Tag Archives: Intelligence

Spooks, Russia, and Disinformation

Jeremy Morris has an interesting post on his Postsocialism blog about the malicious role played by Western intelligence services in shaping narratives of Russia. I’m somewhat sceptical about his thesis – or at least the extent of the phenomenon he describes – but as if by chance, today I also came across a story that kind of backs him up.

Morris complains of two “elephants in the room,” who together distort our understanding of Russia. The first is the “clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT.” I guess that would be me.

The second is “academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.” Given my former involvement in the intelligence world, and the fact that I’ve taught courses at the University of Ottawa with members of the Canadian security and intelligence services, I guess that would be me too.

Double elephant!

I imagine that Morris thinks that elephant number one distorts things in favour of Russia, and elephant number two distorts them against. That must make me some sort of push-me-pull-you doing both at once. Perhaps that explains why I always end up occupying the middle ground!

Anyway, I digress, because this isn’t meant to be about me. Back to the point.

“If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’,” writes Morris. I must confess myself guilty as charged. I can be pretty cynical, but I don’t think that everybody has “hidden motives.” People who write what one might call “pro-Russian” articles for RT aren’t doing it for the money or because the FSB has got some dirt on them any more than people writing Russophobic stuff for think tanks are doing it because they’re taking orders from the FBI, MI5, or CSIS. People tend to believe what they’re doing.

In any case, I worry less about spooks and more about the military industrial complex and its funding of think tanks and the like, all of which work together to inflate threats, keep us in a state of fear, and justify increased defence spending and aggressive foreign policies. But even there, the think tankers etc believe in what they’re doing. The problem is that believers get funded whereas non-believers don’t. I don’t think “hidden motives” are the issue.

That said, Morris has a point, in that security and intelligence services do maintain contacts with chosen favourites and feed them information that they hope will further their chosen narrative. The story I came across today illustrates how this works quite well.

A while back, I mentioned a law case in the UK involving Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr and British businessman Arron Banks. Banks is suing Cadwalladr for libel for having claimed that the Russian government offered him money for use in the Brexit referendum campaign, and that he lied about his relationship with the Russians. The case is now before the court, and Cadwalladr’s defence is becoming clear.

The Guardian journalist isn’t claiming that what she said about Banks was true, merely that given the evidence she had at the time she had good reason to believe that it was in the public interest for her to report it. So what was this evidence, and where did she get it from? This is where it becomes interesting. For as the Guardian reports,

In her written evidence statement, she [Cadwalladr] said she had obtained two intelligence files from an organisation contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe on behalf of a government agency, one file of which raised concerns about Banks’s Russian wife.

In other words, British intelligence fed the information to her via another source.

The accusation that Banks took Russian money to fund Brexit received widespread coverage. It was even repeated in a parliamentary report. Yet no evidence to support the claim has ever been produced, and as we have seen, Cadwalladr isn’t trying to say that it was true. In short, it was disinformation. And yet, what prompted it was in part documents leaked by British intelligence to a third party “contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation” and then in turn given by that organization to Ms Cadwalladr.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit iffy?

In the first place, the story reinforces what I have said several times before, namely that the “disinformation industry” set up to “counter Russian disinformation” is itself a major source of disinformation. And second, it reveals an excessively cosy relationship between the media – supposedly an independent guardian of the truth that holds the state to account – and state organizations, including secret intelligence.

Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing.

Maybe Mr Morris is right after all!

The Owls Against The Bats: Interview with Argumenty i Fakty

The Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty today published an interview with me on the topic of military intelligence. Those of you who speak Russian can read it by clicking on the picture and enlarging. For those who don’t I have included an English translation below.


The book ‘Military Intelligence’ has been published in Moscow. This is the first research in Russia of the carefully hidden activity of the world’s leading intelligence service.

– Paul, in your opinion, which country’s intelligence services are the most powerful today?

The United States invests more than $80 billion per year in its various intelligence agencies. This gives it the most powerful intelligence apparatus in the world, the largest system of surveillance satellites, a large fleet of drones, the huge resources of the NSA, etc. But this does not mean that the American intelligence services know everything. As we have seen in recent years, in some cases – such as the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 – they have been taken by surprise.

The Americans do not dominate as much as they used to. Other countries are catching up with them, especially China, which has invested significant resources in intelligence over the past few years.

– How would you characterise the state of American military intelligence?

US intelligence provides the military with fairly high-quality information to meet its tactical and operational needs. In the event of a major war, this would give it an advantage. At the same time, it is difficult to say whether US intelligence provides its government with a good strategic understanding of the world. Technical competence is accompanied by a lack of knowledge and understanding of other country’s motives. In other words, U.S. intelligence probably has a good idea of Russia’s military capabilities, but not of what motivates Russian leaders or how they will behave in a given instance.

– Your book doesn’t have chapters on either U.S. or Russian military intelligence. Why is that?

America isn’t included because its intelligence apparatus is so large that it deserves a separate study. And Russia is not discussed because the book is written for a Russian audience to inform it about the outside world.  In addition, it is quite difficult to judge the current state of Russian intelligence, because we do not have sufficient information. In recent years, it has been accused of many sins in the West, including election interference, disinformation, hacking into computer systems, etc. Many of the accusations seem exaggerated. However, there may be something behind them.

– Are there any fundamental differences in how intelligence services in Europe, Asia and the Middle East collect intelligence?

In principle, the methods of collecting and processing information are the same everywhere. Historically, the Americans have been known for their preference for technological methods, while the Russians and Chinese have a reputation for being more committed to old-fashioned “human intelligence.” However, the extent to which these historical habits reflect modern practice seems debatable to me.

– Can you name the country with what in your opinion is the strangest intelligence system?

Israel is probably the most unusual. Its military intelligence agency, AMAN, is more than just a military agency. It plays a key role not only in military but also in political matters, a role that in other countries is usually left to civilian services. Whether this is effective, it is hard to say.

– Which country’s intelligence can be proudest of its agents?

In human intelligence, the best in Europe, perhaps, is the Romanian military. They were able to establish procedures to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is no wonder that the NATO school of human intelligence is located in the Romanian city of Oradea, and that the Americans in Afghanistan used Romanian military intelligence officers.

And which is the most modern?

All intelligence organizations are conservative structures. Military intelligence is doubly so. The modern world is changing rapidly, so intelligence personnel need to adapt and work in a new way. The Swedish MUST is arguably the most ground-breaking intelligence service in the world. It successfully manages to attract civilian specialists, in particular in Russia. The synergistic effect is such that the Swedes, like ants, carry a load that is much greater than their weight.

– How much has the status of intelligence personnel in the world grown or decreased? Do they still have the right to make decisions on their own that will affect the world, or do they carefully coordinate all their actions?

Modern states rely on accurate information when making decisions. The status of intelligence remains high. However, it is not the job of intelligence agencies to make operational decisions; their job is only to advise.

– In your opinion, what 21st century military intelligence operation stands out the most?

One of the most famous intelligence triumphs of recent years was the Americans’ success in finding Osama bin Laden. However, it took so many years to do this that by the time they found and killed him, he was no longer a figure of great importance.

– And what was the most unsuccessful?

Perhaps the most scandalous intelligence failure of the past 20 years was the Anglo-American claim that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. British and American intelligence agencies publicly reported that this was definitely true, a claim that was used to justify the attack on Iraq. As we know today, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. They were 100% wrong.

– Do you have any examples of military intelligence services engaged in covert operations: overthrowing foreign governments, eliminating individuals, conducting propaganda?

Some of them probably do that. Intelligence services also manage special operations forces and perform tasks in the field of internal security and counterintelligence. But these things are not military intelligence functions. For this reason, our publication does not address these issues.

– How have the methods of conducting intelligence changed with the advent of the Internet and other technologies. What new methods have appeared, and what has remained the same? Or is all the intelligence now done by computer?

Modern information technologies have significantly increased the amount of information available to intelligence services. This includes, for example, the billions of phone calls, emails, and social media messages that are produced every day. In addition, more and more intelligence today can be obtained from open and publicly available sources. On the one hand, this opens up great opportunities for intelligence services – if they can find the necessary information, they have a chance to detect things that previously could not be detected. On the other hand, a huge amount of information creates enormous problems – how to find an important message in the middle of so much material? The need to do this has led to a shift to quantitative methodologies and computer-based analysis.

– Can we say that because of new technologies, intelligence agents have become more vulnerable?

With the help of modern technology, it is relatively easy to identify intelligence agents and track their movements and activities. Of course, this makes them more vulnerable, at least until they find ways to improve their operational security.

– When compiling the book, were you not afraid for your life?

We don’t reveal any secrets. Everything in this book is based on information in the public domain. However, this information has not previously been collected in one place. By doing this, we help readers better understand what’s going on in the world around them, what the secret springs are, and why they sometimes work.

– There is an intriguing chapter in the book, “The Battle of The Owls and the Bats”.  Is this about the rivalry between Russian and Ukrainian military intelligence?

The approval in 2016 of the new emblem of Ukrainian military intelligence – an owl that penetrates the territory of Russia with a sword, with the motto on the shield: Sapiens dominabitur astris (“The wise will rule over the stars”) was a symbolic step. The emblem refers to the informal symbol of Russian military intelligence – the bat – and its motto: “Above us – only the stars.”

The new emblem and slogan of the Ukrainian military intelligence directly point to Russia as the main enemy. Ultimately, however, any serious conflict between Russia and Ukraine will be resolved by military force, not intelligence.

– Does the real work of intelligence officers resemble that shown in films?

As a former intelligence officer in the British Army, I can say that real intelligence work has very little to do with James Bond.

– Do you have a favorite film or book about intelligence agents?

I’m not sure about films, but there is a book: Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana. It tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba in the 1950s who is recruited by British intelligence. Not having any access to secret information, but wanting to get money from the British, the salesman sends them drawings of supposed secret installations which he bases on bits of dismantled vacuum cleaners. While this is obvious farce, it’s not that far from the truth – unfortunately, agents often do that kind of thing! Intelligence reports should always be treated with caution.

Czech Mate

Last week saw the wheels come off yet another false story concerning Russia, namely the claim that Russian intelligence had paid the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. It was always highly dubious, but that didn’t stop many from repeating it as gospel truth. Apparently, the US intelligence community now admits that it has only ‘low to medium confidence’ in the accusation, which doesn’t mean that they are entirely rejecting it, but does pose a lot of questions about why so many people, including major media outlets, hyped a story for which there was never a substantial basis.

Alas, it’s hardly a lone case and, as I’ve said before, poor reporting matters not only because it’s inaccurate (though that it is bad enough), but also because it discredits the media. The result is that when the press does report something truthful which makes Russia look bad there are a substantial number of people who refuse to believe it. But it’s a mistake to decide that because so much reporting is false, all of it is. Some of it is true. The Russian state is far from a paragon of virtue and engages in its fair share of bad behaviour.

An example is the news this weekend that the Czech government has accused agents of Russian military intelligence of blowing up an arms depot in the Czech Republic, an action that resulted in two deaths. As with so many of these stories, it’s impossible to 100% verify the claim from the information available in the press. But I found myself convinced.

Supposedly, the purpose of the attack was to destroy weapons owned by Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Grebev. who is said to have been selling weapons to people deemed undesirable by the Russian government. That provides motive.

On top of that, the Czech government reports that shortly before the explosion, the depot was visited by two men whose passport photos match those of the notorious Petrov and Boshirov, who were identified by the British police as being in the town of Salisbury on the day that former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. Petrov and Boshirov have also been identified as members of Russian military intelligence. So we have opportunity as well.

All that doesn’t constitute proof, but it’s fairly convincing. Identical-looking people, with links to a foreign intelligence agency, turn up in the same places and on the same days as a poisoning and an explosion. What are the odds that it’s coincidence? Pretty low, in my opinion. It seems to me that the Czechs have got the Russians bang to rights on this one.

Likewise, I think that this news should dispel any doubts that anybody still has about the role of Petrov and Boshirov in the Skripal poisoning. I for one never thought that they were in Salisbury to ‘look at the spire’. A less plausible pair of cultural tourists it would be hard to find. But anybody who was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt should now think again. As I said, it’s too coincidental to be innocent. Likely as not, the Russians are guilty as charged, both in Salisbury and in Czechia.

Perhaps it’s my background as an intelligence officer, but I’ve long felt that intelligence agencies should stick to information gathering and give up all that ‘covert operations’ nonsense. Coups, assassinations, sabotage, and all the rest of it – what difference have they made at the end of the day in the grander scheme of things? Precious damn little as far as I can see.

But they do result in harm. Russia’s goons seem to show a reckless disregard for the possibility of collateral damage, leaving nerve agent-filled bottles lying around for members of the public to pick up, and blowing up arms dumps in a way that kills innocent bystanders. They also appear to be more than a little sloppy in their tradecraft, regularly leaving behind more than a few traces of their actions, with the result that their plots keep being revealed and their identities known to the public.

All this has a very negative effect on Russia’s international reputation. Extremely negative. I really can’t exaggerate how bad the effect is. It’s terrible. If I were working in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs I’d be tearing up my hair in despair as I have to once again cover up the idiocy and criminality of my country’s security and intelligence services.

Ideally, the person at the top of the bureaucratic food chain would put a stop to it. Unfortunately, it would seem that, even if he can’t be proven to have ordered any specific mission, he protects those who do. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly doesn’t rule the roost.

It’s common for the Russian government to blame Russophobia and ‘fake news’ in the foreign press for hostility it faces from Western states. There is an element of truth in that claim, and this blog has devoted more than a little time to demonstrating it. But, Russophobia only has traction because it makes sense to people, and it makes sense because even if the Russian state doesn’t do all the things it’s accused of, it does do some of them. It’s not all fake news.

I’ve often said that Western states need to be more introspective and recognize their own responsibility for the problems of the world. The same goes for Russia. Ultimately, if Russia is in a difficult diplomatic position, the actor mostly to blame isn’t hard to find – the Russian state itself.

Garbage in, Garbage out, again

I’ve complained before about the habit of the intelligence community of inviting evidence from a very narrow group of experts, occupying what can only be called an extreme position. Well, here we go again.

The long awaited report on the Russian ‘threat’ by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has finally come out. Having downloaded it, I immediately turned to the back page to see where the committee had got its information, on the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Having done so, I am afraid that I let out an expletive so loud that people from the other side of the house ran over to see what was wrong. For this is what I saw:

Oh, FFS. Applebaum, Browder, Donnelly, Lucas, and Steele. Really??? I’m assuming that most readers know these names, but just in case you don’t, it’s like they’ve pulled in all the most discredited, Russophobic ‘experts’ they can find, and ignored everybody else who has any sort of knowledge of the subject. This is not a representative sample of expert opinion about Russia.

I have no objection to one or two such people being summoned as witnesses, but when all you have is representatives of the most extreme wing of the Russia-watching community, some of whom, most notably Christopher Steele, have been thoroughly discredited, then what you are not getting is a balanced, all-round picture of what you are studying.

The report thanks these witnesses for the fact that ‘they provided us with an invaluable foundation for the classified evidence sessions’. In short, the five external witnesses mattered. The picture of Russia provided by these people is the ideological rock on which the rest of the report is built.

Such an extreme, one-sided set of external witnesses not only casts doubt on the value of the information provided to the committee, but also on the impartiality of the committee itself. It speaks to extreme lack of an open mind, as if experts were chosen because they conformed to a strong predisposition which the committee was not interested in challenging.

Intelligence work requires a willingness to consider multiple competing hypotheses. Looking at the list of ‘experts’ makes it clear that this committee has only been exposed to variations of one – ‘Russia is evil’, ‘Russia is out to get us’, ‘Russia is inherently aggressive and dictatorial’. This is no way to do intelligence work.

I’ll write something about the content of the report in my next post. But as I said, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

Continue reading Beware Russians on campus

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.




Fact and comment

When reading an intelligence report, it is advisable to distinguish between those parts of the report which are raw information and those which are comments. Intelligence analysts are trained to make this distinction clear. One method is to place raw information in a column on one side of the page and commentary in a separate column on the other side. Another way is to put the word ‘COMMENT’ before any commentary, and to put ‘END OF COMMENT’ at the end. A reader can then evaluate whether a comment seems justified in light of the supporting facts.

With this in mind, let us now turn to the unclassified report released to the public yesterday by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, entitled ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.’

The report doesn’t do a very good job of separating fact and comment. But it does regularly use the phrase ‘We assess.’ Readers can presumably take anything preceded by this phrase as being equivalent to a comment. So let us look at the report’s assessments, and see what facts are used to justify them. Among the quotations which follow, those which I consider to state facts, rather than opinions, are highlighted in bold.

Continue reading Fact and comment