The Rosenbergs and Espionage Denial

More than six decades after they were executed for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg continue to inspire polemics. Their case had ample drama, embellished by the fact that the doomed couple were the only Americans executed for espionage by the United States during the Cold War. That they left behind two orphaned sons made the case poignant.

They were convicted during the Korean War, which took the lives of over 50,000 Americans who died to stem Soviet aggression, which provided an explanation why the government did not seek leniency, especially because the Rosenbergs had assisted the Soviet nuclear weapons program with their espionage. Moreover, it was obvious that Federal prosecutors wanted Ethel’s cooperation — Julius was the Soviets’ big fish and the government’s case against his wife was weaker than against him — but Ethel, a hardline Communist, rejected that, even when she could have saved her own life for her children’s sake.

Although the Rosenbergs had defenders who pleaded that they were innocent, or at least severely misunderstood, most of them fell silent when the National Security Agency twenty years ago declassified its VENONA project, a top secret code-breaking effort that revealed numerous 1940’s secrets of Soviet espionage against the United States. The unveiling of VENONA, one of the great triumphs of American intelligence, also revealed why Federal prosecutors were so confident in their prosecution of especially Julius Rosenberg. VENONA transcripts made clear that Julius, who appeared in the messages under the Soviet covernames LIBERAL and ANTENNA, wasn’t just a Stalinist true-believer but an important agent of the Soviet secret police who gave Moscow every American secret he could get his hands on.

For all but the most determined denialists, that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy was proved conclusively by VENONA — the ace in the hole for the Feds that they possessed in 1953 but could not show to the jury at the Rosenbergs’ trial, because it was so highly classified. Julius was every bit the traitor that the government said he was, and he had betrayed nuclear secrets to Stalin.

Now the case is back in the news, with Michael and David Meeropol, the Rosenberg’s orphaned sons, appealing to President Obama in today’s New York Times to exonerate their mother who, they claim, was unfairly convicted of espionage. Specifically, they want the Obama administration to right what they see as the wrongs of so many decades ago.

“Our mother was not a spy,” the Meeropols flatly state, demanding that President Obama “acknowledge that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed.” Their case for this is based on the recently released grand jury transcript of David Greenglass, who was the Meeropol’s uncle. Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, was himself a Soviet spy who served almost ten years in Federal prison for betraying atomic secrets to Moscow. One of the most sordid aspects of this sordid case is that Greenglass saved his own skin, and that of his wife, by fingering his own sister.

The newly released grand jury testimony leaves little doubt that Greenglass embellished matters over the decades and his story changed with time (he died last year); he was never an especially reliable witness. On the basis of this the Meeropols protest that their mother was innocent, and to “prove” that they highlight evidence from various sources in a slipshod manner. Although I understand that the Meeropols need to believe that their mother wasn’t a spy for Stalin, the facts to not bear that wish out.

VENONA made very clear what Ethel was up to. I’ve worked with VENONA materials for years, including intercepts never released to the public, and I thereby shut the door on denialism regarding Alger Hiss, another one of Stalin’s spies inside the U.S. government that many on the left simply refused to accept was a traitor, although his guilt was firmly established by VENONA.

Several VENONA messages reveal important facts about Ethel Rosenberg. Number 1657, sent from the KGB’s New York residency to the Center (i.e, HQ) in Moscow on 27 November 1944, is worth citing in detail (for the original see here):

To VIKTOR [i].

Your no. 5356 [a]. Information on LIBERAL’s [ii] wife [iii]. Surname that of her husband, first name ETHEL, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN [ZEMLYaK] [iv] since 1938. Sufficiently well developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of METR [v] and NIL [vi]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.

ANTON [xi]

Notes: [a] Not available

Comments:
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin  [head of KGB foreign intelligence].
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] Ethel ROSENBERG, nee GREENGLASS.
[iv] ZEMLYaK: Member of the Communist Party.
[v] METR: Probably Joel BARR or Alfred SARANT.
[vi] NIL: Unidentified.
. . .
[xi] ANTON: Leonid Romanovich KVASNIKOV [KGB’s New York rezident].

This KGB report establishes that Ethel Rosenberg was a trusted person as far as the Kremlin was concerned, a Communist Party member who was witting of her husband’s secret work for Soviet intelligence, as well as the roles of other agents who were part of Julius’ spy network. Code-phrases such as being “devoted” and “well developed politically” reveal that Ethel was a committed Stalinist in whom the Soviet secret police placed trust.

That Ethel’s role in Soviet espionage went beyond sympathy was revealed in another KGB message from New York to Moscow, sent on 21 September 1944 (Number 1340, it can be seen in full here). This discusses the possible recruitment of a new American agent:

To VIKTOR [i]:

Lately the development of new people [D% has been in pro­gress]. LIBERAL [ii] recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS, with a safe flat in view. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA] [iii], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TORNITsA] (iv) since 1942. She lives on STANTON ISTANTAUN] Street. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her as an intelligent and clever girl.

Comments:

[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P. M. FITIN.

[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.

[iii] GOROZhANKA: .American citizen.

[iv] FIZKULITURNITsA: Probably a Member of the Young Communist League.

In other words, Ethel was a such a willing and witting member of the Soviet espionage apparat in mid-1940s America that she was setting up her own sister-in-law as a candidate for recruitment by the KGB. The observation that Ruth Greenglass had a “safe” flat indicates they had clandestine work in mind for her.

Moreover, it’s impossible to believe that Ethel could not have been aware what Julius was up to. As the head of his own KGB agent network for years, Julius was recruiting and running spies for the Soviets, several of them relatives and friends whom Ethel knew well. Additionally, Julius had spy equipment such as cameras provided by the KGB to facilitate his espionage (see VENONA message Number 1600, 14 November 1944, which discusses some of the clandestine tradecraft that Julius used). Ethel was a clever woman and it’s simply impossible to believe that she didn’t notice her husband moving and photographing literally thousands of pages of classified U.S. materials in their not overly large apartment.

Neither is VENONA our only inside source on Ethel’s role in the case. Aleksandr Feklisov, a legendary KGB officer who ran their operations in the United States in the 1940’s, had details to add as well. In the aftermath of the VENONA release, Feklisov stated the Rosenbergs weren’t all that important to Soviet espionage, describing their execution as a “contract murder” by the American government.

That, however, was not how Feklisov described the Rosenbergs in his memoir, published in English in 2001. Although Feklisov makes no effort at being dispassionate — he considers the Rosenbergs to be heroes and the book includes a picture of Feklisov kissing their tombstone (!) — he adds considerably more detail about the matter. Feklisov, who served as the Rosenbergs’ case officer, admitted to more than fifty meetings with Julius, whose betrayal of his own country Feklisov describes in glowing terms. (Here Feklisov’s original Russian-language memoir, published in 1994, is helpful.)

As for Ethel, Feklisov says that he never met her. This does not surprise, as Julius was already such a trusted agent-handler for the KGB that there was no need for Feklisov, who lived in the United States in constant fear of being caught by the FBI, to expose himself to additional danger by meeting with Ethel. Who needed to when you had Julius to handle that? Besides, VENONA messages make clear that Moscow trusted Ethel as well.

Additionally, Feklisov at one point refers to Ethel as a “probationer” (cтажёр in Russian). This word appears regularly in VENONA messages and was 1940’s KGB-speak for agents, that is foreigners who worked wittingly for Soviet intelligence. That closes any debate about how Feklisov viewed Ethel Rosenberg.

I understand the human impulse behind the Meeropols’ desire to have their long-dead mother exonerated. In addition to the pain of losing both parents at a young age, there’s the added horror that Ethel could have saved herself by cooperating — after all, if she wasn’t doing anything wrong, why not talk to the FBI? Especially when your execution is pending. The awful truth is that Ethel Rosenberg, a committed Communist, loved Stalin more than her own children.

Nobody who understands Soviet intelligence and has read the relevant VENONA messages with open eyes has any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was an agent of the KGB. She was witting regarding a large degree of her husband’s enormous treason, perhaps all of it. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were fanatical Communists in a manner we now associate with jihadists. The cause was their life; it mattered more than anything, even family.

David Greenglass was a traitor and a liar, but the truth is that the U.S. government when it convicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of espionage needed his testimony as cover. VENONA told the FBI all it needed to know about Julius and Ethel’s secret life of betrayal, but such top secret information could never be discussed in court. Hence the need for first-hand witnesses, sometimes of dubious credibility, wanting to save their own skin.

Greenglass was content to let his sister die to save himself. But that does not make Ethel Rosenberg innocent of espionage on behalf of one of history’s most murderous regimes. She was a spy for Stalin. We can debate whether the Rosenbergs ought to have been executed — I suspect that will be debated until the end of time — but there is no debating that they were guilty of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Ethel was a witting and willing member of that criminal conspiracy.

Today’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, successor to the KGB famed foreign intelligence arm, proudly proclaims both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as “greats” who served Moscow. It would be best if the Meeropols accepted that fact and moved on with their lives. There’s no need to bother President Obama, a busy man, with this deception.

[N.B. Although the Soviet secret police was not named the KGB until 1954, having changed its name numerous times since its establishment in 1917, I’ve used the well-known abbreviation for simplicity. Purists can’t always win.]

The Painful Truth About Snowden

Since the saga of Edward Snowden went public just over two years ago, I’ve had a lot to say in the media about this sensational case. That’s gotten me loads of push-back, not to mention trolling, but my take on the case — particularly that it’s a planned foreign intelligence operation that operates behind the cover of “freedom” and “civil liberties” — has increasingly become accepted by normals.

In the first place, that Snowden shows no sign of leaving Putin’s Russia, not exactly a bastion of liberty, has made all but his most uncritical defenders wonder what’s going on here. The clear damage that Snowden’s vast revelations have done to Western counterterrorism and security likewise has raised doubts about motives. And that’s not been helped by the fact that very few of Snowden’s purloined secrets have to do with NSA domestic operations. The overwhelming majority expose foreign intelligence activities that are considered legitimate and normal by most citizens. It’s hard to see how exposing details of Israel’s killing of senior WMD proliferators in Syria, per the latest Snowden revelation, exactly protects the civil liberties of Americans.

At last, some important questions about the Snowden Operation, which I’ve posed for two years, are being picked up by the mainstream media. Even in Germany, where Snowdenmania has taken root perhaps more than anywhere else, voices are now asking who exactly stands behind The Ed Show.

I’ve previously explained how nobody acquainted with counterintelligence, and particularly with Russian espionage practices, accepts the official story, that Snowden “just happened” to wind up in Moscow in June 2013. While we still don’t know when Snowden’s first contact with Russian intelligence was, that remains the preeminent question. Moreover, if you don’t understand that Snowden’s in bed with Russia’s secret services now, after more than two years in the country — “of course” he is, explained a top KGB general — I can’t fix that kind of stupid.

There remains also the important question of what exactly Putin is getting out of Snowden. At a fundamental level the answer is obvious. The Snowden Operation was designed to inflict maximum pain on the mighty Western intelligence alliance, led by NSA, that has stood as a bulwark of freedom since the Second World War. This it has achieved, one headline at a time, making it the greatest Active Measure in Chekist history.

Yet there’s nothing new about any of this. As I’ve explained since the moment Snowden first went public, this is really no more than the Agee operation sexed up for the Internet age. Phil Agee was a former CIA officer who, disillusioned with the Agency (in part because it washed him out over his alcoholism), volunteered his services to the Cubans and Soviets. In the mid-1970’s, Agee (known to the KGB as PONT) became a worldwide sensation, exposing numerous CIA activities and officers through books and articles authored by the KGB under Agee’s byline. To his death in 2008, an unrepentant Agee lied about his KGB connections and insisted he was a pure-hearted whistleblower, a claim which was accepted uncritically by his hardcore fans. Sound familiar?

But there is one key difference between the cases. While Agee had been a CIA operations officer and gave the KGB lots of information about his secret activities, Snowden is really no more than an IT guy. While he excelled at stealing top secret files, it’s evident to the initiated that his actual understanding of the SIGINT system is weak.

Moreover, it’s exceptionally unlikely that Snowden has told the Russians much about NSA and its partners that they didn’t know already, in some form. At the beginning of 2012, Canadian authorities, acting on a tip from the FBI, arrested a naval officer named Jeffrey Delisle, one of the most damaging (but least interesting) traitors in recent history. Motivated by self-loathing and greed, for five years until his arrest Delisle passed volumes of classified information from his office, an intelligence shop in Halifax, to GRU, Russian military intelligence. For the Western SIGINT system especially, this was a devastating compromise. As I explained long before the Snowden case broke:

In the SIGINT realm, what Delisle wrought appears to have terrible consequences, beyond the spook world. Thanks to his access to STONEGHOST and related databases where Anglosphere countries share intelligence seamlessly, the damage from this case is probably felt more severely in Washington and London than in Ottawa. Under the so-called Five Eyes system, which dates to the Second World War, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and (mostly) New Zealand, cover the globe with SIGINT, and share most of the take with each other. Hence, as Delisle explained about what he betrayed, “It was never really Canadian stuff,” he told police, later adding, “There was American stuff, there was some British stuff, Australian stuff – it was everybody’s stuff.” Last week, after Delisle accepted a plea agreement admitting his guilt, the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa, David Jacobson, characterized the case as the loss of “a lot of highly classified material,” adding with consummate diplomatic tact, “That is obviously not good.”

It can be safely assumed that Delisle gave GRU the store on what Anglosphere SIGINT agencies knew abut Russia, which is always a lot – politics, military, economics. He appears to have betrayed a great deal of Canadian insider information too. True to form, GRU was most interested in – Delisle said they were “fixated on” – counterespionage data, i.e. finding Western spies in Russia, but thankfully that, at least, was something the junior officer could not access from his desk in Halifax.

GRU had it all before Snowden gave it to them. Ed’s vast haul of well over a million classified documents undoubtedly added details — as well as the ability to attack NSA and its partners through “helpful” Western media outlets with lots of purloined PowerPoints about SIGINT activities — but nobody acquainted with GRU and SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, will fail to grasp how damaging the Delisle case was to Western intelligence long before Snowden got on that Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong to Moscow.

While the unprecedented propaganda value of Snowden to Russian intelligence cannot be doubted, any seasoned counterintelligencer will have follow-on questions. As a former NSA counterintelligence officer myself, I can share with you the depressing reality that, during the Cold War, the NSA-led Western SIGINT alliance was never not penetrated, somewhere, by Soviet spies. And that’s counting only the moles we know of.

The importance of NSA to Soviet espionage would be difficult to overstate. They called it OMEGA, and it was the KGB’s highest priority foreign intelligence target on earth. Why isn’t difficult to grasp, as since its founding in 1952, NSA has been the source of the lion’s share of foreign intelligence inside the U.S. Government, while also protecting sensitive American communications. When you penetrate NSA, you get the whole thing. An all-access pass to Top Secret America. Moreover, thanks to lots of intelligence sharing among Anglosphere SIGINT agencies, a penetration anywhere across the system could offer a great deal of access to the closest-held secrets of five states, two of which are nuclear powers.

Hence it’s no surprise that throughout the Cold War the KGB and GRU tried hard to recruit spies inside NSA and its partners, worldwide. SIGINT analysts, linguists, mathematicians, code-makers and code clerks — military, civilian, contractor — were all top-priority targets for Soviet spies. Around the globe, KGB and GRU case officers hung out at bars and clubs where NSA personnel collected, hoping for a lonely, drunk, and perhaps horny young man they could “befriend.” They had more success than most Americans perhaps want to know. The worst penetration of the SIGINT system that we know ofWilliam Weisband, came at the beginning of the Cold War, but that damaging traitor had many successors.

Protecting moles has always been an important task for Kremlin spies. Unlike Western espionage, Moscow’s spymasters take a long view, particularly regarding high-priority penetrations, and will do things that no Western spy service would countenance to protect them from exposure. In particular, the Russians have a long (and often successful) history of compromising and exposing less important assets to protect “golden sources.” I’m personally aware of at least three cases in recent memory where Russian spies intentionally let us find their agents, with the aim of leading the path away from more valued sources.

This was a venerable Cold War practice. In the 1960’s the U.S. Intelligence Community became engaged in a vast mole-hunt thanks to the defection of Yuri Nosenko, a KGB officer, shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The debate over Nosenko’s bona fides grew extended and nasty, tearing a fissure through CIA and IC counterintelligence that lingered for years. To his defenders, Nosenko was that rarest of creatures, an actual KGB officer with important knowledge (including, with impeccable timing, information about Lee Harvey Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union), who crossed to our side. To his detractors, Nosenko’s saga was too convenient by half.

This debate continues more than a half-century after it commenced. Down to his death in 2008, Nosenko was heralded as a hero by the CIA, which in 1969 officially assessed that Nosenko was a legitimate defector, although doubters still remain. Not long before his own death, Pete Bagley, Nosenko’s first CIA case officer, published a definitive account of the doubters’ case against Nosenko. This was the case Bagley made against Nosenko in the 1960s, which harmed his career for being bureaucratically “off-message” in an Agency that very much wanted its star Soviet defector to be real, seasoned with decades of pondering and additional research.

What Nosenko was really up to will not be determined beyond doubt until outsiders get access to the full KGB archives, which is impossible as long as Putin rules in the Kremlin. That said, Bagley made a thoroughly persuasive case that, at a minimum, Nosenko was not who he claimed to be. The holes in Nosenko’s account of his KGB career and defection are big enough to drive trucks through. While Nosenko was a KGB officer, Bagley showed convincingly that he was not the elite foreign intelligence official that he posed as to the Americans.

Bagley and others for decades insisted that Nosenko was a plant, dispatched westward as a fake defector to throw American counterintelligence off the trail of genuine Soviet moles inside the Intelligence Community. This notion, a complex form of long-term offensive counterintelligence married to strategic deception, sounds fanciful to most Western spies but is in fact quite normal in Moscow. Moreover, Bagley offered evidence pointing to deeply damaging Soviet penetrations of the IC. particularly of the cryptologic system, going back to the 1950’s, that Nosenko’s defection sought to protect.

These moles were never uncovered but NSA counterintelligence long agreed that they probably existed. This deception extends beyond Nosenko, right into the mysterious case of Aleksei Kulak, known as FEDORA to the FBI, who was the Bureau’s “golden source” inside the KGB. Kulak served in New York with the Soviet mission to the United Nations from 1961 to 1967, then again from 1971 to 1977. Ostensibly a science attaché, Kulak was really a KGB case officer. An odd duck for a Chekist, Kulak was an actual scientist, holding a Ph.D. in chemistry, and was a hero of the Second World War, having received the highest Soviet valor decoration, the Hero of the USSR, for frontline service.

In the spring of 1962, a few months after his arrival in New York, Kulak volunteered his services to the FBI. Thus began an espionage saga that would continue, on and off, for the next fifteen years and, like Nosenko, would divide the American counterintelligence club. The FBI immediately understood the value of FEDORA. Behind his back they called him “Fatso” but the Bureau saw that Kulak was who he said he was and that he knew a great deal about KGB operations inside the United States.

There were doubters from the start, and to make a complex story brief, the FBI more or less accepted FEDORA’s bona fides while CIA mostly didn’t (though there were dissenters from orthodoxy in both agencies). Kulak spilled the beans about lots of high-value cases, but he seldom gave away enough information — exact names, for instance — to easily uncover Soviet moles. Despite the KGB’s normally rigid compartmentization, which meant that no case officer usually knew much beyond his own purview, Kulak knew some details of many operations he was not involved with. This was due to the fact that he was drinking buddies with the longtime KGB rezident (i.e. station chief) in New York: they had served together during the war and liked to get sloshed, reminisce, and talk spy cases.

One of Kulak’s most sensational revelations was of a KGB mole inside the FBI. The thought, heresy to Hoover’s Bureau, set off a massive hunt for the traitor known as “UNSUB Dick” that lingered through the 1960’s and never officially caught the mole. This was a traumatic experience for the FBI that it kept out of public view for decades. Years later, UNSUB Dick was identified, with a high degree of confidence, but he had left the Bureau years before and the FBI had no stomach for arresting him with all the awkward questions that would follow.

Had Kulak helped — or hurt — the FBI with his tantalizing but incomplete revelations? There’s no doubt that his telling the Bureau a little bit about UNSUB Dick, but not too much, set the Bureau chasing his own tail for years without resolution. Was Kulak our friend? enemy? perhaps frenemy? This sort of enduring counterintelligence mystery is normal if you want to play against the Russians, where initiation into the vaunted Wilderness of Mirrors is a hard school.

Kulak played this game more than once, including against NSA. Just as with UNSUB Dick, he offered a bit of information — fuzzy details of career and life — about a well-placed KGB mole inside NSA. This explosive revelation set NSA counterintelligence on a years-long hunt for the traitor which never definitely uncovered him. Just as with UNSUB Dick, the mole was eventually uncovered, with a high degree of confidence, years after he left Fort Meade, when nobody wanted to deal with what was then old news.

Was Kulak a bona fide source who helped the Americans where he could? Or was he a plant whose job was sending U.S. counterintelligence down false (or just as bad, not very helpful) avenues of mole-hunting inquiry? Or was he bona fide in part while fake also in part, i.e. a classic Chekist disinformation operation? Russians, unlike Western spy agencies, are perfectly happy to compromise a great deal of legitimate intelligence information in the service of dezinformatsiya, and none could deny that the lion’s share of what Kulak told the FBI did in fact check out.

Having examined a lot of Kulak’s information with a fine-toothed comb when I was working CI, my own view is that Kulak was a controlled KGB source, designed to disseminate disinformation that would confuse the Americans while protecting real moles, but he was also an alcoholic who overshared frequently. Debriefs with FEDORA usually involved a bottle of good stuff that the Chekist chugged down solo while Bureau handlers watched in amazement, taking notes furiously.

What does this entertaining Cold War mystery — how Kulak’s never gotten his own movie bewilders me — have to do with Edward Snowden? Kulak died in 1983, the year Snowden was born. Yet they may be connected all the same, albeit only in spirit.

Chekist espionage operations have remained remarkably constant over the decades. Why change what already works? Under Putin, a onetime KGB counterintelligencer, Russian espionage activities against the West, especially the United States, have grown highly aggressive while adhering to proven Chekist tactics and techniques.

To anyone versed in counterespionage, the 2010 roll-up of the Russian Illegals Network offered tantalizing clues. This major event was treated as a comic-opera affair by most Western media, thanks to the star role of the redheaded Illegal Anna Chapman — just as Moscow wanted. In reality, that network was engaged in a wide range of nefarious activities, including the handling of deep-cover Russian agents, that set off big-time counterintelligence alarm bells.

The bad news was delivered by Bill Gertz, veteran intelligence reporter, who nearly five years ago told of a major mole-hunt inside NSA spurred by the Illegals’ roll-up:

NSA counterintelligence officials suspect that members of the illegals network were used by Russia’s SVR spy agency to communicate with one or more agents inside the agency, which conducts electronic intelligence gathering and code-breaking.

“They are looking for one or more Russian spies that NSA is convinced reside at Fort Meade and possibly other DoD intel offices, like DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency],” the former official said. “NSA is convinced that at least one is at NSA.”

They were not looking for Edward Snowden, who in 2010 had only recently begun work on an NSA contract — but in Japan, thousands of miles from Agency headquarters at Fort Meade. Since there have been no follow-up reports on the Russian mole, or moles, at Fort Meade, we are left to assume that they remain unidentified by NSA counterintelligence.

Here Snowden has doubtless been a big help. Since he went public two years ago, NSA has been engaged in the biggest damage assessment in all intelligence history. Trying to determine exactly what Snowden stole, as well as who may have helped him in his betrayal, has consumed the full resources of Agency counterintelligence, and will for years to come. Perhaps this is why the real Russian moles have yet to be uncovered.

If this notion — that Moscow would sacrifice Snowden to protect their actual moles — strikes you as fanciful you’re not well acquainted with Chekists and how they roll, and have rolled for nearly a century now. Welcome to the Wilderness of Mirrors.

Snowden is a Fraud

In the two years since the Edward Snowden saga went public, a handful of people who actually understand the Western signals intelligence system have tried to explain the many ways that the Snowden Operation has smeared NSA and its partners with salacious charges of criminality and abuse. I’ve been one of the public faces of what may be called the Snowden Truth movement, and finally there are signs that reality may be intruding on this debate.

No American ally was rocked harder by Snowden’s allegations than Germany, which has endured a bout of hysteria over charges that NSA was listening in on senior German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although these stories included a good deal of bunkum from the start, they caused a firestorm in Germany, particularly the alleged spying on Merkel, which was termed Handygate by the media.

In response, Germany tasked Federal prosecutors with looking into the matter and, they if determined there was sufficient evidence, to press charges against NSA for breaking stringent German privacy laws. The investigation, led by Harald Range, Germany’s attorney general, has been slow and diligent, examining all possible evidence about NSA spying on Germany. Here Snowden’s purloined information would play a key role.

However, the matter has become politically fraught. In the first place, senior German security officials were circumspect about the case, since Berlin is heavily dependent on NSA for intelligence on vital matters like terrorism. Worse, follow-on Snowden revelations showed that the BND, German’s foreign intelligence service, and NSA are close partners, and the BND has itself been spying on EU neighbor states that are friendly to Germany such as AustriaBelgium, and the Netherlands.

To top it off, last month’s major hack of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, turns out to have been the work of Russians, apparently state-sponsored. In reality, the major spy threats to Germany are not NSA, but Russians and Chinese, as I’ve been saying for some time — and, to be fair, so have German security officials, though they got drowned out in the public hysteria over Snowden.

Now we learn that Range’s prosecutors are dropping their year-long Handygate inquiry, for want of hard evidence. Federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe aren’t saying much, beyond that they simply don’t have evidence of spying that would stand up in court. Back in December, Attorney General Range offered a warning about the dubious nature of much of the “evidence” against NSA:

The document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database. There is no proof at the moment which could lead to charges that Chancellor Merkel’s phone connection data was collected or her calls tapped.

Got that? That’s the polite, legalistic way of saying the Snowden claims are backed by faked NSA documents, as has been clear for some time to anybody who understands counterintelligence and the SIGINT system. This should surprise no one, since using fake or doctored Western intelligence documents to embarrass democracies is a venerable tradition for Russian intelligence — the proper espionage term is Active Measures — and since Snowden’s been in Moscow for the last two years and shows no signs of going anywhere else anytime soon, two and two can be added together here.

To make matters worse for Snowden’s fans, a report about the Handygate inquiry being dropped in the magazine Der Spiegel, which has been a key player in the Snowden Operation, includes the painful truth. While some have clamored to get Snowden out of Moscow to testify before prosecutors, Berlin understood how politically tricky that would be. Moreover, prosecutors determined that Ed simply didn’t have much to say.

As a prosecutor explained, Snowden provided “no evidence that he has his own knowledge” (keine Hinweise dafür, dass er über eigene Kenntnisse verfügt). In other words, Ed doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. This is not news to anybody who understands how NSA and the Allied SIGINT system actually work.

Snowden was an IT guy, not a SIGINT analyst, and in his final position he was working as a contracted infrastructure analyst for NSA’s Information Assurance arm, i.e. the Agency’s defensive side, which protects classified U.S. communications networks. Snowden was never a SIGINTer, working on the intelligence collection side of the house, and he doesn’t seem to understand how that complex system, built over decades, actually functions.

This is why Snowden has made so many odd, contradictory, and even outlandish statements over the past couple years about SIGINT, which have caused those who actually understand how NSA works to scratch their heads … Ed doesn’t know any better.

It’s been obvious for some time to insiders that, for reasons we still don’t fully understand, Snowden decided to steal something like 1.7 million classified documents from NSA servers through internal hacks. About 900,000 of those documents came from the Pentagon and have nothing to do with intelligence matters.

There’s no way Snowden could have read more than a tiny fraction of what he stole, nobody has that much time, and it’s clear now that Ed, an IT guy and a thief, who was never any sort of “spy” as he portrays himself, would not have understood all those NSA documents he made off with anyway.

Snowden’s been living under the protection of Putin’s Federal Security Service now for two years, functioning as a pawn of Russian intelligence. When his secret relationship with the Kremlin started remains an open question, but that he has one now can only be denied by the foolish (witness the weak lies told by his supporters about Ed’s FSB ties), since when you defect, you wind up in the care of that country’s security service. That’s how it works in America, and I don’t hear anybody seriously suggesting that Putin’s Kremlin is more liberal in these matters than the FBI or CIA.

In light of these revelations from Germany, it’s worth pondering whether Ed was always just a pawn, a talking head, for others with agendas to harm Western security. As we’re now in the Cold War 2.0 with Russia that I warned you about after Putin’s theft of Crimea, this seems like a more than academic question.

For two years now, I’ve been trying to inform the public about what’s really going on behind the Snowden Operation, using my understanding of how the SpyWar actually functions, and I’ve gotten a lot of grief for it from Ed’s hardcore fans. News out of Germany can’t help but lead me to point out that, well … I told you so.

The OPM Hacking Scandal Just Got Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking as Offensive Counterintelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Intelligence Reality Check

Our right wing is in a flutter over recently declassified and released Pentagon intelligence documents regarding Middle Eastern events in recent years. FoxNews is blaring about failures to miss the rise of the Islamic State and (of course) about Benghazi, in its customary way, but without much context.

Worse is this piece, which has a pronouncedly conspiratorial bent, implying that the Pentagon was somehow in on the rise of the Islamic State — which is precisely what Tehran and Moscow want you to think. The documents in question, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a right-wing group, can be seen in full here, but the report generating the most heat, if not light, is this one.

This is an early August 2012 field report to the Defense Intelligence Agency, known in the trade as an Intelligence Information Report or IIR. As it states clearly, this is an “information report, not finally evaluated intelligence.” Its contents are deemed explosive by those seeking explosions. According to outraged observers online, this DIA IIR is “proof” that “the Pentagon” and “the Intelligence Community” knew more about the rise of the Islamic State than they let on. At best, they’re fools; at worst, they’re deceivers who have lied to the American people.

It’s time for a reality check. Having written my share of IIRs, let me explain a few things to you. First off, this report, which is classified SECRET/NOFORN (i.e. it’s far from “highly classified”) is so heavily redacted that it’s difficult to say much meaningful about it. Who filed this IIR has been taken out, and its distribution list (at least what we can see of it) is the usual alphabet soup of DoD and IC headquarters and agencies. Nothing special here, not one bit.

As for the pronouncements in this IIR, which are taken as highly meaningful by the conspiracy-minded, they are routine, the sort of thing found in the thousands of IIRs that DIA generates annually, on a wide range of subjects. Is this the take of a U.S. defense attaché somewhere in the Middle East, and therefore a reflection of his/her personal views only? Is this the rant of someone who claims good access, who may (or may not) have that? Are these the ramblings of a partner security service — in other words, glorified hall gossip — that an attaché felt obliged to report back in that mixture of “FYI” and “CYA” that dominates inside the Beltway? Given the heavy redactions, it’s simply impossible to say.

What we can say with certainty, however, is that this IIR is not the view of “the Defense Intelligence Agency” or “the Pentagon,” much less “the Intelligence Community.” The IC is a sprawling enterprise of seventeen different agencies, some of which don’t play well with each other. Plus, not to put too fine a point on this, DIA isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the IC shed, being viewed as a bit of an also-ran by CIA and NSA, who are the Big Dogs of American intelligence in terms of mission, budgets, and prestige.

This is but one IIR, whose provenance we know basically nothing about. Don’t read too much into it. There is nothing conspiratorial here to those who understand the IC. Raw intelligence like this is often wide of the mark, and DIA’s reputation here is less than stellar. Has everybody forgotten about CURVEBALL so soon?

I am pretty critical of the Obama administration’s policy towards the Islamic State, as I’ve written about many times, and it’s clear that calling them the “JV team” was a stupid mistake. As I’ve reported, there has been robust debate inside the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community for several years about what the Islamic State exactly is, and what should be done about, and it’s safe to say that most of DoD and the IC today are out of step with the White House’s soft-touch approach to its pseudo-war against this virulent and fanatical enemy.

This lone IIR is but a single data point that serious analysts will not get worked up over, as opposed to those who have ideological axes to grind, to say nothing of the tinfoil-hat brigade. After 9/11, the Intelligence Community was exhorted to “connect the dots” better. I would caution all to observe that this is a mere dot, one whose provenance and reliability we do not know.

On a final note, let me add that, while I am in favor of the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community releasing more classified documents to promote greater public understanding — an area where this administration, contrary to its grandiose promises of transparency, has a dismal track record — releasing documents that are so heavily redacted as to be almost incomprehensible does not actually promote understanding of complex issues, rather the contrary.

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

For years I’ve warned the U.S. Intelligence Community to get serious about counterintelligence, the business of preventing penetrations of our side by hostile espionage services. Counterintelligence is actually a lot more than that — mastering its offensive side is the key to real espionage success — but Washington, DC, is still far off from mastering even the defensive part of this game. Ignoring CI, as we systematically do, has cost this country lives and treasure in abundance, and it will continue to right until the IC gets serious about counterintelligence.

However, what I’ve termed the counterintelligence imperative just doesn’t seem all that imperative to IC bigwigs, who continue to regard CI as a nuisance and an afterthought. This reluctance seems an immutable law of the vast, sprawling, and expensive Intelligence Community, having long ago been institutionalized. A dozen years ago, a former NSA director bemoaned American CI’s “dismal performance,” noting that counterintelligence is fragmented, under-resourced, and neglected, and none of that has improved since. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Counterintelligence continues to be regarded as something less than a full-time job by most IC leadership, who prefer not to think about it at all. Just how peripheral CI is to U.S. intelligence was made clear by an assessment done by the Congressional Research Service back in late April 2013. This detailed study, intended to be a primer on the Intelligence Community for Congress, was a walk-through of the entire IC, with analysis of which agencies do what as well as explanations of all the various -INTs. Yet, in this thirty-page study, the word “counterintelligence” never appears, not even once.

It’s perhaps fitting that this CRS study appeared just two months before Ed Snowden defected to Russia after stealing over 1.5 million classified documents, representing the greatest intelligence loss in the history of Western espionage. Such is the price of totally ignoring counterintelligence. One might have thought that the epic Snowden debacle would concentrate minds in the IC about the need to get finally serious about CI. Alas, one would be wrong.

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The IC has belatedly promised to clean up its totally dysfunctional security clearance process, while a crackdown on suspected insider threats is underway. Having seen this show before, I am pessimistic about this having much effect beyond terrifying thousands of perfectly loyal IC employees. Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, a few months ago announced the formation of a new, unified IC center to consolidate counterintelligence and security missions, which sounds promising but may just be another “reorg” designed to make things look better than they actually are, which is a venerable Beltway tradition.

Besides, how Clapper really feels about counterintelligence was made clear in his recent testimony before Congress about how the Intelligence Community views the world and what the spooks think really threatens America. Although the IC has been at pains lately to say counterintelligence is a high priority — after the Snowden disaster, how could they not? — Clapper never specifically addressed CI in his remarks, not even once. Perhaps worse, no Senators asked Clapper about the state of counterintelligence at all.

This gross neglect continues despite jaw-dropping headlines about Russians accessing the emails of the State Department and the White House, recent arrests and expulsions of Russian spies from America and other Western countries, as well as from NATO headquarters. Kremlin espionage against the West now equals the highest levels of the Cold War, and they are as aggressive as ever in their targeting of our politics, governments, and economies, yet U.S. intelligence continues to pretend that counterintelligence is unimportant.

Losing the SpyWar against the Russians will have grave consequences, not least because Putin’s forces are engaged in what I term Special War against us, and espionage constitutes the cornerstone of that campaign. Based on evidence available to date, it’s apparent that the Russians are winning the SpyWar and have attained what the Pentagon terms “information dominance” over NATO.

This was made clear by recent rather frank comments by General Phil Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Warning that more Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond may be imminent, Breedlove added that NATO faces “critical” intelligence gaps. As SACEUR told Congress:

Russian military operations in Ukraine and the region more broadly have underscored that there are critical gaps in our [intelligence] collection and analysis … Some Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise, and our textured feel for Russia’s involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited.

In other words, he’s worried that the Russians have the drop on NATO and we might not detect a sudden Kremlin attack on Ukraine — or worse, on a NATO country. It’s not everyday that SACEUR is this blunt in his public language, and Breedlove’s words should be taken as a warning of how bad things have gotten in Western intelligence. Since the lion’s share of U.S. (and often NATO) intelligence comes from signals intelligence, i.e. from NSA and its partners, it’s clear that Western SIGINT has taken a big hit recently. That hit was named Edward Snowden.

As I predicted almost two years ago, the Snowden Operation has been a huge win for the Kremlin, and right now its special services have an edge in the SpyWar thanks to Ed’s betrayal. His treachery is at least the equal, strategically speaking, of William Weisband’s at the onset of the Cold War, Weisband being the worst of our SIGINT traitors … until Snowden.

While the damage inflicted by Snowden on Western intelligence will eventually be repaired, that will be years off. In the meantime, the Russians are playing a strong hand, espionage-wise, leaving NATO guessing what Putin’s next move will be — and where. This is a bad place for the Atlantic Alliance to be, as any strategist or military historian will tell you. While NATO dwarfs the Russians in conventional strength, good intelligence can compensate for that weakness, particularly when combined with strategic denial and deception of the sort that the Kremlin excels in.

We are entering a dangerous period for Europe and the West, now that Putin has completed his Victory Day public extravaganza, and the risk of being strategically surprised by the Kremlin is very real. Just this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the Russians have bolstered forces in and around Eastern Ukraine and now possess “the capability to launch new attacks with very little warning time.” There is little that the West can do right now to make good the intelligence losses caused by Snowden, that will take time, but getting serious about preventing the next Snowden and blunting the impact of rising Russian espionage against NATO is absolutely imperative. There may be little time left to waste. We must get in the counterspy game with vigor and without delay, or be prepared to lose the SpyWar, and much more.

Putin’s Balkan Offensive

On the weekend, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb Republic threatened secession if he did not get reforms, proposing to hold a referendum on leaving the country if his demands are not met by the end of 2017. Milorad Dodik, who has ruled over the Bosnian Serbs, on and off, for most of the twenty years since the United States forced a peace settlement to end Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, has toyed with secession before, but his weekend announcement represents the most direct threat ever to the country’s postwar political system.

In fairness to Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs, almost nobody in Bosnia is happy with the current system, which when it was hashed out in Dayton, Ohio in the autumn of 1995, under Clinton administration pressure, was never intended to be more than a temporary political solution to Bosnia’s political conflicts, yet here we are two decades later, and that short-term solution has become a seriously flawed, long-lasting one.

Dayton Bosnia is a deeply dysfunctional polity, with a weak, state-level government in Sarajevo plus two “entity” governments: the Serb Republic in Banja Luka and the Muslim-Croat Federation, also in Sarajevo. Its defects are too many to list briefly but boil down to a decrepit economy that never recovered from the war two decades ago, staggeringly high unemployment (officially it approaches fifty percent, but that is an underestimate), plus corruption so pervasive that it cannot be rooted out without cashiering the country’s whole political class, regardless of party or ethnicity (Dodik himself being one of the country’s biggest pols-on-the-take). Anybody who can escape Bosnia does so, leaving the country of four million with a declining population and a serious brain-drain.

Poor and corrupt, the Serb Republic isn’t a viable place, but neither is the whole country, and nobody knows what to do about it. The Dayton Accords created an impoverished ward of the European Union that nobody knows what to do with, yet which festers with crime, corruption, and extremism. And it’s not only the Serbs who want out: Croats, too, are deeply dissatisfied with the Dayton arrangement, which left them without an entity of their own, but unhappy Bosnian Croats can at least escape easily to neighboring Croatia, which distributes its EU passports to any fellow Croats who want them.

The root of Bosnia’s turmoil is not difficult to grasp in its essentials, though the diplo-dialect used by Eurocrats and American overseers buries it under lots of legalese and Balkan jargon that is impenetrable to outsiders. Bosnian Muslims want a more centrally controlled state, which they as the country’s largest ethnic group will dominate, while the Serbs want more autonomy for their entity and have no desire to live in a Muslim-dominated Bosnia. This is the exact same dispute that Bosnia collapsed into war over back in 1992: nothing has changed except a hundred thousand people got killed and a beautiful country got wrecked.

To be fair to the Serbs, there has been anger and confusion over recognition of an independent Kosovo by most of NATO and the EU, including the United States, after that former Serbian province formally separated itself from Belgrade in 2008, nearly a decade after NATO went to war on its behalf. Nobody in Brussels or Washington, DC, has been able to plausibly explain why Serbia’s borders can be redrawn but Bosnia’s cannot.

For NATO and the EU, Bosnia’s territorial integrity has been sacrosanct, even though partition, as with Kosovo, represents the obvious long-term solution to a problem that nobody really has any other fixes for. Yet, as the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians learned after World War One, when the Americans push “national self-determination” they mean it for some people, and not for others. Unsurprisingly, Bosnia’s Serbs have pushed back against this American and EU double standard for two decades, to no avail, and Dodik’s exasperation reached its breaking point on the weekend.

Banja Luka has hardly been its own best ally in its campaign to get more power for Bosnia’s Serbs, with their nationalist antics alienating even their friends at times, yet it should be noted that the Muslims have shown little willingness to even discuss Dodik’s demands. That is functionally impossible, since much of Sarajevo’s elite, to include the Muslim clerical establishment, has demonized the Serbs with constant charges of genocide during the 1992-95 war — notwithstanding that such claims are at best a partial truth about that ugly conflict — and who, after all, can be expected to parley with such monsters? This peculiar version of “Holocaust theology” among Bosnia’s Muslims does not bode well for reconciliation and harmony. Total political paralysis has been the logical outcome.

Although it needs to be made clear that Bosnians of all stripes are primarily responsible for their country’s dismal situation, thanks to their seemingly intractable inability to get along, the West bears ample blame for Bosnia’s deep dysfunction, and not merely for creating the Dayton situation. As in Afghanistan, throwing billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, while not watching closely where it goes, led to NATO being the cash-cow for Bosnian organized crime and corruption.

Above all, the existence of the Serb Republic today is due to American intervention, a strange case of Balkan blowback. In early August 1995, the Croatian military unleashed its victory offensive, Operation STORM, to regain the territory it lost to Serb rebels in 1991. Still the largest European military operation since 1945, STORM rapidly crushed the Serbs and, with American go-ahead, Zagreb continued Croatia’s march into Bosnia, with the help of Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces. Two months of offensives followed, backed by NATO airpower, the Atlantic Alliance’s first-ever military operation, and by early October the Croats were at the gates of Banja Luka, having taken the heights of Manjača, a strategic mountain fifteen miles south of the Bosnian Serb capital.

The complete defeat of the Bosnian Serbs was at hand, since without Banja Luka, the only real city the Bosnian Serbs possessed, their pseudo-state would simply not be viable. Yet, mysteriously, on the night of 11-12 October 1995, the Croats suddenly halted their offensive. It was an open secret that they would have been in Banja Luka within twenty-four hours, as the Bosnian Serb Army was in chaotic retreat. It was equally an open secret that a call from Washington, DC, had ordered the Croats to halt their victory march.

While it’s not completely clear why the Americans wanted the Croats to stop short of a strategic victory over the Bosnian Serbs, allowing Banja Luka to stay in Serbian hands twenty years ago set the troubled course Bosnia has been on ever since. Having permitted the Serb Republic to live in the autumn of 1995, the Americans constructed the ramshackle Dayton system that would leave nobody in Bosnia satisfied.

This Goldilocks approach to Bosnia, where nobody’s Balkan porridge is ever quite right, worked inadequately for nearly two decades, in its own dysfunctional way, yet over the last year the game has been changed by Vladimir Putin, and only now is the West taking notice. It’s not that the Kremlin has exactly been hiding its diplomatic offensive in the region. Suspicious numbers of Russian diplomats have been visiting Banja Luka, a tiny place by European standards, while last September Putin praised Dodik as “an experienced politician and manager” while the Bosnian Serb leader was in Moscow. In exchange, Dodik hailed Russia’s theft of Crimea from Ukraine, praising it as a model of self-determination that the Bosnian Serb leader made clear set an example for changing Bosnia’s borders too.

There is significant ideological harmony between Banja Luka and Moscow, based on an anti-Western ideology grounded in Orthodoxy and Slavic nationalism, all of which masks a great deal of corruption and personal profiteering. This ideological alliance has been cemented by Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired Russian intelligence general who makes regular trips to the Balkans to visit his “brother” Serbs. A Kremlin insider with strongly nationalist and religious views, Reshetnikov is a fierce advocate of what I term Putin’s Orthodox Jihad, and he heads a major Moscow think-tank that serves as an arm of Russian foreign policy.

Unsurprisingly, Reshetnikov has counseled the Bosnian Serbs they must stand up to the West, since Brussels and Washington, DC, are plotting against them, seeking to destroy the Serbian entity. Just as unsurprisingly, this hardline nationalist take has won Reshetnikov plaudits from the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, which has hosted several of his visits to the region and bestowed him with high honors

This Kremlin offensive, with Reshetnikov in the ideological lead, has led some to worry about the “Russification” of Serbia, and that is a valid concern. However, despite ominous signs such as Serbian participation in the forthcoming Victory Day parade in Moscow on 9 May, including by the Serbian military, public opinion in that country remains divided between those who want a more European orientation for Serbia and those who seek some sort of Orthodox Slavic alliance with Russia. The outcome of this important debate remains uncertain.

However, there is little debate that in Bosnia’s Serb Republic the Kremlin’s allies have already won. Banja Luka is broke and weak, and here Putin’s money goes a long way — and already has. Thanks to the flawed Dayton structure imposed by the West, Bosnia as-is cannot be a functional country, and Putin is now exploiting a weakness that Western overseers should have fixed years ago, yet did not. Here the Russians are reaping easy diplomatic gains thanks to NATO and EU mistakes and unwillingness to fix them.

Skeptics are noting that Dodik that is merely playing a game to win more concessions from Sarajevo and the West, implying that he has no intention of actually staging any independence referendum. Dodik is unquestionably a scheming Balkan wheeler-dealer from central casting. Yet these are the same hopeful sorts who, over a year ago, assured us that Putin didn’t “really” mean all his nationalist rhetoric, he would never dare to actually invade Crimea and Eastern Ukraine …

The fate of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s looms large in Putin’s imagination as an example of what happens when the Europeans and the Americans gang up to dismantle a Slavic state: it is a warning sign to the Kremlin, the sort of thing that a strong and resurgent Russia will not allow to happen again in Eastern Europe. While this narrative of Yugoslavia’s violent collapse is very different from how most in the West view it, it’s widely held in Moscow and informs current Russian discussions of Bosnia and all of Southeastern Europe.

Bosnia may muddle through just yet, and perhaps Dodik is all talk. Dayton has lasted for twenty years in its plodding, dysfunctional way, and perhaps it will last for twenty more. But Banja Luka, with Moscow’s backing, is now signalling that real changes may be afoot that constitute a direct challenge to the political and security architecture the West created for the Balkans in the 1990’s. This is nothing less than a strategic offensive in the region — for now it falls under the rubric of Special War in typical Kremlin fashion — of the kind I told you Putin would bring to Europe this year. However, given the stakes there is no room for Western complacence, particularly given how badly it worked out the last time the Russians went all-in with their support for the Serbs.

UPDATE (0730 EST, 28 APR): Yesterday’s jihadist terrorist attack on a police station in Zvornik, which killed a Serb policeman (get the details here), seems perfectly timed to coincide with Dodik’s pro-independence move. As if on cue, the Bosnian Serb leader has stated that Banja Luka may withdraw from Bosnian state-level security structures, which would be an important step towards dismantling the Dayton apparatus. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Russian diplomats are stoking the fires of Orthodox Slavic nationalism and some people are starting to notice.

Putin Turns Up His Special War Against Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Ukraine Can Win

As we are now in a lull in Russia’s war against Ukraine that Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin began one year ago, it’s time to assess how Kyiv can do better at war-fighting. Not for want of courage, Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory and sovereignty from Russian aggression have been failures, as I’ve explained many times. I’ve repeatedly counseled Ukraine to emulate how Croatia in 1991 lost one-third of its territory to Serbian rebels, only to regain almost all that territory through quick, decisive military operations in 1995. As a template for strategic success against a more powerful enemy at a reasonable cost in lives and treasure, Zagreb’s model from the early 1990’s cannot be improved upon.

This has been met with whining from supporters of failing President Petro Poroshenko that 1. War is hard, and 2. Russia isn’t Serbia. The latter is true, but it’s also worth noting that Ukraine is ten times Croatia’s size in population, and even more so in area. Kyiv has ample resources to conduct defensive war, it just doesn’t seem to want to. National strength and honor seem lacking to a worrisome degree. Furthermore, if Poroshenko is not up to the difficult job of saving his country from Kremlin aggression, he needs to return to the candy business without delay and make room for a leader who actually wants to fight.

Emulating Croatia today means several specific actions that must be taken, and soon. The current lull in the Russo-Ukrainian War is temporary. Since people often ask for specifics, I’m giving them to you. Here is what Ukraine must do if it wants to not lose even bigger swathes of the country to the Russians, and eventually regain the land it has already lost to Putin.

Think strategically: This means looking at a map and noting that Ukraine is a very big country by European standards. Kyiv can certainly trade space for time, and in the long run time is not on Russia’s side in this war of choice. This means halting idiotic military moves like “last stands” at places of no strategic significance like Donetsk airport and Debaltseve, where Kyiv sacrificed motivated defenders for no reason except Poroshenko, a strategic illiterate, said so. Any Russian drive to make its Novorossiya fantasy a reality must be stopped — in practical terms this means turning Mariupol into Vukovar-on-the-Azov — but this is an achievable strategic goal for Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces. If the Russians can be halted at Mariupol, they can be halted anywhere. If not, Ukraine is lost. Act accordingly. Zagreb won big in 1995 because it played the long game, both diplomatically and militarily. Eventually the Kremlin will tire of its noxious proxies in Eastern Ukraine: be ready to pounce when that happens.

Take intelligence seriously: At present, Kyiv cannot do much of anything in secret. Moscow’s spies, deeply embedded during the Yanukovych era, when Ukraine’s SBU was in effect a subset of Russia’s FSB, know all, or nearly so. Operational security in the Western sense hardly exists. Rigorous counterintelligence is needed without delay. This task seems daunting but, given patience and discipline, it can and must be done. In 1991, Yugoslavia’s military intelligence alone had almost 1,800 agents in Croatia — counting Belgrade’s civilian security service the true number of Serbian spies easily doubled — but Zagreb eventually won the all-important SpyWar by taking counterintelligence seriously. There are other pressing intelligence needs, especially in the area of electronic warfare, where Moscow’s dominance on the battlefield is almost total, costing Ukraine’s military many lives, and here Western aid can help significantly. But there’s not much point in giving Kyiv sensitive gear that will be passed to the Russians. Ukraine cannot win the war until it bests the Russians in espionage, and time is wasting.

Fight corruption hard: Ukraine’s fighting troops are already disgruntled by the fact that their political masters in Kyiv, to include the military’s famously corrupt generals, are living well while they are dying in misguided operations that seem doomed to fail. This is recipe for political disaster for Ukraine in the long run. The situation is so bad that Western charities supporting the military go around the General Staff and the official chain of command, which they know steal aid that is intended for the front. Ukraine’s overall corruption problem is staggering, but institutionalized theft in the defense sector must be beaten down if Ukraine wants to stop losing lives and territory to a rapacious Russia. Executions of corrupt generals and politicos, in Beijing style, pour encourager les autres, would send an indelible message. Rooting deep corruption of out of the military would have a salutary effect on the whole country. Spreading the message that corrupt officials are helping Moscow, and should be dealt with as traitors, is a necessary start.

Quantity has a quality all its own: Ukraine’s military is far too small to defend the country against Russian aggression, much less win back lost territory. In the more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s military devolved into an embarrassing morass of theft and laziness with little combat capability. This erosion of basic competence in battle has been laid bare by events around Donbas in recent months. Additionally, Ukraine’s fighting forces are simply too small to defend the country. Belated efforts to raise the active military to 250,000 troops, approved in Kyiv this week, are both unconscionably late and inadequate. Putting anything less than one percent of the country’s population in uniform, when Ukraine is at war, is frankly a joke and indicates Poroshenko wants to lose. In the second half of 1991, Croatia mobilized nearly 200,000 troops from a population of not much more than four million. That Ukraine is having a hard time coming up with a similar number of troops from a population that’s ten times Croatia’s speaks volumes about what’s wrong here.

But quality counts too: Ukraine certainly needs more troops to prevent further Russian aggression, but it also needs better troops. Some of the volunteer battalions have shown impressive grit in battle against the Russians, far more than most regular army units, and properly handled, they might form the core of Ukraine’s new, improved army. Here the Croatian model again informs. Starting from basically nothing beyond disarmed Yugoslav-era Territorial Defense structures, Zagreb built an effective three-tiered army. At the top stood seven mechanized Guards brigades, staffed with professional soldiers and equipped with the most modern weaponry the Croats possessed. They were the tip of the spear in Operation STORM, the biggest European military undertaking since 1945. At the other end were Home Defense regiments, part-time troops that were intended for mopping up duties, not high-intensity combat. The bulk of the army consisted of infantry brigades, a mix of conscripts and reservists, intended for defense and limited offensive missions. Together, this three-level system restored Croatian independence and sovereignty, making efficient use of Zagreb’s limited stocks of modern weaponry. The only thing stopping Ukraine from doing something similar is a lack of will and imagination.

To sum up, the Russo-Ukrainian War is Kyiv’s to win, if it approaches the future wisely. The last year has been one of defeat after defeat for Ukraine, sometimes needlessly. Vladimir Putin has opted for war against Russia’s vast neighbor, the second biggest country in Europe, and this is now a conflict that Russia cannot win without a massive invasion and mobilization that would be politically and economically toxic to average Russians. Therefore the initiative has passed to Kyiv, if it has the strength and honor to use it. That will require thinking strategically, turning the espionage tables on Moscow, and building the right military machine for the war at hand. All this can be done, but every day that Kyiv does not change course is a further indication that the Poroshenko government does not really want to win.