The Coming Age of Special War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowden, NSA, and Counterintelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking strategically about Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikileaks, Snowden, and the Belarus Connection

After having his first round of asylum applications turned down across the board, NSA leaker/defector Edward Snowden may at last have found a home. It’s been reported that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said his country will offer asylum to America’s most wanted IT guy, whom no one else seems to want. This may settle the matter, and Snowden will be able to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport at last, but the more than minor issue of how Ed will actually get to Venezuela remains unresolved.

It’s worth noting that Maduro, who earlier this week was in Moscow, went home via Belarus, where he celebrated independence festivities in Minsk with President – or as Maduro called him, “Comrade President” – Aleksandr Lukashenka. Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, visited Belarus five times, which really stood out because virtually no heads of state visit Minsk these days, thanks to Belarus’s awful record as Europe’s only repressive dictatorship. There the secret police, still termed the KGB (it would have cost a fortune to change the letterhead), keeps a lid on dissent in a way that dismays virtually everyone in Europe. In recent years, Vladimir Putin, once a strong supporter of the weird Lukashenka neo-Soviet cult, has put some distance between Moscow and Minsk because nobody outside quasi-Stalinist circles wants to be publicly associated with Belarus.

Wikileaks, however, is one of the few organizations with kind words about Lukashenka – which, given the awful record of the Belarusian KGB against the press and dissidents is an odd position for an “anti-secrecy” group to take – and here’s where things get interesting. The key figure in all this is Israel Shamir, who is one of the oddest and shadiest characters you’d ever want to meet. Importantly, he’s been telling everyone for years that he’s the Wikileaks representative for Russia and Belarus. He has gone to bat for the latter country and has been involved in discrediting Belarusian dissidents – which, given how badly Minsk treats such people, is no trivial matter.

So who is Israel Shamir? That’s not an easy question to answer with much certainty. His official biography states that he was born in the Soviet Union in 1947 and emigrated to Israel in 1969, but little of his curriculum vitae stands up to detailed scrutiny. He admits to having something like a half-dozen different identities, complete with aliases. Of greatest interest here is that, before he became famous for his Wikileaks links, he was best known as a neo-Nazi holocaust denier in European circles. Which is a pretty rare thing for a Jew and Israeli citizen to get mixed up in. Shamir, operating under several names, is noted for his anti-Semitic vitriol and is fond of extolling the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and hanging out with Nordic neo-Nazis. His views are so strange and vehement that many have wondered if Shamir’s is actually an agent provocateur on behalf of some intelligence service. Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein, known for his own pro-Palestinian views, who crossed paths with Shamir more than once, called him a “maniac,” adding, “He has invented his entire personal history. Nothing he says about himself is true.” In all, Shamir’s a pretty odd choice as Wikileaks’ go-to guy for Russia.

The role of Shamir in Wikileaks, as well as his bizarre views, began to get noticed in late 2010, with an expose in Reason that asked just what was going on here, quoting Shamir as calling Jews “a virus in human form” and boasting of his Holocaust denial. Importantly, that piece had an admission by Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks spokesman, when asked directly about the group’s links with Shamir:  “Yes. Yes, he is associated with us.”

Not surprisingly, awkward questions followed including in The Guardian, not exactly a right-wing rag. Reports followed – all links here are to The Guardian, which given that newspaper’s current involvement with the Snowden case should indicate something – that Shamir, is indeed deeply involved in the Wikileaks operation: As “Adam,” Shamir (along with his Swedish son, a well-known anti-Semitic activist), has a key role in Wikileaks decisionshe was the editor of the group’s Russian-related US diplomatic cables that were leaked by PFC Bradley Manning, and perhaps most distastefully, he was involved in a smear campaign against the Swedish women who accused Julian Assange of rape (the reason he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London).

Sensing it had a PR problem on its hands, Wikileaks made a few public statements on its employee-friend-whatever Shamir. A Wikileaks press release on 3 February 2011 fudged the issue, observing that it was “almost certainly false” that Shamir is actually an “employee” of the group, while noting that he was being paid by several (unnamed) Russian press outfits; in all, this raised more questions than answers about who Shamir is really working for. Wikileaks followed up with another press release on 1 March 2011, stating, “Israel Shamir has never worked or volunteered for WikiLeaks, in any manner, whatsoever.” This statement seems patently untrue, given what is known about Shamir’s activities, but this remains the official Wikileaks line on this very strange man.

I discovered this again last night, when I was pinged by Jacob Applebaum, the American hacktivist and Wikileaks inner circle member. A Twitter spat followed, in which I repeatedly asked Applebaum to clarify the group’s relationship with Shamir, and he refused to do so beyond citing the 1 March 2011 press release.

Unfortunately, Shamir never seems to have gotten the memo that he and Wikileaks have nothing to do with each other. He divides his time between Israel, Sweden, and Russia – who’s paying for all this, by the way? Wikileaks seems to have limited funds – and pops up in the media in those countries (in the first two countries not normally in a flattering manner). He is prominent in the country of his birth, and he is easy to find in the Russian media, denouncing US neo-imperialism and praising Wikileaks and, most recently, extolling the virtues of Edward Snowden. Of critical importance is the fact that Shamir regularly is identified in the Russian media as a “Wikileaks representative” and speaks as if he has the group’s imprimatur.

Most recently, on 4 July 2013 – exactly two days ago – Shamir was interviewed in the Russian newspaper Zavrta (which has a left-wing nationalist orientation; it’s not a supermarket gossip sheet), in an article titled “The Edward Snowden Phenomenon,” where he was identified as “a Wikileaks representative.” Let me be perfectly clear here. Shamir’s interview portion of the article is sub-headed “Israel Shamir, Wikileaks Representative (Исраэль Шамир, представитель WikiLeaks) – the Russian meaning is unambiguous. The content of the interview is classic Shamir, including fawning praise of Snowden, whom he compares favorably with Kim Philby. I don’t think he was being ironic there.

The bottom line is Israel Shamir continues to represent himself as a member of Wikileaks, indeed he usually implies he’s in the group’s inner circle. More than a few people have questioned Shamir’s mental stability, so it is possible that Wikileaks has indeed cut ties with him and Shamir is simply lying. But given Wikileaks’ less than transparent track record on this matter, more than Applebaum’s obfuscations is required. Someone is clearly lying here, it’s important to know who.

It’s especially important given the fact that Wikileaks is playing a leading role in the Snowden case, to the dismay of some of Ed’s admirers and even members of his family. Not to mention that Snowden, as of this writing, is still in Moscow. One need not be a counterintelligence guru to have serious questions about Shamir and Wikileaks here. It may be a much bigger part of the story than it appears to the naked eye.

Do “experts” know what they are talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if everything you know is wrong?

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

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

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

Benno Ohnesorg: the innocent victim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilderness of Mirrors

Greg Treverton, a brainy wonk who has worked on the high margins of the U.S. Intelligence Community, famously explained that puzzles and mysteries are fundamentally different: the former, with their pieces, can be solved, while the latter, with inexact pieces and no firm map, defy easy solution. And some mysteries will defy solution indefinitely.

One of the best things about working in counterintelligence, if you’re comfy with imprecision, is that it’s all about mysteries (one of the worst things is that it can make you crazy), some so vexing and intellectually challenging that they elude agreed-upon solutions for decades, in some cases in perpetuity. James Angleton, the poet-turned-counterspy who became CIA’s genius/flake chief of CI for much of the Cold War, referred to this experience as “the wilderness of mirrors,” which captures the enduring mystery of never quite grasping up from down in a case, or knowing who’s really running the show, no matter how closely you look at it (the memorable phrase also happens to be the title of the best book about the CIA’s Angleton experience).

A brilliant but erratic man, Angleton ventured so far into that wilderness that he never fully emerged from the hall of mirrors, and some of the cases that drove him to the edge of his sanity and his position – mostly regarding how deeply the KGB had penetrated U.S. intelligence – inspire polemics even today, a full half-century after the apogee of the spywars which consumed careers, minds, and in a few cases lives.

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.

Back in 2007, the Belarusian security service, still called the KGB (it would have cost a fortune to change the letterhead), gloated about rolling up five spies who, it said, were working for Poland. Minsk alleged that the men – one Russian and four Belarusians – had been gathering critical information for NATO about air defenses, which the Polish intelligence service was eager to get its hands on. The men were quickly convicted in a perfunctory fashion and sent to a presumably quite unpleasant prison cell, and there the case went silent, with no official comment from Warsaw or Brussels.

Recently the Polish newsmagazine Wprost has added critical details about the case, based on interviews with several Polish officials involved in the affair, which proves to be fascinating and just as vexing as great counterintelligence operations so often are. Not to mention it seems to have been a genuine debacle for NATO in the end.

The Wprost expose reveals that the key man in Poland’s spy network, Vladimir Ruskin, a major in Belarus’s air defense forces, was recruited by back in 2000 when he, like so many Belarusians, was smuggling. Caught by the Polish border police with five times the legal allowance of alcohol in his car, Ruskin was threatened with arrest and humiliation unless he cooperated – which he did promptly.

Ruskin began recruiting fellow officers in the Belarusian military, and he soon had three agents working for him, all unwitting as to who was behind the operation. Only Ruskin knew the Poles were running the show, and only he actually met with case officers, usually when he visited Poland as a shopper, which he often did. There he safely exchanged documents for cash. Although some intel higher-ups in Warsaw were initially unimpressed by the operation, which they dismissed as “bazaar intelligence,” minds changed when Ruskin began to deliver reams of classified documents all at a modest price, a few hundred dollars per hand-off: nothing to Warsaw but a respectable sum in poor and decrepit Belarus.

So it went for several years, and Ruskin’s circus was able to deliver the Poles detailed information, at low risk and cost, about relatively modern air defense systems like the S-300 (SA-10 to NATO), which the Russians had delivered to Belarus. Warsaw, and NATO, were especially interested in the new S-400 missile (SA-21 to NATO), a cutting-edge system which is considered a potential game-changer in air defense, reportedly more capable even than the U.S. Patriot missile. This NATO wanted to know about, and Ruskin seemed to get dream access when he recruited into his network Sergei Yurenia, a Russian major who had been assigned to work with S-400s.

Polish intelligence officials and top politicians, unable to conceal their ebullience, boasted among themselves about this coup, and word spread about the existence of the Ruskin network. Worse, Polish intelligence was in turmoil around 2005, with nasty politics tearing apart operations. Polish military intelligence (WSI), which handled Ruskin, was dissolved in 2006 amid scandal and broken into two new agencies; in the ensuing chaos many operations were disrupted and bad decisions were handed down.

Among the worst hit the Ruskin network. New case officers demanded that their star agent come to Poland as soon as possible to receive new instructions – which Ruskin, who believed he was being watched by the KGB, refused to do immediately; his relations with his handlers took a downturn. Then Major Yurenia, who was going to be assigned to Russia’s first operational S-400 unit, mentioned that he had the possibility of joining the Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB. Although Polish military intelligence maintained that information about the S-400 wonder-weapon was of great interest to NATO, and was certainly of more value than anything Yurenia might learn as a newly minted FSB officer, higher-ups in Warsaw overruled, and Yurenia was ordered to infiltrate the FSB.

But Polish dreams of penetrating Putin’s own intelligence service quickly fell apart when Yurenia did not pass the FSB’s vetting. In particular, he blew the polygraph and quickly broke under FSB interrogation, exposing Ruskin. Before long, the Russians and Belarusians had rolled up the entire network and had the five Polish spies in custody; quickly they admitted their treachery.

During the Cold War, the Soviets pooh-poohed American intelligence’s reliance on the polygraph, which Moscow derided as a bunch of pseudo-science, as do some in the West still today, yet after the Soviet Union ended, Russian intelligence began using the polygraph as an investigative and interrogation tool, just as many Western services do. Inexplicably, the Poles gave Yurenia no training in countermeasures (i.e. how to beat the polygraph), and a disaster resulted.

In September 2007, the men were convicted of espionage and Ruskin was sentenced to ten years in prison, while his three Belarusian accomplices got between nine and seven years each; Yurenia, who cooperated with the FSB, got seven years in a Russian prison. Poland denied anything to do with the operation, abandoning the men to their fate – something which outraged the case officers who had run the network. A particularly sore point was that Warsaw never approached Minsk or Moscow about a deal for the men; no secret trade was considered. Complaints were silenced by politicians who wanted to distance Poland from the bad visuals emanating from the debacle. Although Belarus publicly maintained the men had given NATO nothing of significance, that claim was belied by the fact that the head of the KGB was fired just one day after news of the rollup hit the state-controlled Belarusian media.

Six years later, doubts linger about many aspects of the Ruskin network. From the outset there had been questions about the operation, and some suspected that the whole thing was one big dangle, under Russian control, which would be a typical trick from the KGB/FSB playbook. But those doubts seemed to lift when NATO and the Americans confirmed that the information from the network, particularly about sensitive air defense technology, seemed to check out. It all looked legit and, to some, too good to be true.

“It’s a mess and a wreck,” admitted a top Polish security official close to the case, who explained that key documents had been lost in the 2006 bureaucratic shuffle, and getting to the bottom of it all may be impossible now. ”The matter is not clear-cut.  Six years have passed and we still do not know who was who, who worked for whom, and who was steered by whom in this story,” he stated, adding that a recent relook at the case by veteran counterintelligence analysts didn’t answer the mail since “the case becomes more muddled each time we look into it.”

So Poland’s successful spy network delivered great stuff for NATO until it got blown through sloppiness, the sort of sloppy tradecraft no first-rate service goes against the Russians with and expects to win. Or the network was a mirage from the start, a brilliant act of maskirovka by Moscow to deceive NATO and play the Poles for fools. Or it was bona fide at the beginning and somewhere along the way got flipped by the FSB, who staged one of their usual spy-shows to thoroughly confuse Warsaw, Brussels, and Washington, DC. All answers are plausible to anyone acquainted with konspiratsiya, which is what the Russians call espionage tradecraft. And no one outside FSB headquarters in Moscow knows the full story, or possibly ever will. Sounds just like the wilderness of mirrors every CI officer knows well.

Might the EU crisis get really, really ugly?

Do the Swiss know something the rest of us don’t?

Ueli Maurer, the Swiss defense minister, has been making coy statements about the European crisis getting ugly – as in really ugly, like needing armed troops to deal with it. This sounds more like Greece, where the rioting is regular and increasingly scary, than anything in Central Europe, but where the whole EU furball is headed does seem less than clear of late.

The Swiss are famous for preparing for everything and having an absolutely huge army, relative to their population, to deal with any eventuality. They maintain their special military system, based on training for nearly the whole male population but a very small active duty cadre (plus a few, tiny UN peacekeeping-type missions abroad, since the Swiss have an actually defensive defense force): the Swiss can call up over 200,000 trained troops, which is but one-third of what was on-call twenty years ago – like everyone, they have downsized as the threat has receded since the fall of the Soviet bloc – but that’s still pretty huge in Swiss terms. In America, that would mean a mobilization strength of nearly 8,000,000 for the U.S. military (it’s a hair under three million, in case you were wondering).

Minister Maurer, accompanied by whispers from the top uniformed leadership in Switzerland, is trying to raise awareness that Europe’s massive fiscal-cum-political crisis could get very unpleasant. Swiss military exercises in September, called STABILO DUE, were based on EU instability getting out of hand. The Swiss have stayed out of the EU – one more thing the very prosperous Swiss are gloating about these days – and they certainly don’t want EU problems spilling over into their peaceful little country. That the Swiss military is adding four new military police battalions to the army, to be spread around the country, indicates that the threat they have in mind is more disorder and chaos than actual invasion.

The Swiss are in the process of modernizing their military, which they have discovered is very expensive; the purchase of 22 new Saab Gripen fighters has proved a big political headache, since the Swiss are as notable for their frugality as for their military preparedness. But Minister Maurer is on firm ground when he notes that the massive decline in European militaries since 1990 has implications for today, none of them positive. When even the British have cut their army so much that, in the event of a serious crisis, there would be at most two dozen infantry battalions on hand in the UK (that’s well under 20,000 bayonets), one has to wonder if the next London “disturbances” could be kept in check if things got truly ugly. It’s commonly held by European security insiders that if the next Anders Brievik were to target Muslims, not fellow Europeans, things could get unimaginably ugly very quickly. It is difficult to see how Europe’s much smaller militaries could cope with massive civil disturbances. (And don’t ask Uncle Sam for help, since the very last thing the Pentagon wants is to get dragged into any riot suppression – particularly putting down Muslim uprisings – anywhere in Europe.)

It’s easy to dismiss the Swiss, since they are a tiny country whose military hasn’t actually fought anybody in a couple centuries. On the other hand, they managed to stay out of both of Europe’s catastrophic World Wars precisely though preparing for eventualities and maintaining a strong defensive capability. They’re clearly on to something.

Who killed little Ivanka?

There are really two basic kinds of intelligence services in the world – those which kill people, and those which don’t.

While U.S. intelligence historically has been somewhat squeamish about assassinations, in recent years – particularly since Barack Obama came to the White House – CIA has gone whole-hog into the killing business with drones, something which I’ve already expressed my reservations about on this blog. Being Americans, the CIA and the Pentagon have opted for an expensive, technologically impressive, somewhat sanitized method of killing people (it’s sanitized when you’re the drone crew several hundred or thousand miles away; it’s a lot less sanitized when you’re within a hundred meters of the target). Nevertheless, Washington isn’t being wholly disingenuous when it uses terms like “collateral damage” to describe the effect of a Hellfire missile on bystanders, since we’re not intentionally killing civilians who – sucks to be them – happen to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.

The U.S. technology-driven approach unfortunately lends itself to killing civilians, as do Israeli methods of targeted killing, which in recent years have increasingly gone for American-style technological solutions in Gaza and the West Bank. Other countries which do wetwork – as the Russians, who nearly invented this black art, call it – are usually more in-your-face about it, which has the odd effect of reducing civilian casualties. Say what you will about the KGB’s nasty umbrella trick which killed the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in September 1978, the ricin-filled pellet didn’t harm anyone but poor, doomed Georgi.

Intelligence services which conduct assassinations abroad and don’t seem to care at all who gets in the way are in a special category all by themselves, which is mercifully rather small. One of the bloodthirstiest services of them all was UDBA, the secret police force of Tito’s Yugoslavia. As I’ve explained elsewhere, although Cold War Yugoslavia got good Western press for being a kinder, gentler form of Bolshevism, its secret police was every bit as nasty as anything in the East Bloc. Indeed, UDBA’s operations in the West against what they called the “enemy emigration” were tougher and bloodier than anything the KGB did in the West after the late 1950s.

The doomed Sevo family

UDBA methods included killing – lots of it – and sometimes they cared not a whit who happened to be in the way. In the course of whacking nearly a hundred “state enemies” between the mid-1960s down to 1990, all across Europe, North America, and beyond, Tito’s spies murdered wholly innocent people too. In August 1972, near Venice, Italy, UDBA assassins liquidated Stjepan Sevo, a member of a Croatian terrorist group fighting Yugoslavia. Gunned down alongside Sevo inside his car were his wife Rosemarie and his nine-year-old step-daughter Tatjana, both of them shot repeatedly. German police fingered as the killer Vinko Sindicic, one of the most prolific UDBA hitmen, who is suspected in a dozen murders around the world in the 1970s and 1980s. After serving a decade in a British prison for a botched hit in Scotland in 1988, Sindicic returned to now-independent Croatia a free man; several attempts to prosecute him for UDBA murders have come to naught, amid whispers that Sindicic still has protectors in high places in the Balkans.

Five years later UDBA committed an equally appalling crime in the United States. On the night of 18-19 July 1977, Dragisa Kasikovic was murdered in Chicago in the office of a Serbian emigre group. It was a brutal crime, the forty-four-year-old Kasikovic having been butchered by more than sixty knife wounds. UDBA often used pistols for hits, while sometimes preferring more direct, indeed stereotypically Balkan, methods of hands-on killing. An anti-Yugoslav activist and Serbian nationalist, Kasikovic had emigrated to the USA and had been involved in the 1960s with SOPO, a Serbian emigre terrorist group which outlandishly plotted the overthrow of the Tito regime. Many of SOPO’s operations, none of which revealed much professionalism, verged towards comic-opera affairs; in one of the group’s “spectaculars” in 1979, SOPO fighters hijacked an American Airlines Boeing 727 out of New York’s LaGuardia airport with the intent of flying it into Communist Party headquarters in Belgrade. Happily, this eerie precursor to 9/11 never came close to happening, not least because the 727 had several thousand miles too little fuel to make it to Yugoslavia.

SOPO was also deeply penetrated by UDBA agents, as were practically all Yugoslav emigre groups opposed to the Tito regime. By the mid-1970s, Kasikovic was a prominent journalist in the Serbian community in the United States, known for his pronounced anti-Communist views. Kasikovic’s circle of emigre friends in the Chicago area included several people with close ties to the Yugoslav consulate in Chicago, which hosted several UDBA officers charged with monitoring the “enemy emigration.”

Ivanka and Dragisa, in happier times

Anti-Tito activists like Kasikovic knew they were being watched and that they could be marked men, and paranoia permeated the Yugoslav diaspora worldwide as emigres were killed by the dozen in the 1970s, in many countries, in hardly-ever-solved killings that usually were the handiwork of UDBA. Tragically, when UDBA caught up with Dragisa Kasikovic that summer night in 1977, he wasn’t alone. Ivanka Milosevic, the nine-year-old daughter of Kasikovic’s steady girlfriend, was with him and was murdered by his side. Little Ivanka was stabbed more than fifty times, her body barely recognizable from the butchery.

Chicago’s stunned Serbian community had a suspect from the start, Bogoje Panajotovic, a waiter who had emigrated from Serbia and who swam in the murky waters of the radical diaspora groups. Panajotovic was believed to be an UDBA collaborator – which was common enough among emigres – and his whereabouts on the night of the murders were sketchy. Nevertheless, the Chicago police, confronted by a highly complex situation filled with immigrants who often spoke in fractured English about conspiracies, assassinations, and cunning secret police operations which seemed too bizarre to be real, made little headway in the case. Some Chicago cops felt that the FBI was less than helpful with the case from the start.

Vinko Sindicic in “retirement”

That may have been because Panajotovic, the number-one suspect, was also an FBI informant. Panajotovic was feeding the Bureau information about SOPO and some insiders in the case felt that, in exchange, he was protected. What happened to Bogoje Panajotovic is anyone’s guess. Allowed to leave Chicago, he eventually “went Elvis.” Some say he died violently, as he lived, while some Serbian sources close to UDBA hint that the FBI gave him a new identity and a new life in the Mountain West of the United States.

All that is certain is that, thirty-five years after a terrible double murder, no one has been prosecuted for the bloodbath which claimed the life of a little American girl. Last year, a documentary film in Serbia reawakened interest in the case, and the murders have never disappeared entirely from memory among Serbs at home and abroad, amid whispers that American authorities have never really wanted to get to the bottom of the case, fearing the exposure of embarrassing information regarding U.S. intelligence looking the other way about many UDBA murders, and perhaps even protecting the killer of Ivanka Milosevic. They may be right, but we won’t be able to say for sure until this terrible crime is solved – better late than never.

Friends from the Institute

Just in time for Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel – where he is reported to be focused mainly on not making a fool of himself before the media, London-style – the AP dropped a bombshell disguised as an article on the taboo subject of Israeli espionage against the United States. The detailed piece, which was sourced from several places in the Intelligence Community, has been met with shock and horror in the usual places; Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a denial as vociferous as it was quick. Aggressive Israeli spying on the U.S. is something polite people are never, ever supposed to discuss; mentioning it will not get you invited to the right Georgetown parties.

But there was nothing in the piece which was exactly news to anyone who knows how the global intelligence game is actually played. That CIA considers Israel to be the number-one spy threat in the Middle East is a revelation only to neophytes. Counterintelligence officers for decades have been aware of the extent of Israeli espionage against the U.S., at home and abroad, though politicos are customarily wise enough to never mention it. Indeed, CI experts for years have spoken of the Big Four threats to the USG: Russia, China, Cuba, and Israel.  

I prefer my spies to look like this …

Russia remains as big a spy threat to the West and the U.S. as it was at the height of the Cold War. Their operations are as aggressive as ever, and their playbook is the same. Although the round-up of a big Russian illegal network in the U.S. two years ago was treated as a comic-opera affair in the media, with emphasis on hot redheads (and, let me say, who doesn’t like hot redheaded spy-vixens?), that story justifiably caused deep concern in CI circles and indicated big problems, including possible penetrations of U.S. intelligence.

The Chinese spy threat is less popularly understood, and there is a lot less written about it, with some happy exceptions, but Beijing’s espionage against the USG has risen in recent years and shows no signs of abating, rather the contrary. That said, Chinese HUMINT operations are seldom successful outside their ethnic millieu – though that may be cold comfort given the size of the overseas Chinese community in the West today.

The inclusion of Cuba on the Big Four list may surprise, given the comically pathetic condition of that country, but Havana’s intelligence agencies have long punched above their weight in the global spy game. Cuban operations against the USG are widespread and pernicious, including long-term penetrations of our intelligence agencies. Castro’s case officers for decades have had no trouble recruiting spies among Cuban exiles – usually they have more volunteers than they can handle – and Cuban-American groups are deeply penetrated (usually the crazier and more right-wing an exile pontificates, the more likely s/he is a mole for Havana). Not surprisingly, Florida is a hotspot for Cuban espionage. Neverthless, like the Chinese, the Cubans operate best among ethnic kin, save the occasional oddball lefty Anglos who actually lose money spying for Cuba.

The Israeli espionage threat to the United States, however, is different, because DC and Tel Aviv are such close partners, and Israel is the world’s biggest recipient of American aid dollars.  In the real world, allies do spy on each other. Per the counterspy’s mantra: There are no friendly intelligence agencies. Yet America’s closest intelligence partners, the Five Eyes of the Anglosphere (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and usually New Zealand), have preserved a remarkable amount of the sincere spy-friendship borne of shared hardship in World War II, and come pretty close to being friends who don’t spy on each other.

Not like this.

Israel emphatically is not that sort of spy-buddy. The AP article included glimpses of just how aggressive and duplicitous Israeli HUMINT operations against American interests actually are, and have been for decades. Anyone who has looked closely at the infamous Pollard case, including Israel’s continuing lobbying to get their boy out of his jail cell, gets some sense of how the Israelis play the game.

It’s no secret inside the Beltway that Israel spies on everybody, America included, and uses its close partnership with the USG to further its espionage against it. None of this is new, and as far back as 1954 Israeli dirty tricks targeted the U.S., including the false-flag bombing of the U.S. Information Agency office in Egypt, the so-called Lavon affair. Espionage is a messy business, to be sure, but what sets the Israelis apart is that they act so aggressively even towards their closest friends.

Israel’s intelligence agencies are small – certainly compared to America’s multi-headed espionage leviathan – and professional. Foreign HUMINT and dirty tricks are handled by the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (the legendary MOSSAD), while domestic intelligence is conducted by the impressive Security Agency (SHABAK), yet the biggest piece of the puzzle is Military Intelligence (AMAN), which includes Israel’s substantial and effective SIGINT effort.

The “MOSSAD myth” is a real force-multiplier, even though it’s only partly true. Israeli spies are far from super-human, as a long string of missteps and own-goals will attest, yet they are undeniably super-aggressive, including against America. Their small numbers are boosted abroad by sayanim (“helpers”), mainly diaspora Jews who provide material support to Israeli intelligence. From a CI perspective this makes Israeli operations a tough nut to crack, not to mention that MOSSAD relies on an array of fronts and cut-outs in many countries to assist its espionage. It was no surprise to CI hands that DoD’s Larry Franklin was convicted in 2006 of passing classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, since although AIPAC is widely known to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, the counterspies understand that it has an, ahem, exceptionally close relationship with Israeli intelligence. CI professionals were likewise less than shocked when it turned out that Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House’s intelligence committee, was reported to be having spooky conversations with AIPAC too.

There is a long history of Israeli espionage against America and its interests, and an equally long history of the American MSM showing little interest in delving deeply into some of the more intriguing Israeli ops in the United States (see: Israeli art students). In this sense, the weekend’s AP story was a surprise, and a welcome one. As a former CI officer I have nothing but professional admiration for what Israeli spooks manage to pull off, and in their shoes I’d do exactly the same stuff. Yet as an American I have questions about what our ally is doing, and why we tolerate the worst of it.

For a long time, American journalists and politicians have denied there is an issue here. The AP has blown the lid on that one, and good on them. Henceforth, those who deny that Israel spies mightily on the USA are either playing politics or they don’t know what they are talking about.