Kremlingate Is Really Just Watergate for Morons—With Russians

The scandal surrounding President Donald Trump and his reputed secret ties to the Kremlin has swirled around him since before his inauguration 15 months ago. For his entire presidency, just what the commander-in-chief’s relationship with Moscow—no friends of ours, no matter how ardently Trump wants the Russians to be—actually it has hovered darkly over the Oval Office, never moving on. It’s no wonder the president has rage-tweeted so frequently about the investigation into his Russian links, proclaiming NO COLLUSION! too many times to count anymore.

That said, the public still has no concrete idea of what lies at the heart of the Department of Justice’s classified inquiry of Trump’s secret ties to the Russians that’s led by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director. That investigation, which has access to vast amounts of top-secret intelligence from American and allied spy agencies, has been run with a degree of security seldom witnessed in Washington, D.C., with leaks from Team Mueller being few and far between.

In that incestuous company town on the Potomac, the gold standard for scandal for the last 45 years has been Watergate, the infamous imbroglio that took down President Richard Nixon. In a ham-handed effort to cover up a relatively minor, if embarrassing crime—a black-bag break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s office at the eponymous Watergate complex—the Nixon administration tied itself in illegal knots that eventually became unstuck and doomed them. “It’s the cover-up that gets you, not the crime,” became the pol’s mantra after Watergate, leading to suspicions now that Team Mueller will go after Team Trump for obstructing justice before anything else.

This is plausible. It’s certainly easier to prove obstruction than unraveling a complex, multi-year criminal conspiracy for a jury. Regardless, there are significant differences between Watergate and Kremlingate that need to be clarified. While Nixon liked to complain about the partisan “witch hunt” out to get him, just like the current Oval Office occupant, Tricky Dick was a skilled political operator, a savvy veteran of Washington wars. In contrast, Reality TV Don is an utter political neophyte who came to the White House with no apparent understanding of how the U.S. government works; worse, he seems to have learned precious little over the last 15 months of increasingly part-time work as the commander-in-chief.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Spy Brief: IC 101 — Welcome to SpookWorld


The U.S. Intelligence Community is the best-funded and most complex collection of spy agencies on the planet. The “IC,” as the cool spy kids call it, is simply the catch-all term for America’s intelligence agencies, 16 of them in all. Although the term has been around since the early 1950s, it was only formally codified decades later, in Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan at the end of 1981. EO 12333 defined who’s who in the IC, who does what mission, and what they can’t do either, legally speaking.

There’s a good deal of publicly available information about the IC and its agencies — unlike some countries (or the USA in the first half of the last Cold War), Washington, DC is pretty open these days about who does what in the IC, broadly speaking. Nevertheless, the veil of operational secrecy, combined with decades of flawed reporting and bad books, plus ridiculous depictions in movies and TV shows, means that the public often has a distorted view of the IC and what it actually does.

Therefore, I’m embarking on a series for the exclusive benefit of subscribers to The Spy Brief, which will clear the air, burst myths, and brush aside misconceptions about the IC and what America’s spies actually do. This will be a primer on all 16 IC agencies, an insider’s take on who does what, along with detailed analysis of how our spooks operate — including how well they play (or don’t) with each other. Bureaucratic imperatives, including no small amount of rivalry regarding missions and budgets, often dictate why spy agencies do what they do. On its bad days, the IC can resemble a highly secretive and absurdly expensive Department of Motor Vehicles, and I’ll explain how that works in practice.

At the head of the IC sits the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a cabinet-level position created in 2004, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, which Congressional inquiry determined occurred in part because the IC failed to act on available intelligence. Leaving that knotty controversy aside for now, the DNI was created to act as the functional boss of the IC, able to dictate terms and give commands — along with, crucially, important budgetary power — in order to make the IC function better as an integrated whole.

The current DNI is Dan Coats, appointed by President Donald Trump; he’s been in the job a little over a year. In all, there have been five DNIs (plus two short-term acting DNIs). Most of them, unlike Coats, were veteran spooks with many decades of IC experience behind them when they took the top job. (To be fair to Coats, he sat on the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee for six years, so he was familiar with IC issues before becoming DNI.) The longest-serving DNI was Jim Clapper, who held the post from mid-2010 to early 2017, an IC “lifer” who in his retirement has been a trenchant critic of President Trump and his Kremlin ties.

Before 2004, the IC’s notional boss was the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), in other words the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, who in an awkward arrangement was simultaneously the sort-of head honcho for the IC while having the full-time job of heading CIA. This never worked very well, going back to the creation of this cumbersome set-up by the National Security Act of 1947. In particular, the DCI lacked budgetary control over anything outside CIA, while approximately 80 percent of “his” IC assets actually belonged to the Department of Defense (DoD), which the DCI had no bureaucratic control over, functionally speaking.

Thus was the DNI position born, to remedy this imperfect set-up, and let me say that since April 2005, when the first DNI reported for duty, the job’s authorities have gradually grown more real, and it has brought a needed degree of central control over our 16 intelligence agencies, many of which are vast secret empires which congenitally don’t like to share with others. However, this has also meant the creation of yet another top-secret bureaucracy for the DNI, which is termed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). In practice, the ODNI can be considered the IC’s 17th member, one with a good deal of authority over the other 16 agencies.

Exactly how many employees work for the IC is a difficult question to answer, given both classification and the complex way the ODNI counts them, but it’s safe to say that not less than a quarter-million Americans work for the IC as Federal government civilians, as military members, or as contractors. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked for the IC as all three, at one point or another.) The IC’s publicly admitted budget hovers in the region of $50 billion annually, not counting billions more spent on “black budget” programs which remain classified. However, all IC spending and activities are subject to oversight by the House and Senate intelligence committees.

In addition to battalions of senior staff positions to manage all those top-secret resources — jobs generally considered cushy, meddling, and wasteful by IC personnel working in operational intelligence — the ODNI includes a handful of entities directly under its control, including several sub-agencies which are largely staffed by personnel detailed from across the IC:

The National Intelligence Council (NIC), which functions as a kind of in-house think tank for the DNI, focusing on long-term, predictive analysis. NIC jobs are considered a plum assignment for IC analysts on the make, but nobody in operational agencies pays much attention to their glossy output.

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which serves as a clearinghouse for intelligence on terrorists, mainly but not exclusively jihadists. NCTC is designed to prevent another 9/11, above all by making sure that what the IC knows about terrorists is shared with people who need to know it. The absence of more 9/11-scale attacks on our country since 2001 can be regarded as a metric of success here.

The National Counterproliferation Center (NCPC), which tracks the development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical methods of mass killing, as well as the means to deliver them (especially ballistic missiles). Their work isn’t terribly sexy, being focused on complex scientific details, but is highly important.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), formerly known as the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX), works in an area that the mainstream IC has long regarded as an afterthought and annoyance. However, disasters like the Snowden defection, the loss of tens of millions of background investigation files to China, and numerous other counterintelligence (CI) fails since 2013 mandated the creation of the beefed-up NCSC. There’s still not much indication that the IC is institutionally serious about CI, however.

In this series, I’ll devote a post to each of the 16 agencies which make up the IC and are subordinated to the DNI. These are:

The Central Intelligence Agency, an independent agency

The National Security Agency, which belongs to DoD

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which belongs to DoD

The National Reconnaissance Office, which belongs to DoD

The Defense Intelligence Agency, which belongs to DoD

The Intelligence Branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which belongs to the Department of Justice (DoJ)

The Office of National Security Intelligence of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which belongs to DoJ

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the Department of State

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis of the Department of Homeland Security

The Office of Terrorism and Financial Analysis of the Department of the Treasury

The Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence of the Department of Energy

The Office of Naval Intelligence of the U.S. Navy

Intelligence and Security Command of the U.S. Army

Air Force Intelligence (25th Air Force) of the U.S. Air Force

Marine Corps Intelligence Activity of the U.S. Marine Corps

Coast Guard Intelligence of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the coming weeks, I’ll bring you a deep-dive on all 16 of these shadowy entities which spy on behalf of Uncle Sam and the American taxpayer. I promise you an informative and entertaining read, going as far as I can without violating the lifetime secrecy oath which I am subject to as a former spook, as well as someone who never seeks to harm the classified intelligence sources and methods which protect us. Watch this space!


The Year American Hegemony Ended

The United States has been the world’s greatest power since 1945, when that mantle—half-passed from London to Washington after the First World War—firmly landed in American hands after the Second World War. Since 1991, when the Cold War ended with Soviet collapse, America has been the world’s hegemon, to use the proper term, the force whose power could not be seriously challenged on the global stage.

For 26 years now—a happy generation—America has been able to do whatever it wanted, to anyone, at any time of our choosing, anywhere on earth. Notwithstanding the decline of major sectors of the American economy, our military has covered the globe with deployments as the Pentagon has divided our planet into “geographic combatant commands” to formalize our hegemony. Our allegedly deep defense thinkers have hailed this as our viceroys enacting Washington’s benevolent imperial will anywhere we desire.

It needs to be said that plenty of the planet has been happy to acquiesce in American hegemony. While we’re hardly the pure-hearted hegemon we imagine ourselves to be, the United States appears like a relatively positive force on the global stage, compared to other options. Even among skeptics regarding America’s global dominance, few pine instead for hegemony under, say, Beijing and its Communist party bosses.

Nevertheless, 2017 gave unmistakable signs that American hegemony, which has been waning for a decade, has now ended. A new age has dawned, even though it’s still early and the sun is far from full. As commander-in-chief, in his first year in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump has ranted and raved on Twitter almost daily, with no effect save to confuse our allies about what exactly is going on in Washington. De facto, America has two foreign and defense policies: what the president says and what our national security bureaucracy does. The gap between presidential rhetoric, much of it unhinged, and actual policy toward the world grew throughout 2017.

Read the rest at The Observer…

Warning: Donald Trump Is America’s Slobodan Milošević

It’s a popular parlor and social media game these days to compare Donald Trump to various dictators. This is tempting, given our 45th president’s indulging in authoritarian habits like rage-tweeting at Federal agencies he dislikes, or showing disregard for the rule of law when it gets in his way. Americans are unaccustomed to casual flirtations with dictatorial-sounding memes like crushing CNN bloodily with Trump’s shoe, and many of them never want to normalize such conduct.

More hysterical anti-Trumpers jump immediately to Adolf Hitler, a ridiculous comparison as well as a violation of Godwin’s Law that says more about them than President Trump. Some prefer Benito Mussolini, who like Trump had a pronounced absurdist side as a dictator manqué who never accomplished much of substance. A more recent Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi, seems a better comparison, since like Trump he boasted luridly of his sexual conquests and acted like the louche, ineffectual billionaire he was. However, Berlusconi never really set out to do much of anything except gain power, whereas Trump preaches nonstop about his alleged desire to Make America Great Again.

The best comparison is one that won’t be too familiar to many Americans and is frankly disturbing. The dictator whom Donald Trump most closely resembles is Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian strongman who pushed Yugoslavia off the cliff over a quarter-century ago, unleashing wars and genocide, then died in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes. Although Milošević was front-page news throughout the 1990s, since his death he has faded from Western consciousness. Therefore, it’s worthwhile briefly revisiting Milošević, since his similarities to Trump are startling.

First, let’s get out of the way how Milošević and Trump were dissimilar. While the latter is a much-married reality TV showman who lives for the camera and can’t shut up or stay off social media, the former was a colorless Communist functionary, a private man devoted to his wife and possessing a somewhat dour demeanor. As social personalities they could not be more different.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Russia Celebrates the Grim Centenary of Oppressive Police Rule

Russia celebrated a grim centenary this week. On December 20, 1917, the newborn Bolshevik dictatorship established its secret police force to crush opposition. It received the wordy title of the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage, which got shortened to VChK. From the outset this new body was termed the more pronounceable Cheka.

Headed by Felix Dzierżyński, a hard-bitten Polish revolutionary, the Cheka cultivated an elite mystique. Its operatives, who proudly called themselves Chekists, were clad in long black leather coats as they tracked down enemies of the people for rough justice. There was a semi-religious aura around Dzierżyński, whom the Bolsheviks hailed as “Iron Felix” and portrayed as some sort of Red saint. He famously claimed that the ideal Soviet secret policeman possessed “clean hands, a cool head and a warm heart.”

The reality, Dzierżyński expressed more concisely in an interview with Novaya Zhizn in July of 1918:

We stand for organized terrorthis should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence.

From its birth, the Cheka engaged in terror against enemies, real and imagined. Mass executions were a daily affair and Dzierżyński’s men served as judge, jury and executioner of those deemed by the Bolsheviks to be enemies of progress. This included vast swathes of Soviet society. To house them all, the Cheka invented the GULAG, the vast empire of labor camps that stretched across the Soviet Union and imprisoned millions. Under appalling camp conditions, many never completed their sentences, succumbing to malnutrition and disease.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Trump-Putin War on American Intelligence Is in Overdrive

In my last column, I criticized the anti-Trump “resistance” for its excessive zeal in exposing Russian espionage, observing that counterintelligence work driven by politics and emotion rather than facts and discipline is bound to go wrong. At worst, we run the risk of a new wave of McCarthyism, with meandering witch-hunts for Kremlin agents (most of them imaginary) instead of serious counterspy efforts.

What’s interesting is that the “resistance” is a movement of the Left and its adherents, with few exceptions, are recent fans of counterespionage. Their interest in Russian spying is driven by Donald Trump and is as intense as it is new. Their enthusiasm for unmasking traitors customarily outpaces their understanding of real-world intelligence operations.

It’s difficult to miss that these are the same people who mocked Mitt Romney only five years ago when the Republican nominee for president presciently opined that Russia constituted our main geopolitical foe—a suggestion that was mocked as old-think by President Barack Obama and his followers.

Moreover, the Left was hardly brimming with anti-Kremlin zeal back in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was mainly the Right, aided by a few stodgy old Democratic Cold Warriors, that signaled the alarm about Soviet espionage and propaganda as a threat to our country and the West. Indeed, for many on the Left, the notion that Moscow was aggressively spying on us was a notion deserving of derision.

How times change. Now the Left is on the enthusiastic hunt for Russian agents, while the Right has transformed itself seemingly overnight from a Romneyian skepticism about the Kremlin to indifference to the threat at best, and at worst a strange and unsettling affection for Vladimir Putin. President Donald Trump is the Republicans’ biggest Kremlin fan, and his reticence to hear anything bad about Russia extends to any classified White House discussions about Kremlin interference in our 2016 election. As a bombshell new report in the Washington Post explains, the president’s Intelligence Community briefers customarily avoid anything to do with Russia in their daily briefing to the commander-in-chief altogether, lest they upset him by saying something bad about Putin.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Real Conyers Scandal Has Nothing to Do With Sex

Our national panic regarding sexual harassment of women by powerful men has claimed its first scalp in the nation’s capital. As of now, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is staying in the Senate, some embarrassing incidents notwithstanding, while Alabama Republican Roy Moore may get there yet, despite multiple reports of his dalliances with underage girls. Of course, the grabber-in-chief in the White House shows no signs of going anywhere either, at least until even worse videotapes appear.

Michigan Democrat John Conyers, however, has taken a direct hit and has stepped down from his House leadership roles, including as the ranking member of the powerful Judiciary Committee, in the wake of press reports which depict him as a serial harasser and worse. This is a stunning fall for the 27-term Congressman, at present the House of Representatives’ longest-serving member, who has been prominent on his party’s left wing for more than a half-century.

In other words, the 88-year-old Conyers is no average member of Congress. The results of the House Ethics Committee investigation of his relations with female staffers are not yet in, and let it be said that all Americans are innocent until proven guilty. However, the allegations against Conyers, if true, portray the esteemed veteran of the civil rights movement in a troubling light. For now, he’s professing his innocence and standing his ground, indicating he has no intention of resigning from the House, where he has served since 1965.

His defenders cite that the elderly Conyers grew up in a profoundly different age, and that he has not adapted to current sensitivities about sexual matters. That said, it probably didn’t help him that yesterday Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, brushed off allegations against Conyers with the statement that he “is an icon in our country.” The implication that there are different rules for icons didn’t sit well with some Americans—after all, Bill Cosby was a national icon too, until recently—and Pelosi’s soundbite seems certain to feature in Republican ads next year in advance of the midterm election.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Remembering Thanksgiving in Hell

Providing the American military with a reasonable facsimile of the traditional Thanksgiving feast, wherever our forces are deployed around the globe, is a longstanding practice of our Defense Department. Yesterday, the Pentagon served up nearly 100,000 pounds of turkey, plus all the usual trimmings, to U.S. military personnel in countries around the globe, including war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some presidents have visited the troops serving in harm’s way—back in 2003, George W. Bush showed up in Baghdad by surprise to serve turkey to our troops—but Donald Trump, for his first presidential Thanksgiving, was content to address our military via video link from his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida. It was the usual Trumpian reality TV boilerplate: “You’re very, very special people…We’re really winning. We know how to win…They [Presidents Bush and Obama] were letting you play even. We’re letting you win.”

As usual too, the veracity of the president’s statements seems debatable, at best, and not everybody was pleased with Trump’s Thanksgiving address to the troops. Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army three-star general, denounced Trump’s assessment as “somewhat insulting” to our forces, some of whom have been at war for 17 years and counting.

Serving the troops a traditional Thanksgiving meal, no matter where they are deployed, is a considerable logistical hassle for the Pentagon, while a presidential visit into a war zone—with its massive entourage and security on a gargantuan scale—is a much bigger one. It thus can be safely assumed that most of our military members were only too happy to hear President Trump pontificate via video rather than in-person.

In truth, Thanksgiving in the field constitutes a Pentagon fetish of sorts, and our military’s habit of bringing turkey with all the trimmings to combat zones hasn’t always been appreciated by troops who are trying to fight and survive. However, the photo-worthy escapade is deemed to be popular on the home front, so the U.S. military keeps executing Thanksgiving operations whether the troops want it or not.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Dead Sing With Dirt in Their Mouths

Our nuclear stand-off with North Korea shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, every day or two, it seems to get worse – with no end, or off-ramps, in sight. President Trump says or tweets something aggressive and shocking just to taunt Pyongyang, to which North Korea responds in juvenile kind.

This bizarre spectacle, based on public trash-talk between nuclear powers, has become so commonplace that it seems almost normal. It is nothing of the kind. It’s not normal for our president to openly state that he will “totally destroy” North Korea – implying the nuclear annihilation of 25 million people – as he did before the United Nations last week.

Neither was it normal for Ri Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s top diplomat, to state that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric amounted to a “declaration of war” on his country, as he did at the beginning of this week, adding that North Korea reserves the right to shoot down American aircraft, even in international airspace.

Of course, such threats have something to do with the fact that our president amplified his UN saber-rattling with a tweet over the weekend in which he threatened Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Un – whom he regularly refers to as “Rocket Man” – and his entourage with death: “they won’t be around much longer.” 

Pyongyang’s threats ought to be taken more seriously than Trump does. This, after all, is an intensely nationalist regime, little understood by outsiders, grounded in hatred, fear, and loathing of “imperialists” – especially the United States – and Donald J. Trump seems bent on proving 70 years of North Korean propaganda correct about what dangerous, irresponsible people American war-mongering capitalists are.

The Kim dynasty has a well-honed habit of doing things no other country on earth would dare do. Back in 2010, one of their submarines sank a South Korean warship, blowing it in half with a torpedo and killing 46 sailors. The idea that Pyongyang might shoot down U.S. warplanes is entirely plausible. Indeed, they’ve done it before, in April 1969, when a North Korean MiG-21 blasted an unarmed U.S. Navy EC-121 spy plane out of the sky, without warning, 90 miles off the North Korean coast, killing 31 Americans in the deadliest attack on one of our spy places in the whole Cold War.

Read the rest at The Observer …

How 9/11 Changed America: For Better and for Worse

Today we commemorate the 16th anniversary of what Al-Qa’ida termed its Planes Operation, the most consequential terrorist attacks in history. That operation left 19 dead jihadists, 2,978 dead innocent victims, plus thousands of injured. Not to mention the World Trade Center complex annihilated, four jetliners destroyed, the Pentagon badly damaged, and a nation changed forever.

In Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon – all rebuilt with appropriate memorials to that day – the usual solemn 9/11 remembrances will take place. Those who recall may think back, briefly, to that sunny Tuesday morning when the world changed. Some will speak of it. Just as my parents and their friends once bored me with their exact memories of where they were on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, now my friends and I bore our children with precise recollections of 9/11.

With the passing of time we can see the Planes Operation and its impacts with a clarity that was previously out of reach. In the months after 9/11, when shock turned to an outrage that birthed a national unity which proved as intense as it was fleeting, a new era dawned for America in a long-term struggle against Islamist terrorism and extremism. How has that conflict panned out over the last 16 years?

In the first place, it ought to be noted that our Intelligence Community has done a commendable job of keeping mass-casualty terrorism away from our shores since 9/11. In particular, FBI-NSA teamwork, in near-seamless collaboration with close foreign intelligence partners, has foiled hundreds of terrorist plots “left of boom” as they say in the spy trade. Jihadists have executed exactly zero “big wedding” attacks in the United States in the last 16 years – and it’s not for any lack of trying.

Indeed, since 9/11 the FBI-NSA counterterrorism partnership has grown so effective at stopping jihadists before they kill that civil libertarians routinely complain that many of these would-be terrorists are harmless ne’er-do-wells and fantasists entrapped by government informants. This is a by-product of the success of our domestic counterterrorism in recent years.

Although jihadists, usually self-styled, have killed Americans at home since 9/11, most of these terrorists have been inspired – not directed – by violent co-religionists overseas. In a typical case, the worst of these attacks, the June 2016 slaughter at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, killed 49 innocents; yet their murderer, Omar Mateen, a native-born American citizen, despite clearly being inspired by the Islamic State, was not directed by them except in his own diseased mind.

Read the rest at The Observer …