Not so intelligent

As the old saying goes, ‘Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms’. Civilian intelligence often isn’t very intelligent either. Phillip Knightley, who spent decades investigating the world of espionage, concluded that the record of the CIA was ‘dismal’. Despite the aura surrounding its name, the KGB wasn’t much better, said Knightley, quoting KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who noted that, ‘When people say that Soviet intelligence penetrated the higher echelons of western government, I know that is not true.’ There’s no recorded example of the CIA having recruited anybody in the higher echelons of the Soviet government either. Knightley commented also that,

A conference on intelligence history held in Germany in 1994 was attended by a panel of spymasters from east and west. I challenged them to name a single important historical event in peacetime in which intelligence had played a decisive role. No one could do so.

In short, the historical record suggests that intelligence services don’t have actually have spies high up in the institutions of their most important targets; their knowledge of what is going inside the minds of foreign leaders is very limited and often quite wrong; and they are not nearly as all-knowing as many people imagine.

If we are to believe the Washington Post, however, the CIA has penetrated into the inner sanctum of the Kremlin. According to the newspaper’s latest revelations:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides. Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race. But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

Tim Weiner’s definitive 2008 history of the CIA, entitled Legacy of Ashes, revealed what a New York Times review called a ‘litany of failure’ from the agency’s beginnings right up to the present day. Given its past, how many of you, dear readers, really believe that the CIA has a source ‘deep inside the Russian government’ capable of producing such information?

But let’s imagine that maybe it does. If so, this would be an agent of staggering importance, the most highly placed source the CIA has ever had, so important indeed that, according to the Washington Post, only four people are allowed to read what he (or she) produces. Yet one of these four people, or one of what must be an equally small group within the CIA who know about the source (for who else could it be?) has now put his (or her) safety in jeopardy by revealing his (or her) existence to the Washington Post. And the Washington Post has compounded this crime by revealing the source’s existence to the entire world. Bear in mind that, as far as we know, the CIA has never had an agent ‘deep inside the Russian (or Soviet) government’. This person is the star recruit of star recruits. And now their cover has been blown.

One might imagine, then, that the Washington Post story would be causing squeals of outrage and calls for an immediate investigation into what is surely the mother of breaches of security. Yet oddly enough that isn’t what seems to be happening. The distinct lack of concern about the disclosure of a source allegedly so stunningly valuable that their information is restricted to just four people, is extraordinary. There can be only two explanations:

  1. People in Washington don’t give a damn about protecting the CIA’s sources, no matter how valuable they are, and are quite happy to throw them under the bus if it gives them some political advantage. That includes both the people who leak such stories to the press, the press itself, and also the wider political establishment, which doesn’t seem to be too upset by such stuff. That in turn would suggest that these people are utterly untrustworthy, so we should take what they say with the largest pinch of salt; or
  2. People aren’t concerned by the ‘leak’ for the simple reason that the source ‘deep in the Russian government’ doesn’t actually exist. The story is straightforward BS, pure and simple.

Personally, I tend toward option 2.

UPDATE: Somebody has pointed out to me an option 3: nobody is concerned about blowing the source’s cover because it has already been blown. The source, according to this version, is the three Russian cyber experts arrested in Moscow in January. I confess that this isn’t what I understood the Washington Post meant by sources ‘deep in the Russian government’ as these people weren’t ‘in the government’ but in the case of two of them, the FSB (which, although an institution of the state, isn’t part of the ‘government’). (The third arrestee actually worked for a private company – Kaspersky.) I concede that this option is in theory possible (although any link between the arrestees and alleged election interference is speculation, as we have no direct evidence of such a link). But in that case the article is poorly phrased.

UPDATE 2: I feel that I should point out that there are other options too, e.g.: the source does exist, but the leaker and/or the Washington Post have exaggerated what s/he said; the source exists, and did say what the Post reports, but s/he made it all up, and told it to the Americans because s/he felt it would make the Americans happy and keep the cash payments flowing; etc.




Why we’re losing

As I noted in a previous post, the failure of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere is in large part a product of a lack of strategic thinking. But there is more to it than that. While Western armies are excellent from a purely tactical point of view – i.e. they can drop bombs and fight engagements very efficiently – both they and their civilian counterparts are staggeringly incompetent in other respects. Even with the best possible strategy, they would still probably fail.

To understand why, I urge you all (as I have done before) to read the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Here is a summary of the latest.  And bear in mind that this is just one small example. The waste identified here has been repeated in scores and scores of other projects. When the history of this campaign is written, the scale of waste, incompetence, and corruption will boggle the mind.

If it weren’t so tragic, you’d have to laugh (OK, I confess that I did).

Can somebody explain to me how they think we can win this war?

— DOD’s [US Department of Defense’s] decision to procure ANA [Afghan National Army] uniforms using a proprietary camouflage pattern was not based on an evaluation of its appropriateness for the Afghan environment.

— Procurement costs to the U.S. government were 40–43 percent [higher] than similar non-proprietary patterned uniforms used by the Afghan National Police (ANP), which potentially added between $26.65 million and $28.23 million to the costs of the ANA uniform procurements since 2008.

— In 2007, responsible DOD officials stated that they “ran across [HyperStealth’s] web site and the Minister [then Minister of Defense Wardak] liked what he saw. He liked the woodland, urban, and temperate patterns.” {This is where I laughed – PR}

— CSTC-A, in consultation with the Afghan MOD, decided to adopt the camouflage pattern containing a “forest” color scheme for ANA uniforms, despite the fact that forests cover only 2.1 percent of Afghanistan’s total land area. {And laughed again – PR}

— Determining the effectiveness of a uniform pattern for a specific environment requires formal testing and evaluation.

— Acording to a technical paper prepared for the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, the spatial characteristics and color palette of a camouflage pattern should be tailored to the specific environment. Matching a camouflage pattern “with background texture, color, and contrast is essential to all levels of visual processing.”

— CSTC-A, however, made the decision to procure 1,364,602 ANA uniforms and 88,010 extra pairs of pants —totaling approximately $94 million—using HyperStealth’s Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern without conducting any formal testing or evaluation.

— As a result, neither DOD nor the Afghan government knows whether the ANA uniform is appropriate to the Afghan environment, or whether it actually hinders their operations by providing a more clearly visible target to the enemy.

— CSTC-A recommended a sole-source award to HypersStealth but the DOD contracting office believed that, because there were so many available camouflage patterns in the world, a sole-source award would be hard to justify.

— Instead of issuing a sole-source award, DOD issued a local acquisition solicitation that included the requirement that the uniforms use HyperStealth’s proprietary Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern.

— CSTC-A initially estimated that the new ANA uniform would cost $25–$30 per set. The actual cost ranged from $45.42–$80.39 per set.

— Our analysis found that changing the ANA uniform to a non-proprietary camouflage pattern could save U.S. taxpayers between $68.61 million and $72.21 million over the next 10 years.

— SIGAR suggests that DOD conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the current ANA uniform specification to determine whether there is a more effective alternative, considering both operational environment and cost, available.


Murder most foul

Russian agents are running around Britain assassinating people with impunity, claims Buzzfeed in a series of articles published in the past week. The British authorities have ‘deliberately sidelined’ evidence indicating murder and passed off all the cases as death by natural causes. Buzzfeed, however, believes that it knows better, having been informed by ‘high ranking US intelligence officials’ that at least 14 people ‘have been assassinated on British soil by Russia’s security services or mafia groups, two forces that sometimes work in tandem.’

Let’s take a look.

In its first article, Buzzfeed looked at the case of Alexander Perepilichny, who died while out jogging in 2012. Perepilichny had previously helped launder money in the infamous case involving Sergei Magnitsky before fleeing to Britain and becoming a whistleblower. His death is currently the subject of an inquest, at which his wife has said that she does not believed that he was poisoned. Why does Buzzfeed think differently?

First, although the original autopsy revealed nothing suspicious in Perepilichny’s stomach, a later examination by an ‘independent plant expert’ identified traces of the toxin gelsemium. It is speculated that Perepilichny died after ingesting the toxin in a soup he ate just before going running, but that is only speculation. Furthermore, if Perepilichny was murdered, there is nothing in the Buzzfeed report to link that to the Russian state, rather than to crime syndicates, who were allegedly extremely angry at Perepilichny for blowing the whistle on their money laundering schemes. The assumption is just that the Russian state and the Russian mafia are one and the same thing. But nowhere is the connection proven.

Beyond that, though, the only evidence Buzzfeed is able to bring forward to justify the claim of murder is that ‘US spies said they have passed MI6 high-grade intelligence indicating that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ In other words, the entire story is based on accusations of anonymous officials in a completely different country, without any reference to the evidence used to justify the accusations. In short, it doesn’t amount to very much, but it sets the pattern for Buzzfeed’s other pieces – no actual evidence, but links between the dead men and organized crime (not, mark you, the Russian state), and unsubstantiated claims from ‘anonymous US officials’.

The second Buzzfeed article focuses on the case of Scot Young, an associate of Boris Berezovsky, who threw himself out of a window in London. Buzzfeed suggests that he was murdered by Russian agents, though just why isn’t very clear. And again, the online magazine doesn’t produce any forensic or other evidence to justify its case. Rather, it just says that ‘Four high-ranking American intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News they suspect Young was assassinated.’ Yet, the information in the article points in an entirely different direction.

Continue reading Murder most foul

Large and complicated

Today Russian TV broadcast the 15th annual ‘Direct Line with Vladimir Putin’, in which the Russian president spends four hours answering questions from members of the public. There were no shocking revelations; no new policy initiatives; no changes in direction. In this way, it was a typical Putin performance – measured, pragmatic, and cautious.

The caution revealed itself in Putin’s answer to a question about to when he would go if he had a time machine. It would be better not to go anywhen, was the answer; there’s too much risk of messing up the timeline. The same caution could be seen in answers about the economy (it’s getting better, but the situation is still hard, and the path ahead is difficult), about relations with America (we can work together, but it’s not really up to us and depends on internal American politics), and about Ukraine (refraining from openly expressing support for pro-Russian elements as that could complicate their position).

Putin tiptoed around delicate questions: he seemed to hint that he disapproved of Natalia Poklonskaia’s denunciation of a new film about Tsar Nicholas II, but said that he didn’t want to get in an argument with her; he stated that St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg ought to be a cathedral not just a museum, but didn’t say outright that the Orthodox Church ought to own it; and he noted that many historical Ukrainian nationalists favoured a federated Ukraine, but didn’t actually say that he believed the same thing himself. In this way, many things were implied without being stated outright. Again, it was a cautious approach. Confrontation and controversy were avoided.

Several other things struck me.

Continue reading Large and complicated

Strategy-free time

It’s a depressing truth, but at least someone has finally had the guts to admit it. The United States has no strategy for its war in Afghanistan, or as Defence Secretary James Mattis put it in testimony to the US Senate, it is a ‘strategy-free time’. Mattis promised to put a strategy together. ‘We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,’ he said, ‘And we will correct this as soon as possible.’

Forgive me if I’m sceptical. The United States hasn’t managed to come up with a winning strategy in the 16 years it has been fighting in Afghanistan. It beggars belief that Mattis has the solution up his sleeve. After all, he’s been part of the war since the beginning.

The United States lacks a workable strategy in Syria as well. Theoretically speaking, US support for rebel forces in Syria is justified by the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and is meant to help destroy ISIS. But because of recent advances by troops of the Syrian Arab Army (the official government forces), the rebels are no longer in physical contact with ISIS. As you can see from the map below, they couldn’t fight ISIS even if they wanted to.


Continue reading Strategy-free time

Russia, the West, and the world

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