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

Senior US intelligence official tells Congress not to ‘micromanage’ spy efforts

James ClapperThe United States’ senior intelligence officer has told Congress that new legislation requiring spy agencies to act against alleged Russian covert operations constitutes “micromanagement” of the American Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Authorization bill, which includes a number of intelligence-related requirements and provisions, is debated and enacted each year by Congress. This year’s legislation has already been approved by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. Last week it was enacted by the House, while the Senate is preparing to debate it this week.

The legislation currently under debate includes instructions to the US Intelligence Community to set up an interagency committee to formulate responses to perceived Russian covert operations around the world. The term ‘covert operations’ refers to actions by intelligence agencies designed to influence foreign political, military or economic affairs or events. The topic received media attention during the 2016 US presidential election, when Washington repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to shape its outcome. This year’s Intelligence Authorization bill requires every US intelligence agency to appoint a representative to serve on a joint panel that will address alleged Russian covert operations in the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

But in September of this year, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, America’s most senior intelligence official, authored a letter to Congress arguing that the requirement for an interagency panel to look into Russian covert operations should be scrapped. According to the Reuters news agency, which said last week that it saw a copy of the letter, Clapper argues that his letter echoes the unanimous view of the US Intelligence Community. He goes on to claim that the requirement to set up a special committee with an operational focus exceeds Congress’ role of overseer of the Intelligence Community and enters the realm of prescribing intelligence tasks. That, says Clapper in his letter, amounts to “micromanagement” of the Intelligence Community by Congress. Furthermore, he argues, the Intelligence Community has already taken steps to address Russian covert operations, thus the suggested panel would “duplicate current work” on the issue. Finally, Clapper’s letter suggests that the required panel would “hinder cooperation” with some of America’s overseas allies, though the Reuters report did not explain the precise justification for that claim.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 December 2016 | Permalink

Ex-CIA officer seeks Italian pardon for role in abduction operation

Giorgio Napolitano By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who has been convicted in absentia in Italy for his role in an abduction operation, has contacted the Italian president seeking a formal pardon. Robert Seldon Lady was the CIA station chief in Milan in February 2003, when a team of 23 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, abducted Mustafa Osama Nasr. The CIA suspected the Egyptian-born Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, of working as a recruiter for a host of radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. In 2005, Italian authorities, which had not authorized Nasr’s kidnapping, convicted Lady, along with 22 other Americans, of abduction. The convictions were delivered in absentia, as the Americans had earlier left the country. Washington has refused to extradite them to Rome. Earlier this week, Lady wrote a letter to the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, saying he had never intended to “disrespect Italy’s sovereignty” and asking for the President’s “personal forgiveness and pardon”. In his letter, Lady argues that he operated “under orders from senior American officials” with the aim of protecting lives, adding that US intelligence activities had been able to “stop numerous plans and targets of terrorists operating in Milan and elsewhere in Italy”. The former CIA officer also claims that the 2003 kidnapping of Nasr had taken place “in liaison with senior members of the Italian government”. He concludes by expressing his “regret” for his “participation in any activities which could be viewed as contrary to the laws of Italy”. Read more of this post

Former CIA station chief arrested in Panama ‘has been released’

Panama-Costa Rica borderBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A former station chief for the Central Intelligence Agency, who was detained in Panama last week for his alleged role in the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Italy, returned to the United States on Friday. The US Department of State said Robert Seldon Lady had been released by Panamanian authorities 24 hours after he was detained near Panama’s border with Costa Rica. Lady was the CIA’s station chief in Milan in February 2003, when a team of 23 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, abducted Mustafa Osama Nasr. The CIA suspected the Egyptian-born Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, of working as a recruiter for a host of radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. In 2005, Italian authorities, which had not authorized Nasr’s kidnapping, convicted Lady, along with 22 other Americans, of abduction. The convictions were delivered in absentia, as the Americans had earlier left the country. Washington has refused to extradite them to Rome. Lady was crossing from Panama into Costa Rica at a remote jungle border crossing early on Thursday, when, according to Costa Rican authorities, “a check on his passport triggered an INTERPOL alert”. Following negotiations between Costa Rican and Panamanian authorities, Lady was detained by Panamanian border guards, who alerted INTERPOL and Italy. Late on Friday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to offer details on the case, but confirmed that Lady was “either en route or back in the United States”. A Panamanian foreign ministry source told Reuters that Lady was released because “Panama does not have an extradition treaty with Italy and because documentation sent by Italian officials was insufficient”. Read more of this post

Panama arrests ex-CIA chief of station wanted by INTERPOL

Panama-Costa Rica borderBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A retired 21-year veteran of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who is wanted by INTERPOL for participating in the abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, has been detained by police in Panama. Robert Seldon Lady was the CIA’s station chief in Milan in 2003, when a team of 23 Americans, most of them CIA officers, abducted Mustafa Osama Nasr. The CIA suspected the Egyptian-born Nasr, known also as Abu Omar, of working as a recruiter for a host of radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. On February 17, 2003, Nasr was seized in dramatic fashion by a group of CIA operatives in broad daylight in Milan. He was stuffed into an unmarked white van and eventually ended up in Egypt, where he was tortured before being released. Nasr’s case helped raise awareness of the US government’s extraordinary rendition program. Under the controversial program, suspected terrorist operatives were secretly taken to third-party countries where they were subjected to aggressive interrogation techniques. Italian authorities were irritated by Nasr’s kidnapping, which they claimed took place without the consent of the Italian government. There are also reports that the Italian intelligence services were monitoring Nasr at the time and were trying to recruit him as a source, which might explain why they were incensed when the Egyptian was snatched by the CIA without their authorization. Read more of this post

‘Massive expansion’ in US covert operations in Africa

US military base in DjiboutiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The United States administration of President Barack Obama is implementing a near-unprecedented expansion of covert operations by American military forces throughout Africa, aimed at a host of armed groups deemed extremist by Washington. A lead article published yesterday in The Washington Post quotes over a dozen unnamed American and African officials, as well as military contractors, who refer to the US military-led effort as Project CREEKSAND. It allegedly involves secret operations in several African countries, conducted out of a large network of small air bases located in strategic locations around the continent. According to The Post, most of the airplanes used in Project CREEKSAND are small, unarmed, disguised to look like private aircraft, and bear no military markings or government insignia. In reality, however, they carry sophisticated electronic equipment designed to collect signals intelligence, while some are used to transport US Special Forces troops during capture or kill missions. The paper quotes an unnamed “former senior US commander […] involved in setting up the [air bases] network”, who alleges that the US government has built about a dozen such bases throughout Africa since 2007. These secret air bases are located in countries such as Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, and Seychelles. Most of the US personnel involved in Project CREEKSAND consists of Special Operations forces tasked with “training foreign security forces [and] performing aid missions”. However, The Post alleges that there are also small teams of US operatives who are “dedicated to tracking and killing suspected terrorists”. Read more of this post

US considered covert mission to recover drone captured by Iran

Iran

Iran

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
What a difference two days can make! On Monday we speculated that Iran may have captured intact a United States Air Force RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone. At that time, most American officials questioned or flatly denied Iran’s capture claims. It now appears almost certain that Iran is indeed in possession of the aircraft; what is more, it seems increasingly likely that the captured drone was conducting a Central Intelligence Agency reconnaissance mission when it crashed in the desert along the country’s 1,000 km-long border with Afghanistan. The significance of the drone’s capture by Iranian authorities can be discerned from the fact that US officials are said to have considered last weekend several options for retrieving it from Iranian territory. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the US Department of Defense, in association with the CIA, discussed at least three separate plans for recovering or destroying the aircraft wreckage. One of the options discussed involved sending an airborne team of US covert operatives into northeast Iran to locate the crashed drone, disassemble it, and carry its top-secret mechanical and electronic components back to a US base in Afghanistan. The US also considered deploying Special Forces stationed in Afghanistan, or tasking US intelligence assets inside Iran, with locating and blowing up the crashed drone. A third option involved destroying the downed aircraft with a remote airstrike from Afghanistan. Read more of this post