British intelligence ‘among the first’ to notify US about Russian hacking

MI6British intelligence agencies gave their United States counterparts an early warning about Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the American presidential election, according to The New York Times. The American newspaper cited “two people familiar with the conclusions” of a US intelligence report, who said that British spies helped “raise the alarm” in Washington about Russian hacking. The Times were referring to a classified US intelligence report that purports to prove that Moscow tried to skew the US election results in favor of Republican Party nominee Donald Trump. The report, parts of which have been released to the public, was shared with Trump in a secret meeting with US intelligence officials last week.

Interestingly, media reports suggest that US intelligence agencies were not aware of the severity of Russian hacking operations until they were notified by allied intelligence agencies. British spy agencies were “among the first” to tell their transatlantic partners that Moscow was engaged in an allegedly large-scale operation against American political parties and institutions. According to The Times, British intelligence reports mentioned Russian hacking operations against the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, as well as against senior officials in the Democratic Party. There is no mention in the report about how the British acquired the information. The London-based newspaper The Guardian speculates that British intelligence agencies picked up clues by monitoring Russian government communications (voice intercepts and computer traffic). However, the possibility that the information was acquired through an agent should not be ruled out.

According to the British newspaper, government officials in London were “alarmed” by the close contacts between Moscow and the inner circle of Donald Trump’s campaign. They even contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and passed information about what The Guardian describes as “the depth and nature of contacts” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. There is no information, however, about whether the FBI did anything with that information. Meanwhile, the British government is eager to cultivate good relations with the US president-elect, despite concerns in Whitehall about the close Russian connections of the incoming American administration. London needs Washington’s support as it is disengaging from the European Union, says The Guardian.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 January 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: US expulsion of Russian spies is mostly symbolic, aimed domestically

Russian embassy in WashingtonThere had been rumors for some time about a possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. The White House confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, by announcing the expulsion of 35 accredited Russian diplomats from the US, and the reclamation of two “recreational facilities” used by Russian diplomats in New York and Maryland. Washington said the Russian diplomats are spies operating under diplomatic cover and that the recreational facilities were being “used for Russian intelligence activities”. Although the sanctions may seem significant at first, they are mostly symbolic, and their impact will be temporary and limited. They may even end up hurting the United States more than Russia.

As I told Newsweek‘s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein earlier today, the current size of Russia’s human-intelligence presence in the United States is estimated at more than 100 officers. Therefore, the expulsion of a third of those operatives will set back Russian human-intelligence activities on US soil —but only temporarily, since most of the expelled officers will be replaced in time. Moreover, Moscow will probably respond in kind, so Washington is likely to suffer a proportional reduction of its human-intelligence presence in Russia. That could hurt the US more than Russia, because the American human-intelligence presence in Russia is smaller and more needed in a relatively closed society as Russia’s. Thus, a proportional expulsion of Russian and American spies from each other’s territory may actually harm Washington more than Moscow.

In reality, the expulsions and sanctions pertain more to domestic American politics than foreign policy. They are designed to place the incoming president, Donald Trump, who is seen as a friend of Russia, in a difficult position, by further-complicating Russian-American relations in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s Administration. These measures should arguably have been implemented much earlier this year, and certainly before November 8, when they may have had some impact. At this late stage, they can hardly be taken seriously, given the inconsistency in US national policy toward Russia, as shown in the differing viewpoints of the Obama and Trump teams.

Assuming that Russia was indeed behind a systematic effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, it has already achieved one of its main goals. It was to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole and to divide America by intensifying the already growing mistrust between American —and by extension Western— civil society and its political institutions. Moscow will see the US response, such as it is, as a price worth paying, given the broader accomplishments of its covert operation against US democracy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Russia did meddle in US election, but its goal was not to elect Trump

Trump 2016No person familiar with the theory and practice of intelligence will be shocked by allegations that Russia interfered in the recent American presidential election. On the contrary, the claim will strike experienced observers as a textbook case of covert operation —an intelligence activity designed to influence foreign political, military or economic developments. Far from being physically violent, most covert operations involve actions like secretly funding political parties, planting misinformation or propaganda in foreign media outlets and —in more extreme cases— bribing or extorting key political actors. During the Cold War, hardly a national election took place without attracting the covert attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Soviet equivalent, the KGB. This practice continues today, as nearly every intelligence agency engages in covert operations of some form or other.

It would thus be extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election. To not have done so would mean that the Russian intelligence apparatus failed to abide by its mission statement. Such an eventuality would be unthinkable, especially given the size and importance of the target. It should therefore be presumed that Russian spy agencies, in particular the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, engaged in systematic efforts to meddleq-quote in last month’s US election. Indeed, the opposite would be strange.

The view that Russian spy agencies interfered in the US presidential election does not, for the moment, rely on publicly available evidence. The latter remains absent, though it is worth noting that, according to The Washington Post, US intelligence agencies concluded “with high confidence” that Russia meddled in the campaign over many months. It is always wise to treat claims in the media by unnamed “US officials” with some skepticism. But if The Post’s allegation is factual, then the words “with high confidence” are significant. The business of intelligence analysis is one of accuracy and precision. The term “high confidence” is rarely employed, and when it is, it typically denotes an almost indisputable degree of confidence in an analytical conclusion.

That the president-elect chose to automatically dismiss The Post’s allegations by describing them as “ridiculous” and denouncing the CIA in its entirety as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” is worrying. It indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the intelligence profession and its role in executive decision-making. Ideally, the president-elect should have remained silent until he had an opportunity to confer with the CIA and examine the evidence behind the report. Instead, during a Sunday morning interview on Fox News, Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it”. But this has nothing to do with belief. It has to do with facts and data, which he ought to examine before summarily dismissing an entire agency.

What is more, the evidence behind these allegations must be presented to the American people, who were the ultimate targets of the alleged operation. This was not about the two presidential q-quotecandidates. This was about the reputation of the American electoral process. In fact, the primary goal of Russia’s involvement in the US election —which, again, must be presumed— was not to empower a particular candidate, but to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole. Those who claim that the Kremlin tried to promote Trump because the Republican candidate appears to be more favorably disposed toward Russia are wrong. They misunderstand the complex nature of Russian-American relations and underestimate Russian strategy. Moscow understands that its bilateral relationship with Washington rests on a set of longstanding geopolitical variables and does not depend on ephemeral personal relations between individual leaders. Furthermore, the Kremlin views Trump as an inherently unpredictable actor that is not to be trusted. The Russian plan, therefore, was not to help elect Trump. Rather, it was to sow mistrust between American –and by extension Western– civil society and its political institutions. Given the challenges currently being faced by European and American democracy, that is not a far-fetched goal.

The current state of American politics, which is characterized by ugly sectarianism the likes of which have not been witnessed since the Vietnam War, favors Russia’s strategic goals. Many Americans are currently convinced that the president-elect and some of his most senior aides are influenced by Moscow. Instead of actively trying to alleviate these concerns, Trump has now gone on an all-out offensive against the US Intelligence Community while essentially defending Russia. Americans who care about the current state and future of the Republic must be seriously concerned with this picture, regardless of their political affiliation. It may be that the history textbooks of the future will record the Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election as one of the most successful covert operations of modern times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 December 2016 | Permalink

US intelligence to begin briefing Donald Trump’s transition team

Donald TrumpMembers of the United States Intelligence Community will soon begin sharing top-secret information with the White House transition team of president-elect Donald Trump. According to a report by CBS News, Trump’s team will receive “practically the same briefings” as those given by intelligence personnel to US President Barack Obama. The briefings will be delivered by career intelligence officers who are reportedly ready to brief Trump’s transition team as soon as the latter requests it.

The 70-year-old business tycoon was confirmed as the president-elect in the early hours of Wednesday, after scoring one of the greatest electoral upsets in American political history. He is scheduled to meet President Obama at the White House this week, where he will discuss with him the pending transition of his executive team, as well as pressing matters of national security. According to CBS, the President has already authorized the Intelligence Community to brief Trump and his senior aides on certain topics. Obama will continue to authorize intelligence briefings given to the Trump team until January 20 of next year, when the Republican president-elect will replace President Obama at the White House. As soon as Trump’s transition team members provide the names of his chosen cabinet officials, the Intelligence Community will begin to brief them as well.

Meanwhile US Air Force four-star General Michael Hayden (ret.) raised doubts on Wednesday about Trump’s ability to understand the way intelligence works. General Hayden, who led the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency in under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told CBS that Trump won Tuesday’s presidential election by “showing anger [and] being accusatory”. These are qualities that are “very alien to the way intelligence works” and do not fit “into the intelligence picture”, he said. General Hayden was one of 50 senior Republican national-security officials who signed an open letter in August, claiming that Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president and “would put at risk [America’s] national security and well-being”. The 50 included former directors of the CIA, the NSA, the Office of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, and others.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 November 2016 | Permalink