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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at The Observer …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at The Observer …

Spies Suspect Kremlin Is Pushing Dozens of Fake Trump Sex Tapes

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at The Observer …

Solving the Mystery of the Maltese Professor

This week began with the bombshell legal news that Special Counsel Robert Mueller brought charges against members of Team Trump relating to their illicit ties to Moscow. As I explained, this fundamentally changes the game in our nation’s capital, and the White House is struggling to cope with this new environment, which finds the president on the defensive, awaiting further indictments of his associates.

No aspect of this week’s news is more mysterious than the saga of “the Professor”—in reality, Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese national—who served as the hush-hush go-between for the Trump campaign and the Kremlin in the spring of 2016. Notably, he acted as Moscow’s cut-out for contacts with George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor hired by the Trump campaign in the late winter of 2016.

Mifsud’s role is crystal-clear to anyone versed in Russian espionage tradecraft, what the Kremlin calls konspiratsiya (yes, “conspiracy”). He is a secret operative of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, as I elaborated:

Papadopoulos met “the Professor” in Italy in mid-March 2016, then again in London later that month; on the latter occasion “the Professor” brought along a Russian female, allegedly Putin’s niece, to help facilitate the engagement. Papadopoulos emailed the campaign about the success of this meeting, which responded enthusiastically about what had transpired and on March 31, he participated in a national security meeting in Washington that included campaign principals, with Trump himself present.

But Misfud’s role soon moved into even darker territory:

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Trump Campaign’s Spy-Ties to Moscow Have Been Exposed

Yesterday was filled with legal bombshells for President Donald Trump. As expected, after months of investigation into the White House’s ties to Moscow, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team announced three arrests and indictments. Together, these cases have fundamentally shifted the game in our nation’s capital—very much to the president’s detriment.

The arrest of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager in the summer of 2016 who secured him the Republican Party’s nomination, was expected by many. For months, rumors had swirled around Manafort, given his longstanding and unsavory ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, compounded by his barely concealed links to Kremlin intelligence, as I reported three months before the November 2016 election.

Manafort has surrendered to the FBI and faces a dozen federal charges relating to financial crimes including money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, plus neglecting to report foreign cash to the IRS. These charges are serious and will be difficult for Manafort to beat, leading to speculation that what Mueller really wants is Manafort’s cooperation against Team Trump—which may be the 68-year-old’s only alternative to dying in prison.

Rick Gates, a Manafort protégé and 2016 Trump campaign associate, has also surrendered to the Feds and is facing a raft of charges relating to money laundering. Gates also played a key role in President Trump’s inauguration and pushed the White House’s agenda as a lobbyist until April of this year, when questions about Gates’ ties to the Kremlin made his position untenable.

On cue, the White House protested that they barely know Manafort and Gates—a transparent falsehood—while stating that their alleged crimes have nothing directly to do with the president. The latter may be technically true, but difficult questions lurk regarding why Donald Trump wanted someone as unsavory and Moscow-connected as Paul Manafort to head his campaign, particularly since the longtime swamp denizen Manafort’s links to Eastern oligarchs were an open secret in Washington.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Poland Pushes Back Against Putin’s Special War

More than any country in the West, Poland in recent years has been ahead of the curve in resisting aggressive moves emanating from Russia. Six months before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Warsaw was embracing territorial defense, fearing invasion from the East. Last year the Polish military, which is in the middle of an extensive defense modernization effort, created a new, part-time force designed to resist Putin’s “little green men” in case Moscow decides to unleash a Crimea-like operation on Poland.

None of this is surprising, given Poland’s long history with its Russian neighbor, most of it unpleasant. Memories of Muscovite occupation remain fresh in Polish minds and motivate Warsaw to take preparations for war more seriously than most of NATO does. For Poles, the threat from the East is painfully real and doesn’t need to be explained: it simply is.

Moreover, Warsaw’s preparations for war include contending with the constant efforts by Russians spies and provocateurs to harm Poland in what I’ve termed Special War—the secret espionage and propaganda struggle at which the Kremlin regrettably excels, as Americans learned to our great political pain in 2016.

It’s no accident that NATO’s new Centre of Excellence for counterintelligence just opened shop in Poland. The Atlantic Alliance runs several Centres of Excellence, specializing in a wide array of military and security subjects, and the creation of a CoE for counterintelligence could not be better timed. The new Cracow-based CoE will provide counterintelligence expertise and training to NATO students, with an emphasis on rising espionage threats. Antoni Macierewicz, Poland’s defense minister, explained forthrightly that the Cracow center is “fundamentally important, especially in the face of threats from Russia.”

Read the rest at The Observer …

Our National Security’s Millennial Problem

America’s intelligence agencies are having terrible problems keeping secrets these days, none more than my former employer, NSA: or, as I’ve termed it, the National INsecurity Agency. Since the recent rash of leaks and thefts of classified information has real implications for our national security, this issue needs public attention. If you can’t keep secrets, there’s hardly any point to having spy services – much less spending some $50 billion annually on a behemoth Intelligence Community that leaks like a sieve.

Take the recent case of the improbably named Reality Winner, the NSA contractor who was arrested in June for stealing an above-top-secret report and passing it to The Intercept, which published its revelations. A former Air Force linguist assigned to NSA Georgia, located in Augusta, the 25-year-old Winner took it upon herself to sneak highly classified intelligence out of her office – hidden in her pantyhose – because she felt the public had a right to know its contents.

According to Winner, she stole a Top Secret Codeword signals intelligence assessment on Russian hacking of our 2016 election because she felt it needed to be known: “Why can’t this be public?” she asked. Of course, she knew the answer: because it’s highly classified and therefore should be seen only by properly cleared people with a need to know, in the jargon of the espionage business.

However, Winner, who was miffed at her co-workers for watching FoxNews in the office, decided that the damage to NSA caused by her leak would be limited: “I just figured that whatever we were using had already been compromised, and that this report was just going to be like a one drop in the bucket,” she stated, adding that she never bothered to check if these SIGINT sources and methods had already been compromised. Winner has been denied bail and is awaiting trial for violations of the Espionage Act.

We’ve seen this personalized take on the nation’s secrecy laws before, namely with Edward Snowden, another NSA contractor who, in the spring of 2013, just short of his 30th birthday, made off with 1.5 million classified documents and defected to Moscow, where he remains. Snowden, too, felt that laws on protecting America’s secrets didn’t apply to him, so he broke more of them than anyone in the nation’s history.

Read the rest at The Observer …