Social Media Is Helping Putin Kill Our Democracy

There are few more important issues confronting the West today than what to do about social media companies, which thanks to their ubiquity possess vast riches and daunting influence over our democracies. Indeed, their opinion-shaping power is so great that even the powerful are reluctant to state plainly that this issue requires frank public discussion.

It was therefore a welcome breath of fresh air recently when Robert Hannigan, a former British spy boss, sat down for an interview with the BBC and spoke his mind. Hannigan, who headed GCHQ (Britain’s NSA) from late 2014 to early 2017, had a top-secret front-row seat to recent events, and his comments were rendered more scathing by their measured delivery.

Social media companies are “massively rich” and “have huge power,” Hannigan observed, adding that they possess “global reach and global power, not just of money but of data that individual governments don’t have.” Hannigan knows all too well that, contrary to much mythology, unless you’re a spy or terrorist, Facebook knows vastly more about you than GCHQ or NSA do.

Moreover, social media companies, which are infected with a toxic admixture of trendy-left politics and rapacious capitalism, display an “arrogance that they somehow sit above democracy,” according to Hannigan, who tied this to a resurgent and dangerous Russia. Hannigan explained that Russia loomed as the single biggest security threat during his tenure as GCHQ director. Over the last few years, as Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, Russia “has become more aggressive, and they’re doing in cyberspace what they do in the real world.”

Read the rest at The Observer …

Dutch Report Reveals Obama Administration Knew About Russian Hacking in Real Time

For all its management and security shortcomings, the National Security Agency remains the world’s most important spy service. Its signals intelligence reach is truly global, and its highly classified SIGINT, year in and year out, accounts for something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our Intelligence Community. NSA, which recently celebrated its 65th birthday, remains the backbone of Western security, our top-secret shield against spies and terrorists.

No small part of that success can be attributed to NSA’s effective leveraging of foreign partnerships. Its spy links with the Anglosphere date to World War II and are termed Five Eyes (for the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom). Inside NSA, this alliance is called Second Party. This partnership is so close that it’s best to view the Five Eyes SIGINT arrangement as really one integrated espionage effort that covers the globe.

However, those are hardly NSA’s only foreign partnerships. The agency enjoys intelligence-sharing links with spy services all over the world. Some of these relationships, termed Third Party inside the SIGINT system, date to NSA’s founding in 1952, and all are shrouded in strict secrecy. They are seldom mentioned in the media, as some of these top-secret links are highly sensitive politically.

Read the rest at The Observer …

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…

Mike Flynn Was Always a Fraud

The fall from grace of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn is one of the strangest sagas in the annals of America’s military and intelligence services. Just one year ago, his star could hardly have been more ascendant, named as the National Security Advisor to newly-elected President Donald Trump. However, he flamed out of that job in just 24 days, a record. Then, last week, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussions with top Russians, leaving his reputation is in tatters.

How all this happened will be debated for years as the full saga of the Trump White House’s secret ties to Moscow unfolds and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation moves forward like a steamroller, slowly crushing all in its wake. Flynn, the military intelligence professional turned felon, will feature prominently in that sordid story. Now that he’s cooperating with Mueller against President Trump, copping per his plea deal to a relatively minor charge that he may serve no jail time for, Flynn’s role has changed, but it’s no less important.

Just how deeply enmeshed Flynn was with the Russians is now coming into focus. Public embarrassments like appearing at the 10th anniversary gala for RT, Moscow’s propaganda network—including sitting at the head table with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president—were just the tip of the iceberg. That Flynn took Kremlin money for that controversial appearance should have hinted at worse misdeeds.

For instance, Flynn was lobbying for Russian interests, including lucrative nuclear power deals around the world. This is hardly a normal retirement job for pensioned U.S. Army generals. It now appears Flynn was involved with this while serving as Trump’s national security consigliere. He’s reported to have texted a business colleague that a big nuclear deal was “good to go,” meaning Flynn could now get sanctions lifted off Russia, in the middle of Trump’s inaugural address last January.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Russia Conducts Nuclear Exercises Amid Orthodox End-Times Talk

One of the more interesting aspects of Cold War 2.0 is the ideological struggle between the postmodern West and Russia—a struggle that most Westerners deny even exists. President Barack Obama, after Moscow seized Crimea in early 2014, pronounced that there was nothing big afoot: “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.”

Obama’s statement was wrong then, and it’s even more wrong now. As I’ve explained, there is an undeniable ideological struggle between Vladimir Putin’s neo-traditionalist Russia and the post-modern West—one that prominent Russians talk about all the time. In the Kremlin’s imagination, this fight pits the godless, materialistic, doomed 21st century West, too lazy to even reproduce, against a tough, reborn Russia that was forged in the murderous fire of 74 years of Bolshevism.

The yawning gap between Russian and Western values can be partly explained by the fact that Communism shielded the former from the West’s vast cultural shifts since the 1960s. Living under the Old Left provided protection against the New Left. As a result, Russians are living in our past and find current Western ways incomprehensible and even contemptible.

Take the reaction to America’s present panic about sexual harassment, which is felling celebrities and politicians left and right. In Moscow, this looks like madness, punishing powerful men for doing what powerful men have always done. Their late-night TV uses our sex panic as a punchline, proof that Americans are weak and feminized, held hostage to radical ideology. Andrei Konchalovsky, one of Russia’s top film directors (including some Hollywood hits), expressed his view plainly: “Thank God we live in a country where political correctness has not reached the point of absurdity.”

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 …

Putin’s Strategy of Global Tension

Ever since Moscow’s Little Green Men seized Crimea in early 2014, we’ve been in a new Cold War with Russia. To the consternation of wishful-thinkers, as Vladimir Putin’s confrontation with the West has become transparent, the reality of what I termed Cold War 2.0 almost four years ago has grown difficult to deny. Since the Kremlin’s revanchism is driving this conflict, we’re in it whether we want to be or not.

Europe is the central front in Cold War 2.0, thanks to geography and history. Putin’s war on, and in, Ukraine continues on low boil, while the Russian military regularly delivers provocations—a too-close warship here, an aircraft buzz there—all along NATO’s eastern frontier, sending an aggressive message. Major military exercises like September’s Zapad mega-wargame demonstrate Putin’s seriousness about confronting the Atlantic Alliance.

What Putin wants was the subject of my recent interview with Antoni Macierewicz, Poland’s plain-spoken defense minister. What the Kremlin boss seeks, he explained, is restoration of the Russian empire, to which Ukraine (or at least most of it) belonged for centuries. “Putin understands that there is no empire without Ukraine,” he added.

However, Kremlin provocations extend far beyond the former Soviet Union, as Macierewicz elaborated:

The first move, I think, is Ukraine. But I don’t exclude a military attack in the Far East. They want to distract American attention, prolong the front of confrontation in order to create a favorable situation for aggression in Europe. If you look at the map, Russia is always helping the enemies of America: deep ties to North Korea, involvement in Afghanistan and Syria, backing Iran, and so on.

This assessment sounds alarmist at first, particularly the mention of possible aggression in the Far East, but Western intelligence agencies that track Russian moves have been thinking along similar lines—though they seldom say so in public. Therefore, it’s worth taking a brief look at what Putin’s up to, and where.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Poland’s Defense Minister Answers the Question: What Does Putin Want?

Since coming to power in late 2015, Poland’s right-wing government has been a lightning rod for criticism at home and abroad. Opponents have castigated the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish) for its conservatism and resistance to the European Union, de facto led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, on a host of issues, above all Muslim migration.

No PiS official has attracted more opprobrium than the minister of National Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, a hero of the Solidarity movement and Polish resistance to Communism. Since 1991, Macierewicz has held numerous positions in government, mostly in the national security realm, and he possesses deep insights into issues of defense and intelligence—which are very topical now given the rising Russian threat on Poland’s frontiers.

Time has moderated Macierewicz’s piquant views only slightly in his 69 years, and the defense minister ranks among the most straight-talking politicians I’ve ever met. I recently sat down with him in Warsaw to discuss what’s on his mind. Our conversation started with Poland’s impressive defense modernization efforts and the nature of the Russian threat to NATO, then moved on to issues of counterintelligence—where Macierewicz rightly considers himself an expert. We concluded with the sensitive matter of Smolensk, the mysterious April 2010 air crash that decapitated Poland’s government, an issue that rests close to the heart for Macierewicz and for the many Poles who fear Vladimir Putin’s intentions. 

What would you like the American public to know about Polish defense modernization?

We want to do everything we can to have a military that is able to defend our country and to be a solid partner of the United States and NATO—but first and foremost, as our top objective, we want to have a military that is able to defend ourselves and our allies. And we want our friends in the United States to know exactly this: We are of course grateful to the United States for the support that we have received in the dramatic situation in which we find ourselves and share a joint-Polish American awareness of this threat, which is a threat to all off Europe.

Read the rest at The Observer …

7 Steps to Stop Putin’s Special War Against the West

President Donald Trump’s bizarre weekend highlights just how deeply the Kremlin has burrowed into Western politics, nowhere more than the United States. Trump blew apart his Asian trip by insisting that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had nothing to do with meddling in our election last year—because the Kremlin boss says so.

In Vietnam on Saturday, Trump announced that he spoke to Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, and the Russian president “said he absolutely did not meddle in our election.” He added, “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” Trump then stated that the Kremlin boss “is very insulted by” reports that Russia interfered in our 2016 election, and this is “not a good thing for our country.” Adding fuel to the fire he set, Trump dismissed allegations of Russian meddling as “this artificial Democratic hit job,” then castigated the leadership of the Intelligence Community he inherited on his inauguration in January as dishonest “political hacks.”

Trump has never accepted the IC assessment that Russian spies interfered in our election last year, but even for this president, Saturday’s outburst was extraordinary. It’s not every day that the American president publicly sides with a foreign leader against his own intelligence bosses—especially when that leader is the very one whom American spies assess meddled to elect this president. That Trump chose to do this on Veterans Day, on foreign soil, did not go unnoticed by many with displeasure.

Trump’s controversial words blew up in his face immediately. Across the political spectrum, his public siding with Putin while undermining the investigation into his Moscow links was met with howls of outrage, while many are now wondering what exactly Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin is—as well they should.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo quickly entered the fray, issuing a terse statement: “The Director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections… The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.” Pompeo is viewed by many at Langley and across the IC as uncomfortably close to the president, but Trump’s bizarre siding with Putin on such a major issue was something the CIA director could not countenance.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Spies Suspect Kremlin Is Pushing Dozens of Fake Trump Sex Tapes

Attempting to get to the bottom of a complex espionage case, untangling multiple strands of secret agentry, is the most challenging exercise in all intelligence work. It taxes the minds of the most gifted counterspies, particularly when the operation extends over years, even decades, and it involves a complex cast of players, some of them Russian.

A half-century ago, when our Intelligence Community was assessing if there were Kremlin moles inside our spy agencies (spoiler: there were), a nasty bureaucratic fight ensued that dragged on for years. The protagonist was James Angleton, the CIA’s top counterspy for two decades, who coined the term “wilderness of mirrors” to describe the impenetrable mystery of certain espionage operations. In typical Angletonian flourish, he borrowed the phrase from a T. S. Eliot poem to capture the enduring mystery of never quite grasping up from down in a case, or knowing who’s really running the show—and looking at it too closely only leads to more confusion.

I’ve previously written about Angleton’s “wilderness of mirrors,” since it remains a fascinating saga still, and I noted how tricky the counterspy game can be:

One of the alluring aspects of counterintelligence is that very complex cases can turn on very small, sometimes minute, pieces of information. And years of getting to the bottom of an operation can be swiftly overturned when one tiny—and possibly very inconvenient—fact comes to light. This is particularly a possibility when what exactly happened in a case proves hard to pin down. As most cases involving the Russians are.

This is relevant today, since between Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and the efforts of our Intelligence Community, the secret side of Washington, D.C., is currently engaged in the biggest counterintelligence investigation since the days of VENONA in the early Cold War, when the FBI and NSA unraveled a vast Kremlin spy apparatus in our country, centered in our nation’s capital.

Read the rest at The Observer …