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Obama Finally Wakes Up to Join the SpyWar at the 11th Hour

President-elect Trump inherits an ultimatum he cannot ignore

Yesterday, following months of anticipation, the White House announced sanctions against Russia’s intelligence services for their interference in our 2016 election plus their rough treatment of America’s spies in the field. Coming on the heels of years of Russian hardball in the SpyWar, and in the very last month of Barack Obama’s presidency, this is more a gesture than a substantive policy change.

What President Obama announced will cause Moscow some pain. Two intelligence agencies are explicitly sanctioned: the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), both of which engaged in what the media calls “hacking” which is properly termed signals intelligence or SIGINT. Adding GRU and the FSB to the sanctions list won’t mean much practically speaking, but four GRU officers have been cited by name, as have three GRU front companies which were engaged in clandestine SIGINT operations against the Democrats.

More substantively, the State Department is shutting down two Russian “diplomatic” compounds in Maryland and New York which have been used by GRU, FSB and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) for years as spy bases. Their lavish retreat venue on the Eastern Shore of Maryland had been used by the Russians for decades to covertly collect SIGINT on American installations in the Washington area, particularly the National Security Agency, located in central Maryland.

What’s getting the most attention is how the White House has ordered Foggy Bottom to kick 35 Russian spies out of the country without delay. Around the world, spies pose as diplomats, with accreditation from the host government. Since espionage is illegal pretty much everywhere, this is a polite fiction that allows spies to do their job, quietly, with a modicum of diplomatic protection. They only get that status revoked—it’s called being declared persona non grata, PNG for short, among spies—if they get caught flagrantly violating the host country’s laws. Or, as in this case, if the host country wants to send a strong message.

Mass expulsions were used on occasion during the Cold War, by all sides. Back in 1971, Britain expelled 90 Soviet spies, the lion’s share of the Kremlin’s covert operatives in the country, in reaction to the defection of a KGB officer who told London that Moscow had standing plans to conduct terrorism in the United Kingdom. They did it again in 1985, expelling 25 Soviet “diplomats” from Britain, and Moscow retaliated in kind, declaring 25 British “diplomats” PNG in return, in typical SpyWar fashion.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Berlin: A Failure of Policy, Not Intelligence

In the aftermath of this week’s truck jihad attack in Berlin which flattened part of the German capital’s main Christmas market, killing 12 innocents and injuring 48 more, many questions have rightly arisen. Especially because the killer, a 24 year-old migrant criminal turned jihadist from Tunisia, was known to German authorities as a would-be terrorist who was in touch with ISIS-linked radicals.

Lots of uncomfortable issues now must be dealt with, across Europe and the West, if we want to save innocent lives from jihadism at home. I unpacked several of these knotty problems on FoxNews yesterday.

You can see my FNC interview here — enjoy!

Jihad Takes Ankara, Zürich, Berlin

ISIS commands its followers to attack anywhere they can this holiday season

Monday, December 19 was supposed to be noted in the history books as the day the Electoral College formally made Donald J. Trump our 45th president. That did happen, as anticipated—Democratic dreams of electors defecting in droves to overturn the ballot box proved wholly illusory—but that news was overshadowed by a series of brutal terrorist attacks that have shocked the world.

First, Ankara. Early on Monday evening, at an art gallery in a suburb of the Turkish capital, Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador, approached the podium to make a few words, only to be gunned down from behind with several shots fired by an off-duty Turkish policeman. A career diplomat who had served the Kremlin for four decades, including serving as Russia’s minister to Ankara since mid-2013, Karlov succumbed to his numerous wounds. His horrific end was caught in gripping footage which has taken the Internet by storm.

His killer, 22-year-old Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a member of a police special unit, didn’t live much longer than his target, being killed by fellow policemen shortly after the assassination. There’s not much room for doubt about his motivation, since after gunning down the ambassador, Altıntaş proceeded to utter a stream of jihadist clichés in a mixture of Arabic and Turkish. There was the customary tekbir, the proclaiming of God’s greatness—Allahu akbar—followed by boasting that the shooting was payback for the fate of Aleppo, the long-besieged Syrian city now living under Russian bombs.

It’s too soon to say whether Altıntaş was a self-starting lone jihadist or he was acting under orders from a bona fide terrorist organization, but his crime certainly appears to be the terrorist act which the Kremlin has stated it is. The Islamic State claimed the attack as their own, as is their wont whenever anything that appears remotely jihad-linked happens anywhere these days—and Turkey is unquestionably crawling with large numbers of ISIS-connected jihadists. Thanks to the policies of its Islamist strongman president, Recep Erdoğan, extremists in neighboring Syria’s civil war may now be turning on Turkey with a vengeance.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Former NSA Analyst Debunks Three Myths About Russian Hacking

Only we — not Putin — can truly undermine our republic

For someone like me, who’s warned about foreign espionage—especially Russian—for years, usually to little avail, it’s a pleasant change to see the mainstream media talk about so much Kremlin spies these days. It’s gratifying to witness the Obama White House, which downplayed and simply ignored Russian clandestine spy-games for almost eight years, suddenly pledge to get serious about it. That this sea-change is coming as President Obama is packing his belongings and therefore will have minimal real-world impact doesn’t mean it’s not welcome.

All the same, the emerging debate about what exactly Vladimir Putin and his spies did in 2016 to influence our elections is already politically toxic, fundamentally dishonest, and flagrantly partisan. As is now the custom in Washington, both sides are more than willing to ignore inconvenient facts when they get in the way of their preferred narrative about this year.

Therefore, without delay, we need a to debunk a few of the most pernicious falsehoods about the SpyWar events of 2016. The logical place to start is the issue of Russian “hacking” itself, which is being portrayed as a grand criminal conspiracy orchestrated by Putin personally, in the bowels of the Kremlin. All that’s missing is a cat on his lap to perfect the clichéd movie bad spy-guy image here.

That’s a flawed way to look at it, however. In truth, the vast majority of the email theft perpetrated by Russian spies against the Democrats was utterly normal signals intelligence collection, what the pros call SIGINT. Russians do it, we do it—in 2016 every country that can does it. Spies steal secrets, it’s what they do. Of course espionage is illegal basically everywhere, but everybody does it. Hyperventilating about it doesn’t help.

A century ago, when radio hit the world by storm—they called it wireless telegraphy back then—countries put their communications in the ether, and their opponents intercepted them: thus was SIGINT born. It quickly became the world’s most important form of espionage, and so it remains. Today everybody puts most of their communications on the Internet, so that’s where SIGINT professionals hunt for them.

Read the rest at The Observer ….

The Butcher’s Bill of 1916: Europe’s Blood-Drenched Year of Horror

A century ago, Europe was busy killing itself—a nightmare we still live with today

One hundred years ago today, the bloodiest year yet in Europe’s long history was coming to its painful conclusion. On December 17, 1916, the guns fell silent around Verdun, a wrecked fortress-city in northeastern France, for the first time in 10 months.

The catastrophe had commenced on February 21, when German forces launched what was supposed to be a limited offensive around Verdun. The Western Front had grown static by the end of 1914, when the quick, decisive victories that all Europe’s armies anticipated would occur failed to materialize. Unable to achieve breakthroughs, soldiers on all sides dug in to avoid shells and machine gun fire. Soon the opposing trenches ran from the Swiss frontier all the way to the English Channel.

Throughout 1915, efforts by the French and British—especially the former, who had lost so much of their territory to the invader in the opening months of the Great War—to regain ground ended in agony, with offensives petering out against German fire and entrenchments. A year into the war, it was evident to any wise observer that the conflict had become a stalemate. Victory would come to the army that endured the brutal struggle the longest.

German generals accepted this horrific logic first, realizing that the war was now about attrition, not finesse. On the orders of Erich von Falkenhayn, Berlin’s top general, German forces initiated the Verdun offensive not to gain ground, not to break through, but simply to bleed France white. Falkenhayn correctly assessed that France would fight doggedly for Verdun, an ancient fortress-city, thereby allowing the Germans to operate a meat-grinder that would run until the enemy ran out of men.

That part of Falkenhayn’s vision worked as predicted—at least at first. Initial German advances were met with dogged resistance, and Verdun quickly became a rallying cry for all France: On ne passe pas—They shall not pass—was the national watchword that year. The fury of French counterattacks startled the Germans, and by the spring French generals had established a rotational system, moving units into the Verdun meat-grinder then getting them out before they completely collapsed. As a result, virtually every division in the French army fought at Verdun at some point in 1916.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Understanding Russia’s SpyWar Against Our Election

There are Kremlin moles among us

In the latest twist in the evolving story of how Moscow and its spies interfered with America’s 2016 election cycle, U.S. intelligence has determined that RVladimir Putin himself was deeply involved in the secret operation to discredit the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

According to NBC News, our Intelligence Community has “a high level of confidence” that Russia’s president ”personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used.” Putin’s motivation was revenge, according to unnamed senior IC officials, since he despises Clinton, plus the Kremlin sought to create confusion in the United States to make us appear an unreliable ally and an ailing global power.

To anybody acquainted with Putin and his Russia, this is entirely unsurprising. The Russian president grew up in the KGB and long worked in counterintelligence. To his core, Putin is a secret policeman, what Russians call a Chekist—a term worn with pride in the Kremlin. It’s an easy bet that Putin was briefed on this most special intelligence operation daily; it was very likely the first item in his morning briefing from Russia’s spy services, a quotidian event that Putin—unlike our president-elect—takes seriously.

For a former KGB officer, humiliating the hated Americans by disseminating the embarrassing emails of our top politicians is the summit of glee. The takedown of Clinton, Inc.—and no matter the reality, this is unquestionably how it’s being sold, with smiles all around, by Putin’s inner circle—was by any standard a very successful operation. A century hence, it seems likely that Moscow’s spies will rank this achievement among their “greats” like the TRUST operation and the Rosenbergs.

However, some salient facts about this secret Kremlin operation need to be understood. In the first place, there wasn’t much “hacking” going on here. Instead, most of the purloining of emails from top Democrats fell under normal 21st century signals intelligence operations of the kind done by Russia, the United States, and pretty much every technically advanced country on earth. Everybody spies—among adults this isn’t a controversial statement.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Trump Declares War on the Intelligence Community

Our spy agencies fight each other nonstop, but woe to the pol who provides common cause by insulting them in public

Six weeks before the inauguration, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s budding administration has been thrown into crisis by revelations of clandestine Russian interference in our election. None of the issues is new—if you read my column you knew about them months ago—but Trump’s reaction to them has opened the door to unprecedented conflict in Washington before he even moves into the White House.

Trump has repeatedly pooh-poohed allegations that the Kremlin meddled in the election, dismissing them as foolishness. Such memorably cavalier brush-offs—for instance suggesting in September that the culprit behind the theft of Democratic National Committee’s emails wasn’t Moscow, rather a “400-pound guy” on a bed somewhere—drew guffaws from his supporters but have now landed Trump in serious trouble.

The game-changer came late last week, with a report that the Central Intelligence Agency has assessed that efforts by the Russian intelligence services to influence our election were motivated by a desire in Moscow to throw the election Trump’s way. The Intelligence Community has long considered Wikileaks to be a Kremlin front and by the summer, when that vaunted “privacy organization” was getting down to work depriving Hillary Clinton and the DNC of any privacy they possessed after EmailGate, it was patently obvious to anybody acquainted with Russian spycraft that Julian Assange was doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding. Russian spy agencies can be subtle, but there was nothing subtle about this operation.

There is simply no debate anymore inside the IC whether Moscow employed Wikileaks as a front to disseminate emails which had been purloined by Russian intelligence. American intelligence and our spy-allies possess considerable classified evidence, from multiple sources, that Putin employed disinformation to confuse American voters in 2016.

Read the rest at The Observer…