge in the Kremlin will seek more provocations, and possibly a major war, to achieve his strategic aim of establishing Russian control over the former Soviet space and therefore dominance over Eastern Europe, is reducing weak-willed Western leaders like Merkel and Hollande to political incoherence.

It seems to have never occurred to them, nor Obama and his national security staff either, that crushing the Russian economy with sanctions might bring more, not less, aggression from Putin, even though that was an obvious possibility. Jaws dropped this week when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who until recently was NATO’s civilian head, stated that it is highly likely that Russia will soon stage a violent provocation against a Baltic state, which being NATO countries, will cause a crisis over the Alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective self-defense. Rasmussen merely said what all defense experts who understand Putin already know, but this was not the sort of reality-based assessment that Western politicians are used to hearing.

There are two core reasons for Western collapse of will before Putin’s decidedly modest aggression in Ukraine. The first is that Western and Central Europe have so substantially disarmed since the end of the Cold War. Hardly any European NATO countries spend the “required” two percent of GDP on defense, and no amount of American scolding about it seems to make any difference. As a result, European NATO militaries, with few exceptions, possess a mere shadow of the combat power they had two decades ago. Several of them have abandoned tanks altogether, while even Germany has so cut back its combat power that there are only four battalions each of armor and artillery in the whole Bundeswehr.

Not all the fault for this sorry state of affairs lies in Europe. Here America has played an insidious role too, encouraging spending on niche missions for the Alliance at the expense of traditional defense. Hence the fact that Baltic navies have considerable counter-mine capabilities — this being an unsexy mission that the U.S. Navy hates to do — yet hardly any ability to police their maritime borders against intruding Russians. To make matters worse, since 2001 the Americans have encouraged NATO partners to spend considerable amounts of their limited defense budgets on America’s losing war in Afghanistan.

But the moral collapse of Europe is even worse than the military collapse. All the armaments in the world do no good when the will to use them is absent. Since the Cold War’s end, Western Europeans have convinced themselves of many things that simply are not true. Their optimistic worldview, which really is the highest form of the WEIRD Weltanschauung, abandoned any notion that monsters might still exist, and many Europeans, including most of their leaders, seem unable to accept the new reality that Vladimir Putin has forced upon them. Yet denying that Russia aims to change the European order, and will use force to do so, will not stop Kremlin misdeeds, actually it will only encourage more Russian aggression.

To be blunt, I see little evidence to date that major European leaders are willing to wake up to this new reality. In the event of Russian provocation against NATO, which is highly likely soon, it’s very possible that the Atlantic Alliance will unravel completely. Putin may achieve his strategic victory with hardly a shot fired. In such an event, I have no idea how Obama, or any American president, could send U.S. troops to die to defend a Europe that is so flagrantly unwilling to defend itself.

Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu counseled that “the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers,” and Putin is doing exactly this. He has no need to undermine NATO strategy, since none exists in reality, while he continues to hack away at the foundations of the Western Alliance through Special War, particularly espionage and subversion.

It’s significant that, just after Greece elected an openly pro-Russian government, whose defense and foreign ministers are major Putin fans, the rising left wing in Spain announces that, should it come to power, it will take Madrid out of NATO altogetherCyprus’s announcement on Friday that it will offer its military bases to Russia should be seen in proper strategic context. If this chipping away at the foundations of European security by the Kremlin continues, there may be no big war for Russia to have to win.

Which is good news for Putin, since what makes craven European conduct towards Moscow so appalling is the fact that Russia is winning from a position of profound political, economic, and especially military weakness. In military terms, despite the shortcomings of European NATO, Russia lacks the ability to win any major war against the West. Moscow frankly would have a tough time subduing Ukraine quickly, much less marching westward with haste.

Outside the nuclear realm, where the Kremlin likes to rattle radioactive sabers, terrifying Europeans, Russian military strength is not especially impressive. Moscow is in the middle of a big military modernization program that will not be complete until the early 2020’s, and at the moment its ground, air, and naval forces can be assessed as far from ready to win any major war in Europe.

A look at Russia’s ground forces is revealing. Far-reaching reforms of the whole bloated army, which spent nearly two decades languishing in semi-Soviet mode — from organization to training to manning, everything — that commenced in 2007-09 are bearing fruit, but significant challenges remain. On paper, the active Russian army looks impressive, with slightly over forty maneuver brigades, many with modern weapons. But many of those brigades consist of conscripts who are not trained to NATO standards, and this army must face not just Ukraine and the West, but guard the vast border with China, while keeping a lid on the Caucasus and providing post-imperial order in parts of Central Asia.

In other words, Putin cannot engage in a major war without a substantial recall of reservists to flesh out the order of battle, and that may not be popular. The Russian population has endured the economic downturn, blaming the West rather than Putin for the collapse of their currency and much of the economy, and the Kremlin’s anti-Western stance is supported by most Russians. Yet this has something to do with the fact that Putin has kept truly painful costs low so far. Soldiers killed in Russia’s not-very-secret war in Ukraine are professionals. If bigger numbers of teenaged conscripts and thirty-something reservists start dying, Putin may find his war of choice is suddenly less popular.

For all the Alliance’s military shortcomings, NATO can deter Putin’s aggression until 2020 at least, with current forces. However, deterring the Kremlin’s Special War, which I have long counseled the West to get serious about, may prove a more serious challenge. The West has the ability to keep a rampaging Russia restrained. Sending defensive weaponry to Ukraine would be a wise start, while so is bolstering NATO forces on the Alliance’s vulnerable frontier, well beyond the modest efforts now, finally, being undertaken. What no defense budget or military strategist can provide, however, is political will. If Europe cannot regain enough self-confidence to resist Putin, it will lose everything, sooner than you think.

Why Putin Will Lose

This is turning out to be a bad week for Europeans hoping to resist the advance of Putinism. Ukraine continues to dither, rather than fight Russian invasion seriously. While Kyiv at last termed Moscow’s violence against their country “aggression,” they demurred from calling it a war, which it is, seemingly not realizing that if Ukraine won’t call this a war, NATO and the rest of Europe never will. The Poroshenko administration continues to pass on getting serious about defending their country, as I have roundly criticized.

News from Athens is also bad. The newly-elected hard-left SYRIZA party is not just anti-austerity, it’s openly pro-Putin. New Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras makes no effort to hide his admiration for this Kremlin, and the first foreign dignitary he entertained as PM was Russia’s ambassador to Greece. Greece’s new defense minister visited Moscow before the election, while the new foreign minister is pals with Aleksander Dugin, the Kremlin-approved neo-fascist ideologist (while Dugin, the son of a GRU general, is a marginal figure in Moscow, he is employed by the regime as fly-paper for foreign Putin groupies). Although SYRIZA is a very left-wing party, it fits comfortably into the mostly far-right Putinist coalition in Europe. As Dugin explained in 2013, “In Greece, our partners could eventually be Leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance. As far as I know, SYRIZA is anti-capitalist and it is critical of the global oligarchy that has victimized Greece and Cyprus.”

Everybody expected that SYRIZA, with its anti-austerity platform, would pose immediate problems for the EU, but it’s now clear that the new government in Athens will bring problems for NATO as well. SYRIZA opposition to EU sanctions on Russia is stated openly, and it seems possible that Greece will now move into an openly pro-Moscow orientation in foreign and defense policy, which would pose serious complications for NATO. The emerging dividing line in European politics is no longer Left versus Right, but Pro- or Anti-Putin.

Most Western leaders remain blind, at this point willfully, to what Putin represents and what he wants. Moscow makes no effort to hide its worldview, a toxic blend of Chekism, militant Orthodoxy, xenophobia, and anti-Western resentments, but the Davos elite, being the consummate WEIRDos, cannot see the obvious. As long as NATO and EU leaders refuse to notice what is before their eyes, the West will continue to lose to a Russia that it dwarfs in political, military, and economic terms. In war, will counts more than numbers, as Putin is proving yet again.

It’s increasingly obvious that Moscow’s aim is the recreation of something like the Tsarist Empire of pre-Great War days. An important bellwether here is the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), another “independent” Moscow think-tank that actually isn’t independent. RISI’s head is Leonid Reshetnikov, another “former” Chekist, in fact a career KGB officer who retired as a two-star general and the head of foreign intelligence analysis. Like many, he has transformed into a militant religious believer with Big Ideas and enthusiastic backer of Putin’s Orthodox Jihad. Reshetnikov, who pushed for the invasion of Ukraine, now wants to erase Belarus also, and thereby recreate Tsarist Russia. It’s comforting to dismiss this as lunatic nostalgia, but Reshetnikov is no marginal figure, rather a connected member of the Chekist elite with close ties to the Kremlin.

Recreating Tsarist Russia within the frontiers of 1914 would mesh nicely with the fate of Ukraine I recently sketched as the likely outcome if Kyiv does not get serious about the war, soon. That this vision includes the re-annexation of the Baltic States, which would mean war with NATO, should be obvious to all. The West must look squarely at the fact that Putin may no longer fear such a confrontation. There is little time to waste.

In the midst of all this dire warning, I want to inject a dose of optimism. Putin’s neo-imperial project is doomed to fail. Its inherent contradictions are great, to add a fleeting Marxist note. It is an intensely Russian project and the very things that make Putinism intoxicating to Russians — its nationalist politics and religion, its paeans to Muscovy’s heroes and greatness past — render it toxic to foreigners. For all its ambitions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, Putinism has nothing to offer non-Russians except vassalage.

It’s impossible to miss that European fans of Putin increase in number the farther you travel from Russia’s borders. Closer to Russia, the sort of far-right activists who agree with a lot of Moscow’s critique of the West’s WEIRD problem are intensely anti-Putin, out of fear; they know the Kremlin has no place for them in their plans for a New Europe, free of Atlanticism and the United States.

It’s easy to fantasize about Putin “saving” Europe from itself when you’re in Germany or Greece, or better yet France. Such illusions are rare in Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, much less Ukraine, where the hungry Russian bear looms close-by. One wonders what Marine Le Pen would think of her crush in the Kremlin if France were located a thousand kilometers eastward of where it is.

Ukrainians have no illusions, they know the Russians well. They are aware that most Russians, including Putin, don’t view theirs as a “real” country, despite the fact that it has forty-five million citizens and is the second biggest country in Europe. Putin has openly stated he does not think Ukraine is a country and he refers to them as “Little Russians,” an offensive Tsarist throwback. Ukrainians know that their language, the second-biggest in Imperial Russia, was banned entirely by the Tsar in 1876, while the Soviets, despite being more understanding about Ukrainian language and culture, brought genocide. After such recent historical experiences, why any Ukrainian would welcome Moscow’s rule is a good question.

The volunteers who are bearing so much of the defense of Ukraine’s East include many right-wingers whose views on the WEIRD West are indistinguishable from the Kremlin’s, but they know that Putin does not want allies, he seeks vassals. They are acquainted with what control by Moscow means. Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, which is powerful politically — Ukrainians tend to be more personally devout than Russians, who like to wax about Orthodox swords but don’t actually go to church much — has explained that it rejects Western post-modern values but emphatically does not reject Europe or democracy.

There is nothing new about any of this. In the decades before the Great War, Russian Slavophiles, who pushed an earlier version of militant mystical nationalism fused with Orthodoxy, fantasized about Russia taking over all their “little brothers” in Eastern Europe. They meddled internationally, helping cause World War I, and they were genuinely shocked to discover that Slavs living under the Habsburgs did not greet them as liberators. Ukrainians in Habsburg lands occupied by the Russian army in 1914-15 were immediately treated to what fellow Ukrainians living under the Tsar already experienced. They did not like it, and the Russians arrested thousands of Ukrainians who objected — clerics, teachers, politicians — packing them off to Siberia for the duration.

Such blindness is hardly a uniquely Russian problem. Nationalism is not for export, and is bound to collide with other people’s nationalisms. Comparisons to Hitler are always to be used sparingly but some apply here. Fascism never became an international movement because of the inherent contradictions of the competing nationalisms among Hitler’s wartime allies. For instance, Horthy’s Hungary and Antonescu’s Romania were happy to fight Bolshevism but they really hated and feared each other more.

Neither did the Germans deal well with political figures seeking to be partners, not vassals, of Nazi Germany. Narrowly focused on themselves and their nationalism, the Germans failed to develop any sort of pan-European coalition against the West and Bolshevism, even though there were millions of right-wing Europeans who would have joined them. It never seems to have occurred to Berlin that the more than thirty divisions of the Polish army would have been very helpful in the Wehrmacht‘s (ultimately failed) drive on Moscow in 1941, not to mention that there were many Poles who were as eager to crush the Soviets as anyone in Germany. Poles were inferior Slavs, Untermenschen, and had to be crushed, per Nazi dogma, and that was that — notwithstanding the fact that Germany never fully subdued the Poles, who resisted Nazi occupation with unmatched fervor.

Close to the end of the World War II, as Nazi dreams of empire were collapsing in flames, a noted French collaborationist explained how the Germans did it all wrong. Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, a fascist who became disillusioned with the Germans’ imperial project, shortly before taking his own life, thereby missing a date with an Allied hangman, castigated the “imbecilic” Hitler and Germany’s “extreme political incompetence”:

These military failings followed from Hitler’s total lack of imagination outside of Germany. He was [essentially] a German politician; good for Germany, but only there.

Lacking political culture, education, and a larger tradition, having never traveled, being a xenophobe like many popular demagogues, he did not possess an understanding of what was necessary to make his strategy and diplomacy work outside Germany. All his dreams, all his talents, were devoted to winning the war of 1914, as if conditions [in 1940] were still those of 1914.

Much the same could be said of Putin, a Chekist functionary, not a deep thinker, a man of limited experience of life outside Russia and the KGB cocoon. His brand of Tsarist-era nostalgia, fueled by nationalism and Orthodoxy, has nothing to offer non-Russians, and is not even wanted by some of Russia’s many minorities. Putin, like Hitler, lives in a mental time-warp that was outmoded already in 1914 — see his strangely 19th century views on diplomacy — and would be laughably obsolete now, were it not so dangerous. Moscow’s imperial experiments past all failed, thanks to the limited appeal of the Kremlin’s political program to millions of non-Russians, and this one will too, eventually.

But the ultimate defeat of Putinism, while pre-ordained, may not be quick. Ukraine may indeed fall under Russian vassalage again, and Europe shows no signs of waking up to the nature of this threat, much less what must be done to counter it. No sanctions will stop Putin, who cares little about economics, now. The Davos crowd, long on money and comfort, will likely keep its heads firmly in the sand until Russian tanks are audible, naively thinking Putin can be bought off.

To make the fall of Putinism happen sooner, not later, before Russian imperial fantasies cause a massive war that could kill millions, the West must address this threat seriously, now. Helping Ukraine resist Russian invasion is important, as is finally getting serious about deterrence in Eastern Europe. Just as important is resisting the Kremlin’s Special War against NATO and the EU, while addressing the legitimate concerns of Europeans about hot-button issues like immigration and national identity before they embrace Putin-approved “solutions.”

Vladimir Putin has already torn Europe’s post-Cold War consensus asunder, shattering the happy views of the Davos crowd (though they seem not to realize it), bringing war to the continent again. What this Kremlin wants is perfectly clear. The West’s not noticing Russia’s agenda is a choice, one with increasingly fateful consequences. Putin’s dream of Russian Empire over Eastern Europe will fail, as all preceding efforts of this kind did. NATO and the EU, with American help, have the power to determine how long it takes for Moscow’s fantasies to turn to dust, and how many countries and lives are destroyed before that happens. Let us hope they use it, soon.

Gotham in the Russian-American SpyWar

Yesterday brought front-page news of the FBI’s arrest of a Russian businessman in the Bronx who, according to the information released by the Department of Justice, had been operating as an agent of Russian intelligence for several years, collecting mainly economic information in the United States.

The man in custody is Evgeny Buryakov (39), AKA Zhenya, while his co-conspirators, who have already left the United States, are named as Igor Sporyshev (40) and Victor Podobnyy (27), also Russian nationals. While living in New York, Sporyshev was serving with the Russian trade mission there, while Podobnyy was an attaché with the Russian Mission to the United Nations.

All three were in actuality officers of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Sporyshev and Podobnyy were serving in “official” cover positions of the kind used by the SVR and its KGB predecessor for nearly a century, while Buryakov was serving in a “non-official cover” position, to use the verbiage cited by the FBI. That is, Buryakov enjoyed no diplomatic immunity, which is why he is in custody now; had the FBI managed to catch up with Sporyshev and Podobnyy there was not much they really could have done since those men enjoyed diplomatic protection. At worst, they would have been expelled from the United States — PNG’d in spy-speak (from being declared persona non grata).

To use proper Russian terminology, Sporyshev and Podobnyy were “Legals” while Buryakov was an “Illegal.” Such spies without official cover have long been the elite of the Kremlin’s espionage arm, a select cadre. During the Cold War they were legendary, not least because while Legals are relatively easy for the FBI, or any competent counterintelligence service, to detect — the odds of a Legal SVR officer being noticed as actually a spy during his or her tour as a “diplomat” in any Western country are high — Illegals are much more difficult to detect and neutralize.

Or rather, they were. During the Cold War, the KGB was careful to not “cross the streams” between their Legal and Illegal networks in the West much, if at all: associating with a Legal, who may be under surveillance, is a good way for an Illegal to wind up on the radar of the local security service. The massive roll-up of the SVR’s Illegals Network in 2010, which was a debacle for the Kremlin, was noticed by the media and the public mainly for the fetching Anna Chapman, red-headed Russian temptress extraordinaire, but represented a historic counterintelligence win for the FBI and the Intelligence Community.

Although the media had a good laugh at the Illegals Network, not seeing much important going on there, the reality was different. While it seems indisputable that several of the Illegals caught in 2010 were not up to the caliber of their predecessors of hoary Chekist legend, this has something to do with the fact that the SVR had to rebuild their networks abroad, which went to pieces after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the last fifteen years, Russian intelligence has rebuilt their spy networks worldwide, and sometimes getting spies in the field inadequately prepared, backed by flimsy covers, has been a problem, as the Kremlin values quantity as well as quality. It should be noted that Russian military intelligence (GRU) also has networks of Legals and Illegals around the world, separate from SVR espionage.

As a former counterintelligence officer obsessed with espionage against the West, Putin has pushed hard for SVR and GRU to “get in the game” and they have. Today, Russian espionage against the West, including numbers of operatives and the tempo of their operations, equals its highest levels during the Cold War. Not every operation is a win, as the Chekist-in-Charge is well aware. The sudden loss of the Illegals Network in 2010 was a major disruption and to fill the gap the SVR sent less-able officers like Buryakov to America, perhaps too hastily.

Our counterintelligence was on to him almost immediately. Many leads emerged from the Illegals Network takedown, in multiple countries, and many tantalizing hints, considering subsequent developments, remain officially unresolved. Buryakov did not help himself by meeting with Sporyshev and Podobnyy, but otherwise he had limited ability to communicate with Moscow Center, i.e. SVR headquarters.

The story of his work is standard spy stuff: covert communications, dead-drops, brush-passes, sometimes fumbling efforts to recruit American businesspeople and students. The main target of this SVR network in New York was economic espionage, particularly regarding the financial sector. They seem to have landed no big fish, but it needs to be kept in mind that the DOJ account of the Buryakov ring released yesterday is the unclassified version of the case which always omits much important detail. Russian espionage operations are seldom straightforward, while some defy real understanding for years, even decades.

Significantly, U.S. counterintelligence had an excellent look into this trio’s activities, due mainly to good SIGINT — since the greatest weakness of any spy is the need to communicate. Thanks to this, eventually the banker/spy Buryakov fell prey to a ruse when a slightly-too-good-to-be-true source emerged and he took a gamble that a savvier officer might have demurred from. But the source promised classified U.S. Government information, as well as casino goodies; of course, this source was actually under FBI control, a dangle.

As with the Illegals Network in 2010, journalists and commentators who are ignorant of Russian espionage tradecraft are blowing this story off as being of little consequence, even comedic. There is, however, nothing funny about this case. In the first place, it shows that the Kremlin continues to collect economic intelligence in the West, using various covers to steal information of many sorts. This is a big win for the FBI and U.S. counterintelligence, but luck was on our side here, and that cannot be counted on.

Moreover, Illegals have many purposes, including functioning as long-term sources to maintain agent networks in the event of war, when diplomatic facilities close and Legals get pulled home. Given the parlous state of relations between the West and Russia now, this is not a theoretical concern. The Kremlin, unlike most Western intelligence services, tends towards the long-view and worst-case planning with utmost seriousness.

Ominously, among the things Buryakov was looking to steal included very sensitive information regarding high-speed Wall Street trading, automated trading algorithms, and “destabilization of markets.” If that thought doesn’t worry you, you’re not paying attention. There is a bona fide financial and economic war being waged now between Russia and the West, and Moscow intends to win. The potential threat to remove Russia from SWIFT, the international banking information-sharing mechanism, has reduced the Kremlin to fits. Today Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev promised that his government’s reaction to booting Russia from SWIFT, which would be tantamount to total financial isolation for Moscow, would be “unlimited” and not merely economic in nature. Western pundits are chuckling at the SVR’s missteps in New York today, but it may be Putin and his spies who get the last laugh here.

UPDATEOver at CrossingWallStreet, Eddy Elfenbein — whom you should be following if you care about your financial future — has added his thoughts on the Wall Street side of this case, a must read.

Russia’s Emerging Holy War

At the beginning of this week, President Barack Obama explained that Russia, hit hard by Western sanctions, is losing in its confrontation with the West and NATO caused by Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. In his State of the Union address, Obama displayed similar swag and bluster against both the Kremlin and Congressional Republicans, seemingly without regard for any recent events. As the President explained:

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

“Every one of these sentences is, to put it mildly, a stretch,” explained one seasoned Kremlin-watcher, and the news this week from Ukraine has been grim, contra Obama’s hopeful pose. While Russia’s economy remains seriously hurt from sanctions and, even more, the sharp drop in oil prices, the notion that this is taming Putin’s baser urges is not only untrue, it’s more likely the opposite of the truth, as I cautioned a month ago.

Facts have increasingly been getting in the way of this White House’s messaging, on many fronts, so just as Obama now calls for political bipartisanship, after six years of doing the opposite, all the while ignoring the massive blowout of his own party by the Republicans in Congress that just happened again, for the second time in his presidency, Obama likewise seems to think that a bit of swag, plus a public taunt, aimed at Putin when the former KGB man is down on his luck will have the desired geopolitical effect. This White House does not seem to dwell on the fact that, while the domestic enemy may be politically obstructionist, the foreign enemy has all sorts of Special War unpleasantness in his arsenal, not to mention thousands of nuclear weapons.

If nothing else, the current crisis has demonstrated to Russians, with Kremlin prodding, that the United States remains their Main Enemy that it was for decades, now led by the arrogant and weak Obama, who is hated by the Russian public. The Chekists who run Putin’s Russia, who protested for years that America wanted to defeat Russia’s post-Cold War resurgence, that the U.S. will stop at nothing to bring Russia to heel while humiliating it, have been proved right, at least as far as most Russians are concerned.

To the shock and dismay of hopeful Westerners, including nearly all NATO leaders, the hard hit of sanctions has caused Russians to hate the West, not Putin. Most Russians view their war in Ukraine as a legitimate defense of Russians and Russian interests, certainly nothing like America’s aggressive wars of choice halfway around the world, and they are backing the Kremlin now.

Word of this defiance has even crept into The New York Times, which otherwise is a pitch-perfect expression of the WEIRD worldview. As Russian troops are advancing deeper into Ukraine, fresh from victory at Donetsk, NYT asked what on earth is going on here, why would Russians want more war now that the cost of it all to their economy is becoming obvious? The explanation was proffered by a Moscow economist: “The influence of economists as a whole has completely vanished,” he opined about the Kremlin: “The country is on a holy mission. It’s at war with the United States, so why would you bother about the small battleground, the economy?”

Once again, Westerners have imagined Putin is just like one of their leaders — cautious, timid even, obsessed with Wall Street and finely tuned to what big donors care about — when our Chekist-in-Charge is nothing of the sort. With perfect timing, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, addressed the Duma this week, for the very first time, delivering a speech long on social conservatism, including a plea to ban abortions to help Russian demographics, as well as a caution to ignore the West’s dangerous “pseudo-values.” Putin’s Russia is inching ever closer to Byzantine-style symphonia, and in the war against America and the West that is coming — and, according to many Russians, is already here — the Kremlin wants its people to be spiritually fortified for a long fight.

Bankers and oligarchs, who get much attention from the Western media, have become peripheral figures in Moscow. Months before the Ukraine crisis broke with Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Putin privately warned wealthy men whom he deemed friends and supporters to start getting their money out of the West, as tough times were coming. In the Kremlin’s view, oligarchs who failed to do this, and are now facing ruin, have nobody to blame but themselves. Any billionaires who criticize Putin too freely will meet with prison or worse.

It’s increasingly clear that the security sector, what Russians term the special services, are running the show. They are Putin’s natural powerbase, his “comfort zone” in Western parlance, plus they are the guarantor of his maintaining power as the economic crisis worsens. Current reports indicate that Putin’s inner circle now is made up entirely of siloviki, to use the Russian term, men from the special services:  National Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.

Patrushev headed the FSB from 1999, the beginning of Putin’s presidency, to 2008, and was a previously a career KGB officer, serving in Leningrad counterintelligence just like Putin: and just like Putin, he is a Chekist to his core. Current FSB director Bortnikov, who took over from Patrushev in 2008, is another career Chekist who joined the KGB after college and, yet again, comes out of the Leningrad office. Fradkov is not officially a Chekist by background, having spent the early years of his Kremlin career in foreign trade matters, but he was “close” to the KGB during that time, and he has headed the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate, since 2007; it says something about Putin’s confidence in him that Fradkov survived the 2010 debacle of the exposure of the SVR’s Illegals network in the United States, which was nearly as demoralizing to the SVR as the Snowden Operation has been for U.S. intelligence. The last, Shoygu, who has headed the powerful defense ministry since 2012, is not a military man by background, yet has longstanding ties to military intelligence (GRU).

As Russia’s economic crisis has mounted, Putin has unsurprisingly turned to fellow Chekists, some of them very like himself by background. They share a worldview which is conspiratorial and deeply anti-Western; they view America as their Main Enemy and now believe Obama is on a mission to destroy Russia. That they will not allow, and they will stop at nothing to halt what prominent Orthodox clerics recently have termed the “American project” that wants to destroy Holy Russia. This volatile combination of Chekist conspiracy-thinking and Orthodox Third Rome mysticism, plus Russian xenophobia and a genuine economic crisis, means that 2015 promises to be a dangerous year for the world. The Kremlin now believes they are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War in the eyes of many Russians, and that struggle is defensive and legitimate. It would be good if Obama and his staff paid attention. This is about much more than Ukraine.

Snowden and Russian Intelligence: An Update

Now that Ed Snowden has been in Russia for more than eighteen months, having settled into a cosy domestic arrangement with his stripper dancer girlfriend, his long-term presence in Putinistan has become a bit of an embarrassment to Ed’s admirers who possess any sense of honesty and/or decency. His sponsor and protector is a KGB thug who does smash-and-grabs against other countries, and for normals this is a tad incongruous with Snowden’s saintly status as a “human rights activist” without par.

However, rather than moderate their claims, the Snowden Operation has chosen to double-down. In a recent interview, the most famous of all NSA defectors stated, “They talk about Russia like it’s the worst place on earth. Russia’s great,” without clarifying who exactly “they” might be. Ed was at pains to make clear that he has not yet wound up the vodka-swilling basket-case that most Western defectors to Moscow become if they stay for very long.

Now we have one of the members of the Snowden Operation inner circle explaining that Russian intelligence did, in fact, attempt to recruit Ed to work for them, but he declined. According to Sarah Harrison, the pitch came in mid-2013 when Ed was stuck at Sheremetyevo airport for six weeks, but the defector “didn’t give anything to the Russians at all,” and the FSB never tried to recruit Ed again, giving him asylum without anything in return.

Sarah Harrison, of course, is the Wikileaks stalwart who was dispatched by Julian Assange, her collaborator/lover/whatever, to Hong Kong to escort Ed on his fateful trip to Moscow. I’ve pointed to Wikileaks, in particular its transparent ties to Russian intelligence, as a key aspect of the Snowden Operation, and now that Assange’s operation is parroting the latest Kremlin-approved USA-did-it disinformation about the recent Paris terrorist attacks (which today was repeated by none other than Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister), this issue needs to be explored more than ever — not to mention that it was Wikileaks that told Ed to go to Russia and stay there.

Moreover, the notion that Ed was not approached by Russian intelligence until he reached Moscow is transparently laughable to anybody even marginally acquainted with the real-world of espionage, as I explained many months ago. To repeat myself:

What can be dismissed out of hand is the notion that, while staying in Hong Kong a year ago, Ed met with Russian spies – sorry, “diplomats” – at their consulate there and, all of a sudden, decided to hop a flight to Moscow. Espionage simply does not work that way, folks. We can only guess at what was on Ed’s mind, but those who know the Russian “special services” understand that such a scenario is so implausible that it can be ruled out altogether. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) simply does not allow American intelligence personnel they’ve just met to jump on a flight to Mother Russia. That never happens.

We also have the expert testimony, last May, of Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general, that “of course” Snowden is working for Russian intelligence. Kalugin “made his bones” heading Line KR, the legendary foreign counterintelligence arm of the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate: in other words, his job was recruiting and running agents just like Ed Snowden. Unless you happen to know more about Line KR operations than MajGen Kalugin, I recommend you take his word on this one.

Sarah Harrison, after more than eighteen months of flat-out denials that Russian intelligence had anything to do with her client/buddy Ed, now concedes that the FSB did have a chat with the defector. However, she maintains:

1. Ed said no and gave the Russians nothing, ever.

2. The FSB never asked Ed again to cooperate.

3. The Kremlin was fine with this and allowed Ed to stay in Russia indefinitely despite his non-cooperation.

If you believe any of these assertions, much less all of them, please do not discuss important matters like intelligence when adults are present, since you appear a fool and Putin patsy.

As the wheels long ago came off the Snowden show as anything other than a Russian disinformation operation, Ed and his circle of helpers are now resorting to lies so laughable that you wonder how dumb they think the Western public actually is. To be fair to Putin, if Westerners can believe Ed Snowden is a “human rights hero,” despite mountains of contrary evidence, why wouldn’t they also believe that the Obama administration is “really” behind terrorism in France?

There was no “Intelligence Failure” in Paris

The smoke has barely cleared from the fifty-four hours of terror around Paris that captured the horrified attention of the world. The seventeen victims are journalists, police officers, average people shopping at a Jewish grocery. One terrorist remains at large at this hour, while three are dead, including the Kouachi brothers who were the centerpiece of this murderous mayhem.

That these self-styled mujahidin, native born French citizens all, went out in a blaze of glory was easily predictable — indeed I did predict it on the day this story broke, when I also pointed out that murdering “those who insult the Prophet” isn’t exactly news in Europe, while jihadists returning home from foreign wars to cause war in France in the name of Islam … well, that’s been going on for nearly twenty years, when the heavily armed Roubaix Gang went down shooting just as this new cadre of killers has just done.

That something like what has just happened was inevitable in France also did not require clairvoyance, and back in June, after Mehdi Nemmouche murdered three innocents in Brussels, I told you that more domestic terrorism was coming. Despite the fact that Nemmouche was a known radical who had spent over a year in Syria, waging jihad, and French intelligence had a thick file on him, Paris, which is simply overwhelmed by the number of potential terrorists now, lost track of the killer. As I stated a few months ago:

If French intelligence and police can lose track of a high-interest possible terrorist even when allies are helping, one has to wonder how much more terrorism is coming. It’s clear that Paris is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of its citizens going to Syria and returning home even more radical. In response to the failure of France’s counterterrorism efforts yet again, emulating the Merah case, Bernard Squarcini, the former DCRI director, demanded “ambitious reforms” of the intelligence system to meet this rising threat, adding that “the umpteenth intelligence reform led by [Interior Minister] Manuel Valls has clearly changed nothing, since there are still some glaring shortcomings in the detection of jihadis.” There is not much time left to repair the system. Three dead in Brussels ought to be enough. If major changes are not implemented soon, more innocent people will die.

The above-mentioned Valls, now France’s prime minister, surveying the latest outburst of savagery in Paris, has told the public of “a clear failing” with “cracks” in the security apparatus. This, however, is one of those phrases tossed off by worried politicians seeking to shift blame, and is essentially meaningless.

Many are now asking how France, which is no slouch in the intelligence game, possessing competent security services and police, could have “missed” this monstrosity. The answer to that question will be unedifying to the public, which has been conditioned to expect magical performance from spies and cops, who are mere mortals overburdened by potential threats. What happened in the Nemmouche case should illustrate how imperfect French intelligence is on counterterrorism, despite its solid HUMINT, SIGINT, and collaboration with partners:

On his return, the DGSE [General Directorate of External Security, i.e. French foreign intelligence] which is supposed to track our French jihadis in Syria, apparently missed him. It was German customs that detected him in March 2013, intrigued by his meandering route home, via Malaysia, Bangkok, and Istanbul. Germany reported his crossing to Paris, and there, officially, the DCRI [Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, i.e. French domestic intelligence], listed him as someone that should be kept under surveillance. In other words a suspect recorded on a so-called “S” file. From March to May 30, the day of his chance arrest, so for over two months, Nemmouche completely disappeared off the radar.  Meanwhile he is suspected of having perpetrated the shooting in Brussels on May 24.

The case of Mohammed Merah, the killer of seven innocents, four of them Jewish children, in the south of France in March 2012 — before he, too, went down amid shouts of jihad — provided an unheeded warning of sorts, since it turned out that French intelligence had been a good deal more informed about the twenty-three year-old jihadist than they let on at first. His travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan got Merah branded a “special target” by the secret services, but they lost track of him too.

By the fall of 2013, French intelligence was warning the public that the staggering and unprecedented numbers of French nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, most of whom were likely to return home angrier and more lethal, represented a serious threat that the secret services were hard-pressed to counter, thanks to inadequate resources.

By the late summer of 2014, it was apparent that French intelligence was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of potential terrorist targets — furious young men (and women) eager to wage jihad at home. As a seasoned counterterrorism magistrate complained, French intelligence and police were finding themselves “disarmed” in the face of this new threat, while the lack of legal “teeth” meant that there was not much that the secret services could actually do about the many potential terrorists in the country. Likely trouble-makers could be arrested upon returning from jihad abroad, but they could not be kept in custody for long, and many were being released angrier than they were before, creating an explosive situation.

That, exactly, is the rub. France’s intelligence apparatus is good at what they do. The Kouachi brothers were on relevant watch-lists, their files with the secret services were surely thick and well annotated, and I have no doubt that many Western intelligence services, at some point, had tracked their goings and doings to some extent — and it’s likely much of that information was shared with foreign partners, as it’s supposed to be.

In terms of profile, these jihadist murderers fit it perfectly, to an almost comical extent: angry young losers, drug users with criminal records, coming from broken families, known unpleasantly in their community as violent troublemakers. There was even the obligatory aspiring rap artist cliche. These are essentially spree killers seeking an ideology to justify their murderous urges, and in Salafi jihadism they found it: that being the hate-based worldview of choice for many would-be terrorists these days, anywhere. When travel to foreign jihad was added to the Kouachi dossier, the French intelligence services had something to work with, but not enough to keep them off the streets for long. It was inevitable that the security apparatus — which can only track so many targets in “real time” or something close to it, and resources are always finite — placed other, more dangerous-looking jihadists higher on the list to be watched than the Paris killers.

That was a mistake, albeit one that every security service makes all the time; only on rare occasion are the consequences of such routine bad calls public and horrific. As a former spook myself, I am sympathetic to those who have to make tough calls based on invariably imperfect information. Two key points must be made. First, movies and the Snowden Operation, both of which are based in lies and fantasy, have created the impression that Western intelligence enacts 24/7 or “total” surveillance with ease. This is simply not true. Even with excellent SIGINT, as France possesses, all the information in the world — which, let it be remembered, must be analyzed by someone, looking for nuggets amid countless hours of mundane conversation by low-IQ jihadists about TV, rap artists, and problems with parents and girlfriends — only matters when action can be taken.

I suspect that the Paris outrage will turn out a lot like the 9/11 debacle in the United States, said to be an “intelligence failure” when it was really nothing of the sort. Oh, there were missed pieces of the puzzle, to be sure, dots not connected as the 9/11 Commission investigators so liked to put it, but the painful reality is that, in the run-up to what al-Qa’ida called its Planes Operation, U.S. intelligence worked pretty much as it was supposed to under the legal norms established in the 1970’s. There was only as much information sharing as the law allowed, and besides what would the FBI actually have done anyway?

I am confident that what French intelligence knew about the Kouachi brothers and their friends in the months and years before they took Paris by storm will shock the innocent and uninformed, as it will paint them correctly as violent cretins with murder on their warped minds. But that contingent is not as small in France as the public would like to think and French security simply didn’t know what to do with them. To be absolutely clear: What now looks like the obvious choice — arrest them and keep them off the streets — was never a realistic option.

To provide a relevant example, a few years ago I was discussing these sorts of things with intelligence officials from a friendly Muslim country, which like all of them possesses an extremism problem. Their solution is a deradicalization program to divert would-be troublemakers back to some sort of normal life before they kill. I am skeptical of all such deradicalization programs, since most sound too good to be true, but I listened carefully to the details of this rather well-thought out initiative.

In the first place, these spooks don’t have to worry much about civil liberties, so they track online activities carefully, and they have all potentially worrisome mosques wired too. Hence they find young men, usually maladjusted late teenagers, talking like potential jihadists and they arrest them. They are packed off to a tennis prison, a pleasant place without high walls, where for several months they get counseling from imams who gently explain that Islam is not about decapitating “apostates,” that real Muslims should improve spiritually, and they need to be law-abiding citizens. The young men receive vocational training and career counseling, plus help with job placement, with the aim of returning them soon to a normal life.

After a few months of this program, most of the inmates are released; nearly ninety percent after six months of deradicalization are assessed as fit to rejoin society. The spies track them, and at a year after release, nearly ninety percent of the “graduates” are considered to be no sort of threat. These are very impressive numbers, so, being my skeptical self, I asked the obvious question: “What about the ones who don’t deradicalize?”

Without batting an eye, the senior intelligence official responded, “Oh, we just keep them.”

There it is: would-be jihadists considered a threat to the public are kept in custody until they “get better” or forever, whichever comes first. This is a wise response, in my view, but let’s be honest here, it’s also nothing any Western law-based democracy is going to enact in 2015.

Western intelligence services since 9/11 have become very proficient at counterterrorism, with impressive collaboration in all disciplines, and France’s services rank among the best anywhere. If there was an “intelligence failure” here, and we can be sure that embarrassed Paris politicos will be looking for one, it was small-scale. The real problem is that French politicians, as in all Western countries, have absolutely no idea what to do with the burgeoning numbers of aspiring jihadist killers in their midst.

That is a political, not security, issue, that no amount of funds or personnel devoted to intelligence work can ameliorate. Besides, I sense no desire for France to become an East German-like counterintelligence state where one-third of the population is secretly reporting on the other two-thirds, including friends and family, to the secret police. Hence a political solution is required to Europe’s mounting crisis with homegrown Islamism, since there is no security solution at hand, and that knotty issue will be the subject of my next commentary.