Understanding the Crimea Crisis

As I write, the Ukrainian region of Crimea is being absorbed by Russia, more or less openly. This represents a blatant challenge to the post-1991 European order, make no mistake, and so far Vladimir Putin is winning. After a sudden increase in Russian military personnel on the sensitive peninsula, more than 6,000 troops, mostly Special Operations Forces (SOF), Moscow has pulled out all the stops in waging what I have termed Special War: provocations, espionage, black and white propaganda, and the use of deniable SOF, often under false flag. None of this is new to the Russians, indeed it’s second-nature to the Kremlin, and Crimea today can best be viewed as one huge operation by Moscow’s powerful military intelligence, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which controls not just defense espionage matters but SOF too, what the Russians term SPETSNAZ.

The outcome in Crimea is no longer in doubt. The referendum on its status, whose vote tally is preordained, is scheduled for March 16; that President Obama and many Western leaders have noted this is illegal is all the more reason Moscow will do it. Western powers are spending much time and effort trying to undo the fait accompli in Crimea, to no effect now save posturing. What needs to be done is deterring the Kremlin’s next move, which is sure to come.

It is widely assumed that Putin’s next aggression will arrive in Eastern Ukraine, where there are large pockets of ethnic Russians, and where Moscow’s intelligence services have been playing their customary provocative games, laying the groundwork for full-scale Special War. Regrettably, I suspect the chances of a more-or-less overt Russian military move into Eastern Ukraine, to “protect” ethnic kin from “fascists,” are rising as Putin smells Western dithering in the face of his Crimean coup. Such an act will mean a full-scale war for Ukraine, which will soon involve NATO indirectly at least. Putin has the ability to seize much of Eastern Ukraine without much chance of defeat, but he may win himself a protracted conflict for which Russia is unready.

That said, there is no room for confident pleasantries yet of the sort we are seeing in the Western media: that the Kremlin is really losing, that Russia is on the ropes, that Putin is sowing the seeds of his eventual defeat. There is no doubt that Putin is lashing out in part due to Russia’s many weaknesses: economic, social, demographic, and political. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union – really, a deep longing for again having unquestioned Great Power status – is well known, but it needs to be recognized that over Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is acting simply in the manner of traditional Russian leaders: touchy about borders, at turns nakedly aggressive, desiring to have weak neighbors it can manipulate, worried about defending his land and people against myriad aggressors (some of them quite imaginary). Russia’s neighbors all know this pattern of conduct well, and are planning accordingly. Poland announced major defense reforms emphasizing territorial defense (i.e. defense against resurgent Russia) last fall, and now Sweden is following suit: there will be others.

To the surprise of no one actually acquainted with post-Cold War Europe, the collective response of European powers to the Crimean crisis has been underwhelming, to be kind. There has been no united front against Kremlin aggression as there is no common vision of what needs defending among members of the European Union (EU). While Eastern members properly feel an urgency about Russian moves, members further West seem less inclined to inconvenience themselves and their comfortable lives. The response in Germany, the most powerful EU country economically and politically, has been particularly repulsive where, thanks to underfunding and a lack of seriousness about defense matters, the Bundeswehr is incapable of offering much in terms of deterrence anyway, and the Kremlin’s buying off of much of Germany’s political elite has done the rest. Given German misdeeds in Poland and other Eastern European countries between 1939 and 1945, that are now threatened by Moscow, Berlin’s lackadaiscal response reveals moral, not just political, failings.

As the EU has been revealed to be a dilettante’s talk-shop outside economics, better suited to debates about cheese regulations than serious matters of statecraft, the burden must fall on NATO which, thanks to gross underinvestment in defense by nearly all European members, means that falls on the United States. There is no doubt that, in extremis, the United States would honor its Article 5 obligations and go to war to defend any NATO country directly threatened by Russian invasion. But what of countries threatened more indirectly by Special War à la russe – by subversion, terrorism, and violence by “self-defense militias” that the Kremlin swears it has nothing to do with? And what happens in a few years when the American military, already tired by a dozen years of failed wars  in the Middle East and increasingly hollowed out by massive defense spending cuts, lacks sufficient power to deter Russia quickly and convincingly? These are the stuff of Eastern European NATO nightmares, and properly so.

Perhaps most unsettling is the manner in which Western observers fail to note what actually motivates Putin and his country. Let there be no mistake, Moscow’s nakedly nationalist chest-beating is widely popular among average Russians; its opponents represent a distinctly minority view that natives will cheerfully explain is foreign-controlled anyway. We hear much happy-talk about the “irrationality” of Kremlin conduct, that such aggression has no place in our current, advanced age, and that it all makes no economic sense anyway. Historians are aware that remarkably similar language was employed by Western pundits and statesmen in the late 1930s to explain away the increasingly aggressive behavior, including cheerful disregard for international norms, by another leader of a resurgent yet recently defeated power.

Russia was indeed a defeated power after 1991, and it nurses a deep sense of humiliation at the hands of the West and especially the United States. I have more than a little sympathy for this viewpoint, and there can no doubt that, in the 1990s, Washington, DC, paid far too little attention to Moscow’s views on much of anything, and we are now paying the price for that, repaid with onerous interest to the Kremlin. U.S. and NATO actions in the Balkans, at the expense of Russia’s troublesome old friend Serbia, have come back to haunt, and Moscow’s representatives now cannot contain their glee  pointing out that, if NATO could unilaterally redraw the internationally recognized borders of Serbia in 1999, why cannot Russia to the same to Ukraine now? If the brief Georgia war of 2008 was payback for Kosovo – and it certainly was – what is playing out now over Ukraine is merely the next stage of Moscow’s revenge, for much higher stakes.

Revenge is a category not much discussed in college International Relations classes, but it is a prime motivator for Putin and his country now. Humiliating the United States and NATO is a major strategic aim for the Kremlin, and from their viewpoint an entirely rational – not to mention entirely delicious – one. While the Kremlin will not risk a major war with the West, which they know would be a disaster of vast proportions, they are quite happy to come close enough to show NATO and America to be the decadent weaklings that Putin and millions of Russians are quite confident that we are. To state the obvious, the risk of serious miscalculation, another historic Russian speciality in foreign affairs, is grave now.

But do not expect the Kremlin to back off yet, Putin and his retinue are enjoying this too much to stop now. Moscow has wanted to redraw the internal borders of the USSR, which do not reflect ethnic realities well, ever since 1991, and in this revanchist game Ukraine is the biggest prize of all. Simply put, Barack Obama is the first American president Moscow has felt they could pull this off against. This is painful to say, not least because this author – like many foreign policy watchers – was optimistic at the start that President Obama could undo the massive harm done to America’s international reputation by George W. Bush. Yet Moscow has taken a different view of all this from the outset, seeing weakness where others saw lawyerly consideration and American-style optimism.

This has been plain to see for some time. While Western Europe was celebrating Obama as something vaguely divine – his pre-victory speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing save not being President Bush, are fated to go down as two of the strangest happenings in modern foreign affairs – Russia was much less impressed. When Obama was first elected, Moscow pundits, including respected, level-headed ones, spoke as if America had lost its collective mind. Putin’s contempt for Obama has never been well disguised, and has only become more obvious with time, and many average Russians feel the same. Russian, like many Slavic languages, revels in countless put-downs implying weakness and effeminacy, and if you spend any time among Russians, even highly educated ones, you will hear the full range of them of them used to describe President Obama – lately, often with a laugh.

This was probably inevitable: how else did anyone expect the “former” KGB officer and judo master to look at the law professor and community organizer? Yet policies matter more, and over the last five years, Obama’s policies have gradually opened the door to a stronger, more assertive Russia in the world, above all the disaster over Syria which, as my colleague Tom Nichols and I noted several times last yearrepresented an opening beyond the Middle East that Putin was sure to take advantage of, and so he has.

All is far from lost. In his last year in office, President Jimmy Carter, shaken by Kremlin aggression, above all in Afghanistan, woke up to reality and took decisive action, raising defense spending and getting tough with the USSR in something like Special War, thereby setting the stage for victory in the Cold War a decade later, something which too few pundits have been willing to credit President Carter. Something similar can be done now, and ought to be. Deterrence, particularly in the realm of Special War, is the language that Putin speaks and understands well. This, plus bolstering NATO’s conventional defenses in the East, is entirely within our power and needs to be done urgently to forestall more Russian bad behavior.

Yet there are reasons to doubt this will happen soon enough, not least due to the basic dysfunction of this White House in foreign policy. This is not news, yet matters greatly now. Simply put, President Obama has surrounded himself with people who are not up to the challenge presented by the Kremlin over Ukraine and beyond. I’ve named some of them before, and don’t need to do so again. Most seriously, the consolidation of foreign policy decision-making in a few hands in this White House is without modern precedent and cancerous. It’s hardly a secret inside the Beltway that both the Departments of State and Defense, the former not exactly being a right-wing bastion, have been marginalized under Obama to a dangerous extent. In the recent scandal of Obama appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships when they seemed not to even know where the country in question was, I could not help but note that this really makes no difference, since all important foreign policy decisions are being made by a few, often young, staffers in the White House, outside the normal State Department chain.

A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.

In the present-day West, it’s commonplace to have a laugh at Vladimir Putin’s weirdly macho (and more than a little homoerotic) posturings, and I’ve done it too – how not, among the panoply of martial arts, bears, and countless shirtless adventures before the cameras? Yet in Russia they love this stuff, without a laugh-track. They are not yet as post-modern as we are, and they find reassurance in an old-school leader who talks about – and more importantly demonstrates – strength in a dangerous world. The first decade of the post-Soviet era was an economic, political, and social catastrophe for Russia, and Putin, whatever his faults, has been a pleasant change in the eyes of most Russians, which is why they back him through thick and thin. The Putin era will end someday, probably with Russia more isolated from the world than ever, but that coda may be some difficult decades off.

In the meantime, Western leaders must find the strength to resist Russian aggression through deterrence. Credibility must come first, as without it all our nuclear warheads, conventional forces, and economic leverage mean little and will not impress. NATO can deter Putin’s misdeeds, far beyond Ukraine, but that will require reinvestment in collective defense, not just cheap talk and expensive conferences. European NATO members have become accustomed to American leadership and gap-filling at all times, but they need to confront the reality that they must do more, and soon. Across the West, we need leaders who understand the stakes now and how to prevent war through strength and cunning. As is always the case in war, cold or hot, we need to become a little bit like our enemy to deter him. If our leaders cannot do that, get new leaders – and soon, as this game is real and the stakes are high.

[The author’s comments are his alone and certainly not representative of any of his employers, past or present.]

Meet Moscow’s New “Ukrainian Front”

Today Ukraine’s beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych returned to work after four days of “sick leave.” His country is spiraling into chaos. Kyiv’s writ no long carries in much of the West of country, which is something like open revolt against the Yanukovych government. While that government has promised some concessions to the diverse opposition, little has been achieved yet, while beatings and abductions of journalists and anti-regime activists continue. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see how this crisis can be resolved peacefully.

Some of this dirty work may be attributable to Moscow, as I’ve previously reported. What’s not in doubt is that Russian media over the last week has ramped up its anti-opposition rhetoric, with regular castigations of Ukrainians who dislike Yanukovych as “fascists” and worse. Some of this borders on hysteria. Kremlin-linked outlets in particular have been fanning the flames, resurrecting memories of the Second World War – of course with regular reminders that some Ukrainians, especially in the West, resisted Soviet rule mightily, indeed into the 1950s. Perhaps most alarming is the current of discussion in Moscow media that openly mentions civil war and the fragmentation of Ukraine into as many as five countries, a process that could not be achieved without major bloodshed.

What Russia’s enhanced political meddling in Ukraine looks like was revealed today in an article in the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta which, to be clear, is the Kremlin’s official outlet. Maksim Makarychev’s report, titled “Divided. Who will conquer? A front is created in Ukraine to fight against EuroMaidan,” details the establishment of a new political grouping in Eastern Ukraine to back the Yanukovych government against the opposition, which the article slyly hints is in the pay of – unnamed, presumably Western – foreigners.

This new organization, called the Ukrainian Front (Украинский фронт), aims to “save” Ukraine from foreign meddling and revolution, and has just been established in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, under the “grassroots” auspices of Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions. Harking back to the Second World War and the Stalinist era, the article cites the stirring words of Mykhaylo Dobkin, one of Yanukovych’s top functionaries in Kharkiv and a prime mover behind the front’s establishment: “After seventy years a new Ukrainian Front is starting to operate in Ukraine, the members of which will follow the example of our fathers and grandfathers and free our land, like in the 1940’s.”

According to Makarychev, “representatives from twenty Ukrainian regions gathered in Kharkiv: They all spoke about the need to put an end to the seizure of state buildings and to violence across the country.  The new organization’s main priority is to free the state institutions that have already been seized.” Additionally, the Ukrainian Front seeks to crush the opposition with a “push for a referendum on completely abolishing deputies’ immunity and on cutting the number of parliamentary deputies by one-third.”

It seems Moscow is not pleased with its protege Yanukovych and his inability to crush the opposition, so it is forming a new grouping to “assist” the hardliners. Given that the appearance of the Ukrainian Front has been heralded with a birth announcement in the Kremlin’s official newspaper, Russian approval and support can be assumed.

Moreover, the embrace of Stalinist-era rhetoric by the Ukrainian Front indicates a great deal, and will serve as a needless irritant towards Ukrainians who detest Stalin and his murderous legacy. In a similar vein, Communist activists have unveiled a bust of Stalin in Western Ukraine, a provocation that is about as offensive to most locals there as a statue of Hitler would be in the rest of Europe. Of course, hailing Stalin’s victories in the 1940’s is of a piece with the current Kremlin vilification campaign against all Ukrainians who do not want their country to be subjugated by Russia, a nasty agitprop line that regrettably has Western supporters, not all of them unwitting dupes.

Now that the Ukrainian Front has entered the picture, with Moscow’s imprimatur, expect the situation in Ukraine to only get worse. It would be difficult to overstate the danger Ukraine and Europe are in at the moment thanks to intimidation, meddling and provocation by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. European governments would be well advised to not permit naked Russian interference of a violent and coercive sort in Ukrainian politics: this cannot end well.

The End of the Snowden Operation

For over half a year now, the world has been astounded by waves of leaked revelations of National Security Agency electronic espionage, provided by the former NSA IT contractor Edward Snowden, who stole something like 1.7 million classified documents before fleeing to Russia via Hong Kong. There’s never been anything quite like this in the annals of America’s – or really anybody’s – intelligence system. Snowden’s act and its global media reverberations have been one of a kind.

From nearly the outset, I have drawn attention to the obvious foreign intelligence connections to the Snowden case – and obvious they are to anyone familiar with counterintelligence, particularly Russian – and for some time I have termed this sorry spectacle the Snowden Operation, since we don’t know the covername actually given it by Russian intelligence. But, at its core, this is simply an updated version of the operational game played in the 1970s by Cuban and Soviet intelligence with the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), who authored, with KGB “help,” several books exposing U.S. intelligence operations, particularly in Latin America. While Agee didn’t tell the Cubans and Soviets much classified that they didn’t really know already, at least generally, for Washington, DC, and particularly for CIA, it was a huge embarrassment that hampered activities in many countries for many years.

The Snowden Operation has been really no more than the Agee show brought into the 21st century and the Internet age. Who needs whole books of leaks when there are websites and “journalists” happy to disseminate it all, usually with deeply flawed “analysis” to boot? Over the last seven months the world has become accustomed to regular leaks of NSA programs that, before last May, individually would have been jaw-dropping in many capitals. Now, well, it’s just Tuesday.

Additionally, the Snowden Operation has engendered not merely complications for U.S. foreign policy, but a blistering domestic debate to boot, just as its architects intended. There is now a considerable cadre of Americans, an odd alliance of leftist bitter-enders, libertarian Randians, and battalions of dudebros who thrive on snark and hating their parents, that is convinced that NSA is the source of all their problems. That this is demonstrably untrue has made little difference, and will not.

However, yesterday President Obama ended the political debate about the Snowden Operation with his much-anticipated speech about NSA and reform, based on the recommendations of his own panel. As my colleague Tom Nichols and I have long predicted, the reform package Obama has delivered is a stinging defeat for the NSA haters. Yes, it will be more difficult for NSA analysts to access metadata, but access it they will. Yes, NSA collection against top foreign leaders will be restricted, somewhat, but Agency support to U.S. and Allied diplomacy will continue. The bottom line is that President Obama’s reforms contain no significant changes to how NSA does business as the leading foreign intelligence agency in the United States and the free world.

These reforms go some distance to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens better, which I’ve wanted for a long time anyway, but even the changes to metadata holdings have been kicked by Obama to Congress for resolution, which will be difficult, since telecom companies understandably have little interest in involving themselves further in what’s become a touchy mess. In all, Obama – many of whose national security policies of late I’ve been critical of – performed masterfully yesterday, delivering a near pitch-perfect speech and resetting the agenda on intelligence matters.

Predictably, the NSA haters have gone bonkers. Somehow, in a fest of self-delusion that must rival anything done by the Reverend Jim Jones to his ill-fated followers, many convinced themselves that Obama might shut down NSA and have its leaders frog-walked into Federal custody, if not simply shot without trial. Alas, nothing of the sort was ever going to happen. In part because no White House will ever shut down its top source of foreign intelligence, or can afford to. But mostly because the hysterical charges we’ve seen thrown at NSA – that it violates the privacy of “hundreds of millions,” many American – for months were essentially false.

Haters will hate, as is their wont, and I’ve frankly enjoyed the bouts of online hysteria from Snowden fanboys since yesterday, involving a gnashing of teeth of epic proportions (for a so-perfect-it-cannot-be-parodied combination of ignorance and sanctimony, Conor Friedersdorf is impossible to top). But the game’s over, Obama just blew the whistle.

There’s much work to be done, naturally, and Congress will spend the rest of 2014 hashing out just what the President’s reforms should actually look like in application (expect a long, needlessly drawn out catfight on The Hill, like everything there), but the White House has shut the door on the ridiculous, overheated spectacle that the Snowden Operation dumped on our Intelligence Community.

None have any expectation that the leaks will stop, given the unimaginably huge amount of Top Secret documents from NSA and Allied agencies that Snowden stole, but the humdrum effect has already set in. The world has become accustomed to such a regular barrage of revelations about NSA that, unless the Iranians are correct that aliens really are running things at Fort Meade (they’re not, I checked), few of these will be front page stories any longer.

The Snowden Operation has guaranteed that NSA has become a global stand-in for unmitigated evil for certain people, a Keyser Söze who reads your email,and there’s not much that Washington, DC, and its friends can do about that. But the real intent of Ed, Glenn, and their coterie was never intelligence reform, rather the destruction of NSA and the Western intelligence alliance. As of yesterday, we know that will not happen. Henceforth, you’ll occasionally encounter people who are obsessed with “NSA” and think the Agency reads their texts of cat pictures, but these are the same sort of people who, in a previous age, were obsessed with Knights Templar, Jews, and Masons, and can be ignored when adults are talking.

I say “NSA” because the global meme fostered online by the Snowden Operation bears so little resemblance to what the Agency actually is and does. Planet Greenwald has done a weirdly masterful job of placing “NSA” in the same category as “UFOs”, “Kennedy Assassination,” “Bigfoot,” and “Area 51”: there actually is something deep down there that might possibly be true, but it’s so buried under hyperbole and fantasy as to be unfathomable as any reality.

I say this with regret, as someone who was calling for reforms of the Intelligence Community, especially NSA, before anybody heard of Edward Snowden. Real reform is impossible now, for at least a generation, because the Snowden Operation has so soiled the cause of real IC reform with treachery, narcissism, crankery, and Putin’s Russia. I worry that today’s modest reforms may not be able to keep up with rapid changes in IT. Privacy concerns about NSA are entirely valid, and had the Snowden Operation confined its leaks to issues of purely domestic surveillance, that healthy and necessary debate about post-9/11 intelligence might have happened, at last. But Ed went to Russia, where he remains. The real drivers of the Snowden Operation never sought a domestic debate about NSA, that was never their agenda, so here we are. Winston Churchill famously termed the Allied victory at El Alamein in late 1942 as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Now we’re a bit further along than that in the Snowden Operation.

Discussions of NSA and especially “NSA” will be prominent online and in the real world for years to come. The Agency has lost its cover, for better or worse. As I’ve said before, I hope the Agency uses this opportunity to rebrand itself in a spirit of openness to the American people about its essential mission, which the public has a right to know more about. Regardless, the Agency will survive and its personnel – military, civilian, and contractor – will keep protecting our country and our allies. Before long people will be asking, “What ever happened to that ‘strange guy‘ who defected to Russia?” Once the Snowden Operation kicked off – when exactly that was remains an open question of high interest to counterintelligence investigators in dozens of countries – there was never going to be any other outcome.

NSA, Germany and Handygate: A Reality Check

Right now Germany is in the midst of a full-fledged political storm, dubbed Handygate in the media, over alleged espionage by the National Security Agency against the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone is said to have been intercepted by NSA for years. Given German sensitivities about privacy that linger from both the Nazi and Communist periods, as well as the well known national proclivity towards introspection – Nabelschau (navel-gazing) being a core German competency – the resulting scandal is verging on the obsessional among some Germans.

All this is of course being fanned by the media, especially the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has a long-standing reputation for sensationalism about espionage, particularly American; it has also been a regular conduit for stolen NSA materials from the defector Edward Snowden. What makes this interesting is that one need not be a seasoned counterintelligence hand to note that some of the newest materials could not have come from Snowden; a bigger game is now afoot, and it’s centered on Germany (where, let it be noted, key members of the Wikileaks apparat Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras reside).

There are oddities abounding in this case. In the first place, due to the laws drawn up by the Federal Republic of Germany at its late 1940s founding, the alleged NSA activities that have caused this firestorm may actually be legal. Moreover, a great deal of what’s going on now is political theater which Chancellor Merkel has to be witting of at some level. If she’s not, one must question her basic fitness for dealing with any international affairs, though her longtime use of a fundamentally insecure cellphone to conduct government business boggles the mind of any intelligence veteran.

The heads of Germany’s intelligence services are now headed to Washington, DC, for meetings with the White House and NSA to smooth over the scandal. At bottom, Germany (like France), seeks not to shut down NSA espionage, rather to get closer to it. Berlin has long been jealous of London and the other Anglosphere members of the so-called Five Eyes community, the SIGINT alliance born in the Second World War which, to this day, constitutes the most successful international intelligence partnership in world history. Perhaps because they were on the wrong side when that alliance was created in the days of the ULTRA secret, German intelligence agencies have always wanted into the club and its privileged inner circle. Although Germany enjoys a tight spy relationship with the United States (and Britain too), Berlin knows its place, and it would like an upgrade.

Abandoning the US-German intelligence partnership is simply not an option, no matter what politicians may say, and regardless of how much hysteria is created by the media. The reasons for this are well known to intelligence insiders, and are elaborated in a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. Its title, “Technically Backward and Helpless,” is painfully accurate. There can be no doubt that Germany’s intelligence and security services, preeminently the Federal Intelligence Service (BND, Germany’s CIA plus NSA equivalent) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, equivalent to Britain’s Security Service), are indeed deeply dependent on American partners, and have been since the day of their creation.

The depths of that dependency are laid bare in Die Welt‘s account. Germany’s “helpless dependence” on the U.S. Intelligence Community is not new but it entered a complicated phase after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States which, lest we forget, were staged mostly out of Hamburg, a fact which the Die Welt piece notes: “The Americans did not want to rely exclusively on us after September 11th. That is understandable,” explained a German intelligence official.  Thus was born increased attention to Germany among U.S. spy agencies.

Additionally, Germany’s intelligence agencies are underfunded and lack the technical capabilities of other leading Western countries; in espionage, Germany has chosen to punch below its economic and political weight, and now bears the consequences, namely deep dependency on foreign partners such as NSA and CIA. As I recently reported, the BND head Gerhard Schindler recently called for more reliance on foreign partners, not less, and here he was simply reflecting budgetary and political realities in Germany, where there is scant appetite for more investment in security.

Even in domestic intelligence matters Germany is heavily dependent on American help, especially from NSA, whose SIGINT has been provided to the Germans in many cases, leading to the disruption of a number of planned terrorist attacks in Germany since 2001.  “Without information from the Americans, there would have been successful terrorist attacks in Germany in the past years,” explained a BfV official, truthfully.

For these reasons it’s unlikely that any big changes to German intelligence or its relationship to NSA and CIA will happen soon. Although the current political brouhaha is serious, even though some of the hand-wringing is obviously staged by politicos who know better, this, too, shall pass, unless Germany wants to spend significantly more money on its own security and intelligence. And, as yet, there is no sign of that.

Germany’s condition reflects the reality that too many European countries have underinvested in their own defense and security since the end of the Cold War, and are therefore deeply dependent on the United States for assistance. I would like the Germans and other European countries to take more responsibility for their own security and fund their militaries and intelligence agencies at higher levels.  They would be better partners then too. But I’m not optimistic on that front. Protesting, after all, is easier than reforming bureaucracies or finding more money in lean budgetary times.

It’s called the Second Oldest Profession for a reason

We’ve started the new week with more “shocking” revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency, a foreign intelligence agency, is actually conducting foreign intelligence operations.  And pretty effectively at that. Thanks to Edward Snowden and his motley ring of collaborators, the world is getting an idea of what NSA does as its main job. Which is seeing and listening to foreign communications.

Last week Snowden’s stolen information revealed that NSA spies on Mexico. This week it’s France. Which is “shocking” only to those who know nothing about the real world of intelligence, or those who have a preexisting hatred for the United States and its close allies (there is considerable overlap between those categories, as we’ve learned in recent months). Since France is famed in spy circles worldwide for its aggressive HUMINT and SIGINT operations against even close allies, the latest Snowden revelations have been met with the biggest of all Gallic shrugs behind closed doors, no matter what Paris may say publicly.

Countries spy on each other. Everybody with the mental functioning of an adult knows this. Or at least used to. Thanks to Snowden, the global media has grown accustomed to a drumbeat of vague assertions about what NSA is said to be doing abroad. Seasoned spy-watchers will notice that what’s appearing in the media is long on sensation and rather short on technological details, and derive their own conclusions.

There’s an old wag in SpookWorld about there being no friendly intelligence services, but that’s not entirely true. I get asked regularly by neophytes to explain how this works in the real world, but I’m not about to divulge secrets, so what I’ll say is this. Outside the Anglosphere SIGINT “Five Eyes” alliance, which dates to the Second World War, everybody really does spy on everybody, at least to some degree. Which is why counterintelligence is so important. On Planet Five Eyes, it’s different, and has been for a long time.

But even this most enduring of intelligence partnerships has not been around forever, and until its establishment in the dark days of 1940-41, when Britain was on the ropes and a German invasion seemed possible, even the Anglosphere spied on each other. It needs to be said that the British spied a lot more on the Americans than vice versa, since British capabilities in HUMINT and SIGINT were superior to what Washington, DC, then had in its espionage arsenal.

As during World War I, British intelligence in the early 1940s was spying on the United States and running covert action programs to get America into the war on Britain’s side, sensibly enough from London’s viewpoint. Indeed, British intelligence had a pretty significant role in securing U.S. entry into the Great War in April 1917, though the real story is even more cunning than Washington, DC, knew or even suspected at the time. It’s a great spy yarn with world-historical impacts.

Anyone even passingly familiar with intelligence history has heard of the Zimmermann Telegram, the infamous German own-goal that played a big role in pushing a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson into the war on the Allied side. Knowing that Germany was at serious and rising risk of losing the war, Berlin’s top diplomat, Arthur Zimmermann, wanted to try to get Mexico into the war on the side of the Central Powers; as Berlin at the beginning of 1917 had decided to recommence unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany’s military and political leadership accepted that the U.S. was eventually going to enter the war anyway, so why not make it as painful for the Americans as possible?

The secret, encrypted telegram from Berlin, with its explosive offer of giving Mexico large chunks of the United States – basically what the Mexicans lost in 1848 –  in exchange for entering the war on Germany’s side, pretty much guaranteed that America would enter the war, as it went to more than its intended recipients.

The course of the war shifted dramatically in Britain’s favor on January 17, 1917, when British codebreakers intercepted the soon-to-be-infamous telegram. From the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy’s SIGINT operation in London, known as Room 40, had done an excellent job, first breaking German naval codes and then moving into diplomatic decryption; by the midpoint of the war, Room 40 was able to read a high percentage of Berlin’s encrypted communications.

It soon became apparent to Admiral Reginald “Blinker” Hall, director of Naval intelligence, that he had a true bombshell on his hands. But what to do with it? He immediately ordered the decrypted and translated telegram compartmented and shared on a very limited, need-to-know basis only; few even in Room 40 knew of its existence. The few officials in London who were briefed about the telegram realized that the message had to be shared with the Americans, who were wavering on joining the Allied cause.

But there was a problem. A big problem. At the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy literally cut all the undersea telegraph cables that allowed Germany to communicate with the outside world. Berlin complained that this made it impossible for Germany to take part in any peace discussions that might end the war. President Woodrow Wilson – remember, he was a college professor by trade – kindly offered to let Berlin send its diplomatic messages via U.S. State Department’s encrypted systems.

In other words, Room 40 got a hold of the Zimmermann Telegram because the British were reading U.S. diplomatic traffic. This was something that London sensibly had no interest in letting the Americans in on. So Admiral Hall devised a cunning deception plan that included sending an intelligence agent in Mexico City to steal a copy of the Zimmermann message from the telegraph office. It worked perfectly as the operation was clever and tightly compartmented, and while Washington, DC, including President Wilson, reacted to the German offer to Mexico with appropriate outrage, the Americans never suspected the message’s true origins. (For the full story check out this NSA version of the saga.)

Indeed, the British kept on intercepting and decrypting U.S. diplomatic traffic for many years thereafter. It wasn’t until the eve of the Second World War that William Friedman, the father of modern American SIGINT, realized what the British had pulled off with the Zimmermann Telegram. By then, it was about two decades too late to matter.

The Coming Age of Special War

The last couple weeks have witnessed one of the most significant periods in decades in the annals of diplomatic history. Having deeply mishandled the domestic side of the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration proceeded to worsen matters by, in effect, outsourcing the problem to Vladimir Putin. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m pessimistic about any Moscow-brokered WMD deal having the effects that the West desires. That said, much remains to be seen, as this issue is really only in the first chapter of diplomatic resolution.

However, I’m confident in stating that the United States backing off from overt military intervention in Syria’s civil war has important implications, already visible, for the U.S. military. That diplomats, not generals and admirals, were walking point in the White House on this issue has been widely noted, as has a budding civil-military conundrum that will very likely get worse in the years ahead.

Looming over all this, though, is the reality that the U.S. military may have simply priced itself out of the market. After the thrashing of Saddam’s forces in early 1991 by a U.S.-led coalition in Operation DESERT STORM, it was evident to nearly everyone that facing America’s military in a stand-up fight was a losing proposition. Our technological lead, coupled with superb command-and-control (C2), gave the United States a remarkable competitive edge in the tactical-to-operational realm of warfare. Strategy, however, would prove a much tougher nut for the Pentagon to crack. Even Saddam, in the years after his 1991 defeat, never seriously planned for conventional resistance against any future U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which even the man from Tikrit realized was a fool’s errand.

In the heady time of Blitzkrieg triumphs early in World War II, Hitler famously proclaimed “nothing is impossible for the German soldier” (dem deutschen Soldaten ist nichts unmöglich) and in the salad days of U.S. hegemony after 1991 that Nazi mirage seemed to have been realized, at last, by the Americans. Yet tactical awesomeness does not equal strategic competence, and any serious analysis of U.S. military performance since 9/11, in the era of the Global War on Terror, must conclude that Americans arms failed to deliver promised political outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan. While there is much blame for this to be laid at the feet of barmy politicos, U.S. top military leadership is equally culpable for the strategic setbacks. History will not be kind to the likes of Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, to cite only two particularly egregious examples, and any attempt to dodge this truth can fester into a kind of “stab in the back legend” (to allow a second Germanism in one paragraph), a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Above all, the U.S. is broke. This week, while addressing the baleful impact of sequestration on the Pentagon, three of our four service chiefs bluntly informed Congress, in open session, that they could not execute even one Major Theater War under current financial conditions. Since the end of the Cold War, the MTW has been the military’s gold standard. Down to 9/11, the Pentagon’s positions was that it could fight two MTWs simultaneously; now, with readiness in trouble due to wars and empty coffers, the reality has set in that the Pentagon is facing a crisis. The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching.

Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. Which may be just as well, given the current state of the U.S. military, particularly our ground forces, which are tired after 12 years of counterinsurgency in CENTCOM. Although the possibility of force-on-force conflict with China seems plausible, particularly given rising tensions in East Asian waters, the rest of the world appears uninterested in fighting the United States the way the U.S. likes to fight.

This, paradoxically, may not actually be good news in the long run, as the United States is seriously unready for other forms of conflict. Worse, the U.S. Government has persuaded itself that it is more ready for lower-intensity forms of conflict than it actually is. To be fair, in recent years the Pentagon, in collaboration with the Intelligence Community, has made UAVs a serious threat to terrorists around the world, while DoD’s Special Operations Forces – as large as the entire militaries of many Western countries – are the envy of the world in terms of their size, budgets, and capabilities. Yet all these are really just somewhat more subtle forms of traditional military applications of force.

What is needed instead is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war,” an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I’m afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.

The apparently total inability of the U.S. Government to keep secrets these days indicates a basic unreadiness for special war. Just as serious an obstacle is the mindset of most U.S. warfighters, which remains vividly conventional and unimaginative. No less, the risk aversion that characterizes too many American military and intelligence operations, caused by having lawyers oversee everything the Pentagon and the IC do, will have to be dispensed with if America wants to develop any real capabilities in special war.

There are templates to follow. Britain and France are more proficient in aspects of special war than we are, in part due to a legacy of colonial-era operations that lingers in London and Paris. Israel in particular is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of special war – aggressive espionage, subversion of hostile foreign factions, and even assassinations  – but the Israeli model has its limits. In the first place, it’s questionable how much a system developed for a small state with a defined set of foes can be expanded to meet the needs of a huge global power. Moreover, Israeli political culture is tolerant of special war, including the mistakes that inevitably accompany it, showing a degree of public maturity about such messy matters that seems seriously lacking in the United States.

Unfortunately there is one country that excels at special war, and that’s Russia. Moscow’s proficiency in these dark arts goes back to the late Tsarist period, when the regime’s solution to a rising terrorism problem was to penetrate terrorist groups while creating some of their own: a politically tricky strategy that worked nearly perfectly, as long as one is willing to close one’s eyes at key moments. Proficiency in espionage, subversion, and terrorism was perfected under the Soviets, yet the skills of Russian intelligence in this domain have, if anything, increased under the rule of President Putin who, by virtue of being a onetime KGB counterintelligence officer, fully comprehends the power of special war.

Putin’s years in power have witnessed a blossoming of special war in Chechnya, where intelligence-led counterinsurgency has worked where blunter military methods failed to subdue the rebellion; in the Baltic states, where Russian intelligence successfully influences and intimdates these small NATO countries; and especially in Georgia, where the full range of Russian secret tricks has been employed intensely. The August 2008 Russian military intervention got the world’s attention, while the day-in, day-out activities waged by Moscow against Tbilisi, encompassing a rough form of spywar, get little press outside the region. The lead-up to the Obama administration’s agreement to a Russian offer to settle the Syrian WMD issue is a classic case of Moscow’s active measures – a key aspect of special war – setting the field for a big Russian diplomatic win.

Special war works when competently handled. It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting. The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We’re already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It’s about time the Pentagon caught on.

Snowden, NSA, and Counterintelligence

Ever since the remarkable case of Edward Snowden broke into the limelight at the beginning of the summer that’s now winding down, I’ve had a great deal to say about it here, on Twitter, and on radio and television. As one of the very few former NSA officers who’s in the public eye and willing to talk about Snowden, I’ve had an audience. As a former NSA counterintelligence officer with experience dealing with the Russians, I’ve been pretty much a solo act.

From nearly the outset I’ve stated that Snowden is very likely an agent of Russian intelligence; this was met with howls of indignation which have died down in recent weeks as it’s become apparent that Ed’s staying in Russia for some time, along with whatever classified materials he had on his person. (Since Glenn Greenwald’s partner when stopped by British authorities at Heathrow had 58,000 highly classified documents on him, thanks to Ed, one can only wonder how big the initial haul actually was.) That Snowden was in contact with the Russian consulate in Hong Kong during his pre-Moscow visit there, including spending his 30th birthday with his new friends, is now admitted. Even President Vladimir Putin has conceded that Ed’s contacts with Russian officials did not commence when he landed at Sheremtyevo airport, rather before.

But when? That of course is the key question that NSA counterintelligence surely wants – needs – to know. All roads here lead to Wikileaks. We know that Snowden in late 2012 reached out to Glenn Greenwald and other members of the spy-ring – all of whom can be considered cut-outs for Wikileaks when not paid-up members – that stands behind the massive leaks. After making this contact, Ed took a contractor job with Booz Allen Hamilton to increase his access to NSA secrets. I’ve been stating for a while now that Wikileaks is functionally an extension of Russian intelligence; it’s become a minor meme as a few journalists have decided that such a scandalous viewpoint is worth considering.

Of course, for anyone versed in the ways of Russian intelligence, the notion that Wikileaks is a Moscow front that’s involved in anti-US espionage is about as controversial as, say, the notion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Running false flags, creating fake activist groups, using Western journalists and activists for deception purposes – this sort of thing is in the DNA of Russian intelligence going back to the 19th century and is second nature to them. They call espionage tradecraft konspiratsiya (conspiracy) for a reason.

While there can be little doubt that the damage Snowden has wrought to the US and Allied SIGINT system is nothing less than immense, it will be some time before NSA and the US Government make any public pronouncements on such a touchy matter – not to mention that it will likely be several months yet before the Intelligence Community completes what will surely rank as the Mother of All Damage Assessments.

Without in any way diminishing the espionage losses that young Mr Snowden has caused, I want to suggest that the political damage in this case may loom larger, particularly as Putin savors his big win in this round, having humiliated American intelligence as it’s never quite been publicly humiliated before. The onetime Chekist in Putin surely is going to bed at night with a smile these days. “There are no ‘former’ intelligence officers,” Russia’s president once famously said, and he was also talking about himself.

But what of the actual espionage losses caused by Ed Snowden? Context matters here, and although the U.S. media hardly covered it, readers of this blog are aware that last year saw the unfolding of a spy scandal in Canada that was simply vast in its implications. Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle for nearly five years before his detection was regularly passing huge amounts of classified information to Russian military intelligence (GRU). Every month or so, Delisle would leave his desk in the intelligence fusion center in Halifax with a memory stick filled with top secret information to sell to the Russians.

Moreover, Delisle is a trained intelligence officer – unlike Snowden, who is no more than an IT guy with little if any operational intelligence experience – and it’s apparent that much of what he gave away to GRU was SIGINT from NSA and its Five Eyes partners (British GCHQ, Canadian CSEC, Australian DSD, New Zealand GCSB). The Russians seemed to have really cleaned up with this one, and despite efforts from ministers in Ottawa to downplay what Delisle did, Canadian senior intelligence officials have made clear that the case is without precedent in its damage and implications, far beyond Canada.

Simply put, one must wonder, after nearly five years of Delisle selling the Russians all the Five Eyes TOP SECRET/ SCI data he could get his hands on, how much there really was about NSA, GCHQ, et al, that Moscow didn’t already know. Perhaps Snowden is, if not exactly a patsy, a none-too-clever fellow – Putin today called Ed “a strange guy” – whose main purpose is causing pain and suffering to Washington, DC. Which, let it be said,  he has done rather well, thanks to the propaganda offensive waged by Greenwald, Poitras, and their helpers in several countries, with Ed’s purloined information, and who have masked their radical activism under the (thin) guise of post-modern journalism.

Part of a counterintelligence officer’s job is detecting patterns, linkages between cases, that normal people don’t see. When the large Illegals network run by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in the United States was rolled up by the FBI in mid-2010, with the arrest and expulsion of ten deep-cover SVR agents, Moscow was humiliated, a pain that Putin seems to have absorbed personally. Illegals, after all, are the jewel in the crown of Russian HUMINT, an elite cadre of spies. Although the U.S. media mainly focused on the redheaded vixen Anna Chapman, ignoring what she and her spy-partners were actually doing in their secret lives, counterintelligence professionals were left with awkward questions, not least because, in Russian practice, Illegals are useful for undertaking highly sensitive tasks, including handling truly deep-cover agents working for Moscow.

To the surprise of absolutely zero veteran counterspies, it soon emerged that the roll-up of the SVR Illegals network in 2010 set off a molehunt inside U.S intelligence, including at NSA. There were actually several Russian moles said to be embedded inside the Intelligence Community, including at least one at NSA. Since there have no public announcements of the detection or arrest of any Russian moles in the IC, it appears that those individuals have not been caught.

Thus we are left with the discomforting realization that, between undetected moles, Delisle, and Snowden, NSA and its sister agencies have been deeply penetrated by Russian intelligence in recent years. What, then, is the exact role being played by Ed and his motley crew of “anti-secrecy activists” who seem hellbent on exposing as many NSA (and GCHQ) programs as they can?

It is possible that Snowden’s appearance on the radar of Russian intelligence – presumably late in 2012, almost certainly through Wikileaks – actually represents a cover mechanism of sorts for Moscow. Tasked now with an enormous damage assessment and trying to uncover if Snowden had any helpers inside NSA, it seems unlikely that IC counterintelligence experts will have the resources or manpower anytime soon to find the Russian moles who may be deeply embedded inside NSA and related U.S. intelligence agencies.

If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t, because Moscow has done exactly this sort of thing before, with considerable success. Very little can be said with certainty at this point, though a clearer picture will emerge with time. Suffice to say that experienced counterintelligence hands, accustomed to living with the vaunted “wilderness of mirrors” that comes with playing spygames with Moscow, are asking the right questions.

In the meantime it would be a step in the right direction for the U.S. and Allied governments to start treating Wikileaks like the front for hostile intelligence that it actually is. Right now, President Obama is contemplating bombing Syria and possibly starting a new war in the Middle East. Surely he can find the strength to call Wikileaks what it actually is, a far easier thing to achieve.

Thinking strategically about Syria

Barring some strange turn of events, it’s likely that the United States and key NATO allies will be raining TLAMs (“cruise missiles” to civilians) on Syria by the end of this week. This will be in response to reasonably hard evidence – smart money is on Israeli SIGINT as the main source – that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical rockets recently in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing at least hundreds of innocents.

This was probably not the first time the regime used chemicals in its war against the diverse, largely Sunni coalition that has been fighting to overthrow the regime for the last two years, but it was the first large-scale atrocity in this war that used some version of WMD. President Obama’s “red line,” proffered exactly a year before this latest murderous outrage, seems to have been well and truly crossed.

Thus the White House has little choice but to do something, for the sake of any credibility, though it’s obvious that Obama, who came into office castigating his predecessor’s reckless wars of choice in the Greater Middle East, is a highly reluctant war leader. As well he should be, given the Republic’s recent track record in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial successes were ruined by bad strategy that failed to subdue resistance movements that, by historical standards, were anything but robust.

OSF (ie Operation SYRIAN FREEDOM) is what this administration must avoid, and presumably will at nearly any cost. Using TLAMs and limited conventional bombing to damage Syrian’s chemical capabilities, plus the C2 nodes that support WMD, is a reasonable goal, though it’s far from a panacea. Really taking out Syria’s moderately impressive air defenses – a bigger goal – is a tall order, if one that can be done by NATO in a week or more of sustained effort, 24 hours a day. Lives will be lost, and not just Syrian.

The strategy of the Syrian nightmare merits a book in itself, not a mere blog post, but I will share some strategic insights in no particular order, based on my experiences with America’s post-Cold War military adventures.

1. The enemy gets a vote. Always. He will react in ways you cannot accurately predict. Israel is close-by: hint.

2. When your enemy is on “death ground” – as Assad and his Alawi and Christian supporters surely are – they care a lot more about this fight than you do, or ever will.

3. “Surgical strikes” belong in PowerPoints by greedy defense contractors, not the real world of warfare.

4. When all belligerents in a conflict are morally repugnant, you ought to chose sides carefully (better yet: don’t).

5. Proxy wars will last far longer, and turn out far nastier, than seems logical, especially when the stakes seem high for one or more outside players.

6. If you want to seriously effect change you will wind up putting boots on the ground. Period. If you ignore this reality – or worse, guess wrong about how many troops you need – you may create a firestorm (see: Iraq 2003).

7. Putting Western boots on the ground in cultures where we and our values are hated is a bad idea unless you are willing to play by their rules, ie be highly brutal on a grand scale towards even civilians. Better not to do it.

8. Never, ever stop thinking about the value of the object, ie what do we really want here? Negative aims are fine, but not having clear, achievable aims is a good way to lose quick.

9. Certain cultures are not impressed by “surgical strikes.” They use mass brutality and think anything less is weak, even effeminate.

10. US and NATO are very good at ISR and precision strike, we have learned an enormous amount about the tactics of hi-tech killing over the last dozen years of war in CENTCOM. But this is not the same thing as strategic wisdom or political insight. Strategy trumps tactics in the long run, always.

More as it happens … and you can bet a lot more will be happening soon.

Do “experts” know what they are talking about?

This week has seen the crisis over North Korea enter a new, ominous phase. Tensions have been rising for weeks, with provocative acts on all sides, resulting in truly alarming conduct by Pyongyang, which has long set the bar for diplomatic conduct at “crazy.”

North Korea, or as it calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), remains a one-of-a-kind regime of special nastiness which frequently engages in dangerous antics, most recently before this bout of craziness the 2010 sinking of a South Korean frigate with the loss of 46 lives. This time Seoul will not be so restrained if Pyongyang kills its people and sinks its ships, and therein lies a great deal of danger, since it’s difficult for this analyst to see how we get out of this crisis without explosions of some sort – hopefully small ones.

The DPRK has engaged in the full range of aggressive and irresponsible behavior of late: cutting the hotline with Seoul, declaring the Korean War of 1950-53 (which never formally ended) on again, plus threatening to rain nukes on everyone including the United States. Pyongyang’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, which is permanently set at “yo mama,” is now firmly at eleven, as Spinal Tap would say. Today, to up an ante which can’t be upped much more without deaths, Pyongyang suggested that Russia and the few countries that have embassies in the DPRK shut them soon, adding that they cannot guarantee the safety of the British mission past April 10.

What does all this mean? I’m not an expert in East Asia, much less North Korea, and part of the problem is that very few Americans or Westerners are either. You can encounter all sorts of talking heads on TV and, as in all areas, very few of them have any idea what they are talking about since they are usually generalists whose knowledge, such as it is, might be quite outdated (I’ve done several TV appearances myself, and I am careful about speaking outside my lanes of expertise; some others don’t feel the same).

The situation among reputed specialists is not much better, sad to say. Many of these individuals, some of whom have impressive-sounding jobs and often a lot of publications, don’t speak Korean and have spent little if any time in the region. While this problem is not unique to Northeast Asia – more on that later – the spotlight is on these folks right now, and we’re in a no-kidding crisis with a nuclear component, so people – including policymakers – are listening. Should they be?

The usual narrative about the DPRK is that it’s this odd Stalinist hermit kingdom, the last holdout of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, guided by a very strange ideology of socialist autarchy called juche (something like “spirit of self-reliance”: think Ceausescu’s Romania’s meets Confucianism in a nuclear reactor). As the last remnant of the Communist dream, which got laughed out of all real countries over 20 years ago, Pyongyang is an odd place but one which Cold War relics hands like most Western nuclear proliferation experts can grasp, since they know about Commies and nukes.

But is any of this actually true? There is convincing evidence that it is not, indeed that most Western “experts” on the DPRK have little, if any, clue what they are talking about. B.R. Myers, one of the very few bona fide experts on Pyongyang and its weird regime, has written at length about just how misguided most of what you’re hearing and reading about North Korea now actually is. In the first place, many commentators apply outdated, Cold War thinking to the DPRK, where it doesn’t fit. Moreover, most “experts” are stunningly ignorant of what North Korea actually is like or how it thinks, resulting in profound, indeed fundamental, Western misreads on why Pyongyang does what it does. Which, given the awesomely high nuclear stakes right now, kinda matters.

It’s no wonder that most “experts” are so clueless, as Myers elaborates, since few speak Korean or have spent significant time on the peninsula (it’s tough to even visit the North, but Myers has lived and taught in the South for years, visiting the DPRK twice), and their deep understanding of the regime is close to zero.

Myers has written a superb book on DPRK propaganda and worldview which I can’t recommend highly enough, and this interview provides a nice Cliff Notes version. The bottom line, as Myers make clear, is that the juche stuff is all mumbo-jumbo for external consumption while the regime’s actual beliefs, which the population is bombarded with non-stop, are based in crude nationalism that works well at motivating the people though terrible times. Basically, Pyongyang is not a bunch of Commies, rather a bunch of Nazis, of a rarified Asian variety. Myers, who spent years studying the regime’s ideology, demonstrates that the DPRK’s esoteric worldview owes more to Japanese mystical ultranationalism, learned during Tokyo’s occupation of the country from 1905 to 1945, including – time to possibly get worried here – an emphasis on sacrifice and death in kamikaze fashion, than anything to do with Marx, Lenin, or Mao.

Part of the reason Westerners fail to grasp any of this – aside from the fact that few of the people they are told are well informed about North Korea actually are – is that the DPRK’s weird ideology is race-based, emphasizing the blood-derived purity of the Koreans, which they say has been maintained in the North but fatally compromised in the South due to Seoul’s dependence on the multiracial and decadent United States. Much propaganda about the US military emanating from Pyongyang – which gets as excited as Code Pink about sexual assaults committed by American service personnel abroad – includes lurid images of rednecks, latinos, and especially blacks which Dr. Goebbels would have admired. This is all racist and therefore not nice, and not something decent people ever discuss, so we can’t understand what motivates Pyongyang and why they do the crazy-seeming things that they do, and are doing right now.

Myers also shows that Pyongyang has no fear of the United States and perhaps wants a confrontation, even a military one, to gain dominance over the Korean peninsula. The DPRK’s assessment of strategy, grounded in very different ethnic and political assumptions, is radically different from our own. So the next time a talking head or op-ed columnist starts waxing about North Korea’s neo-Stalinist ideology or brings up rational-actor game theory or starts evoking Cold War deterrence models – turn it off, put it down, since s/he is just mouthing platitudes that are not in the same orbit as Kim and his friends. Read Myers instead.

The shortcomings of our “experts” is a frequent bugbear with me, because I’ve seen it all before. Our political scientists customarily disparage those with actual regional expertise, preferring elegant-sounding theories that usually have little to do with realities here on planet earth, while few historians – who might possess real linguistic and cultural knowledge – care to deal with current events, even ones which might blow up a good chunk of that planet.

I saw this all in the Balkans, where practically all journalists and quite a few “experts” had zero ability to understand that region in its own terms, yet this was no brake on years of reportage and pontification which fundamentally misinformed Western governments and publics about why people in the former Yugoslavia did what they did – which to outsiders seemed irrational, but was really quite rational (if not nice, again) if one understood how the locals thought and viewed themselves and their neighbors …. which requires you to actually talk to them, not in English.

I’d hate to see this sort of misinformation distort Western policies towards North Korea at this very important juncture, since the stakes now are immeasurably higher than anything in the Balkans in the 1990s. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail and the U.S. and its allies, plus frenemies like Beijing, can talk Pyongyang down from the nuclear tower soon. Ask a real expert if you want real expertise on that question, however.

What if everything you know is wrong?

One of the nice things about working in counterintelligence is the acceptance of the notion that some things are not quite what they seem to be. (One of the bad things is that it can make you weird, even slightly crazy, if you stick to it too long; see: James Angleton.) Working in CI, every day you encounter people, even whole organizations, acting out secret agendas that are carefully hidden from public view … but you get to know the hidden truth.

It is fashionable to deride anything like what I’m suggesting as a “conspiracy theory” which conveniently cuts off discussion amidst images of people living in basements wearing tinfoil hats. Yet conspiracies do exist – pretty much every revolution starts as one – and such thinking forms the basis of all espionage. There is a good reason the Russian word for espionage activities, what Americans term “tradecraft,” is konspiratsiya. Those who have labored in counterintelligence know that agents provocateurs, fronts, and even false flags happen all the time, indeed they are unexceptional, bread-and-butter things on Planet CI.  Just don’t expect civilians, normal people – especially academics, mainstream journalists, and nearly all “deep thinkers” – to believe you. Yet every once in a while the secret world jumps into open view, and the reaction to the revelation can be anything from outright denial to speechless confusion.

Back in the spring of 1967, West Germany was enjoying a wave of student protests of the sort then causing annoyance across much of the Western world as the baby boomers came of age, crankily, and acted out in public. On the evening of June 2, a big demo in West Berlin protesting the visit of the Shah of Iran, who was in town that night seeing an opera, got out of hand. Police were jumpy and soon the demo was verging on something ugly. Then a twenty-six year old student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the back of the head by a policeman – for no reason, according to his friends. Ohnesorg died at this, his first demo, leaving behind a pregnant young wife.

Benno Ohnesorg: the innocent victim

Outrage ensued, not least because the protestors claimed that the unarmed Ohnesorg had been murdered by the police without cause; no one under thirty believed the policeman when he said that he had seen a knife and had to defend himself. For a generation, the murder became “the shot that changed Germany.” It didn’t help matters that the killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a middle-aged cop of thuggish inclinations who had served in Hitler’s army in the Second World War, and was almost a caricature of the “fascist mentality” that West German baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s so detested about their parents. Kurras was an ideal stand-in for the so-called “Auschwitz generation” that younger leftists reviled and wanted to junk on the ash heap of history as soon as possible.

For the hard Left, Ohnesorg was a welcome martyr, since his death confirmed all their dark fears about West Germany, which they asserted was objectively a fascist state, despite actually being a high-functioning democracy, not to mention a quite prosperous one, with exceptionally stringent protection of civil liberties and dissent. There soon arose the June 2 Movement, a terrorist group dedicated to Ohnesorg’s martyrdom. Next came the far more dangerous Red Army Faction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, a terrorist movement dedicated to Ohnesorg’s memory that claimed to be fighting fascism, but whose leaders seemed mostly into fast cars, turgid ideological dissertations, and murder-as-self-actualization. It took the West German intelligence and police agencies over a decade to stamp out the RAF, even though the gang was small and not very adept, a longevity that, it turned out, had a lot to do with the RAF’s close relationship with the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious Ministry for State Security (MfS). The Stasi offered RAF fighters sanctuary, logistical support, training, even weaponry. (The support by East Bloc intelligence services for terrorist groups in the West was another issue dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by mainstream thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s, but with the collapse of the Soviet empire and access to secret files – whoops – turned out to be quite true.)

Plenty of West Germans to the right of the Baader Meinhof thugs were troubled by the conduct of the German police. Kurras was never seriously punished for the Ohnesorg killing. Twice he was acquitted of major charges and was suspended from the force for four years, working in private security, but after that suspension he was back with the Berlin police and was actually promoted. Kurras continued a normal career, retiring to a pension at age sixty, remaining defiant and unrepentant: “Anyone who attacks me is destroyed,” he explained to a reporter who asked him about the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg.

Karl-Heinz Kurras: fascist cop, killer, secret Stasi star

By 2009, Karl-Heinz Kurras was an elderly pensioner and a mostly forgotten minor hate figure, yet that May he returned to the front pages in a sensational fashion when it was revealed that he had been for years a highly valued agent of the Stasi. Information from the files of the MfS, which German authorities have combed through carefully for over twenty years, revealed that Kurras had volunteered to work for East German intelligence in 1955. He wanted to move to the DDR, but Stasi handlers convinced him to stay where he was and to serve as an agent-in-place inside the West Berlin police. Files indicate that Kurras was a loyal and effective Stasi source, handing over reams of documents and all the information he could find to the MfS. He was decorated several times and was allowed to secretly join the SED, the East German ruling Communist Party, in 1964, a rare honor for a foreign agent. He helped the Stasi and the KGB expose double agents, reported regularly on U.S. and NATO military developments, and during the 1961 Berlin Crisis was informing the Stasi about critical events at Checkpoint Charlie, the heart of the East-West confrontation.

The revelation that Kurras was a long-term and highly valued agent of East German intelligence exploded like a bombshell, turning a generation’s worldview on its head. The man that Germany’s baby boomers loathed as the archetype of fascism, a living symbol of the evil Nazi-ish past, actually was a Stasi hero, a loyal servant of Communism. Many had no idea what to make of it, as the implications of the news were so stunning.The important question arose at once: Did Kurras kill Ohnesorg on the orders of the MfS, to bolster the radical Left movement in West Germany? It is impossible to answer this question with certainty, though it seems to be the obvious explanation for the crime, since the files are incomplete (and Kurras is keeping his mouth shut about any details, though he has admitted in recent years that he did serve the Stasi). Fearing that he was now toxic, the MfS put Kurras on ice after the Ohnesorg killing, as he was the recipient of much media attention. A recent reexamination of the Ohnesorg case has revealed that the killing was indeed premeditated, no one had threatened Kurras – he simply shot the young protestor in the back of the head without provocation, a crime which the Berlin police actively covered up the facts about. Why Kurras did this may never be known, but it seems unlikely to this former counterintelligence hand that an agent of such value to the Stasi would do something so certain to cause scandal and uproar out of literally nowhere, for no reason.

This sensational case is destined to leave behind as many questions as answers. It has caused a more-than-minor reassessment of the 1960s in German life, and the path of the Left in Germany in the decades since. Not to mention the irony noted by many that both Kurras and the radicals his criminal act gave birth to in the form of terrorism, were under the control of the Stasi. A brilliant op, clearly. And a good reminder that some things are not quite what they seem to be.