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.




12 thoughts on “Not so intelligent”

  1. I am also inclined to agree with Option 2. That said, the American MSM has been extremely blase about events like a NATO fighter jet’s near collision with a plane carrying the Russian defense minister that presumably would have led quickly to Armageddon. We are living in times far more dangerous that most people realize in part because of the partisan slant that infects nearly every news story.


  2. “… to name a single important historical event in peacetime in which intelligence played a decisive role.”
    Peacetime: Klaus Fuchs, nuclear scientist.
    Wartime: a. Richard Sorge Battle of Moscow.
    b. Kim Philby Battle of Kursk.
    Important? Yes. Decisive? Decisive enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “They believe that a series of warnings — including one that Obama delivered to Putin in September — prompted Moscow to abandon any plans of further aggression, such as sabotage of U.S. voting systems.”

    Right. Putin planned to rig the vote on voting systems which do not connect to the internet. How, exactly, was he going to do that? While it is demonstrably possible to hack a voting machine – it’s actually not even hard – there is a far greater fear, not to mention danger, that activists and operatives of the two American political parties will; do it.

    “We found the machine did not have any security mechanisms beyond what you’d find on a typical home PC,” Halderman told me. “It was very easy to hack.” Studying with Felten, Halderman had learned a key phrase—“Defense in Depth,” meant to describe a system with various rings of security. Halderman joked that the model should more aptly be called “Vulnerability in Depth,” so numerous were the entry points they discovered. Later, they found the key that opened the Diebold AccuVote TS was a standard corporate model, reproduced for minibars and other locks, available online. When their report revealed this detail, a commonplace reader found a picture of the key, filed down a blank from ACE Hardware and sent a copy to Feldman and Halderman as a souvenir (who then tested the key—it worked). That year, 10 percent of registered voters alone used the AccuVote TS to vote.”

    Voting machines are extremely vulnerable to hacking, but the hacker must gain physical access to the machine. Where are Putin’s legions of footsoldiers in Fortress America, who pulled off this amazing feat?

    The article also deals contemptuously with security of polling places, suggesting it is almost exclusively given over to middle-aged volunteers who have no security training. Does this bear any resemblance to the rock-solid efficient machine of democracy the US government trots out every election?

    It would be, theoretically and technically, possible to rig the vote in a US election. But it would require thousands of Putin sympathizers and agents, who would have to physically tamper with voting machines, and not one of them could get caught or even arouse suspicion. Does that seem very likely to you? All to rig the election for a candidate whom it looked like might win anyway.

    What lost Hillary Clinton the election was the damaging information released about her before the election, which was all true. The Democrats’ argument seems to be that if that information had been suppressed until after the election, their candidate would have won. But the dirty Russians found out and squealed on Mrs. Clinton, so Americans owe her and should make her president. There is no evidence at all that Russia was the source of the damaging information, and it is far more likely to have come from Seth Rich.


  4. Yes I agree the soy who conveyed to Stalin that the Japanese would not attack allowing the troops be be redeployed – is a great intelligence success that saved a nation.

    As for the Washington post stories – they are just that stories with no evidence or foundation.
    Anything to support the neo con/ anti Russian /anti trump agenda is printed.


  5. “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.”

    CIA’s intervention in Italian post war elections and Mossadeq’s ousting were not “decisive”?

    “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?”

    Well, if we’re talking about the 90s…

    “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.”

    This source is real! Just as the hordes of Russian hackers, or the Chechen gays in the concentration camps, or Putin’s Spanish villas, where Kabayeva is taking care of their children! No one ever seen them – but everyone knows that they exist.

    Like the memtic gopher from the cult-classic of “DMB”:

    Hey! I have a handy explanation, an ultimate theory to tie everything in! What if hordes of Russian hackers are based on Putin’s secret Spanish villa, the basements of which are used to “process” hundreds of thousands of Chechen gays, who are then fed to the child of Putin-Sauron and Kabayeva? It all makes sense now!


  6. But we’ve seen all this already, many, many times. Just recently, back in 2003: Saddam’s meat-grinders, yellowcake, aluminum tubes, intercepts of Iraqi officers, satellite photos of chemical munitions bunkers. Similar psyops (none of this, obviously, has anything to do with intelligence or ‘intelligence’) against Libya, Syria. Vietnam before that. It’s just standard.


  7. re: single important historical event… how about the 2003 Iraq war?

    Anyway, if Pres. Obama was aware of a secret plot to hack/hypnotize/etc the election in Trump’s favor, and he stood aside … what does that say about his opinion of Clinton? It’s nonsense.

    And as someone mentioned above – why, oh, why would anyone use a purely computerized system to count votes? Mechanically imprinted hard-copy printout for each ballot cast. (or fill-in-the-bubble style like here in NY state). There’s nothing to even talk about on this subject. Paperless voting is an invitation for fraud, pure and simple.


  8. Here is option 2A: The CIA has no clue as to Putin’s involvement. But the story about the Russian mole is more than demonization of Putin. They are hoping to stir up trouble in the Kremlin and if they see some arrests it will help determine its veracity.


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