Why we need a little skepticism, and more evidence, on Russian bounties

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and George S. Beebe

July 5th 2020 in The Hill

The most fundamental task of both journalists and intelligence analysts is to clarify the often blurry line separating truth and falsehood. They must deal with a firehose of unverified claims pouring into their inboxes daily, and the consequences of lending credence to false reports can be severe. Sound analysis requires a careful balance between over- and under-connecting the dots. The recent track record in this endeavor, however, is discouraging. The Russian bounty controversy is the latest example.

This story has unfolded in two parts. The first is the allegation, which has seized American media headlines, that a secret Russian military intelligence unit has been paying Afghan militants to kill Americans. The second is the claim that President Trump either knows about this activity and has done nothing, or has preemptively closed White House doors to reports of Russian malfeasance.

The initial question to ask in evaluating the veracity of the allegation is, how credible are the sources? Here, the answer: not very. According to the New York Times, the primary sources are militants and criminals captured and interrogated by Afghanistan’s government. But human sources are often intentionally or unintentionally misleading. Captured militants frequently tell their interrogators things they hope will win more lenient treatment. Others relate stories they honestly believe, but amount to little more than hearsay. “Curveball,” the aptly named source for the now discredited claim in 2002 that Iraq had built mobile biological weapons laboratories, simply lied to his intelligence handlers to advance his anti-Saddam agenda.

The second question is, what other information might support or disconfirm the allegations? Here, too, there is reason for skepticism. The Times cites evidence of “large financial transfers” from Russian military intelligence to the Taliban. But scrutiny of that datapoint raises some puzzling questions. Between 14 and 22 Americans were killed in Afghanistan each year from 2016 to 2019; nine have been killed so far this year. If the Russian money indeed was sent to fund a bounty program within this time frame, why has it not had much impact? And if the Times report of large financial transfers — one of which was at least $500,000 — is accurate, it would appear that the typically tight-fisted Russians either were paying enormous sums per kill or were paying in advance, which is not how bounties usually work.

Which brings us to a third question: Who benefits from these allegations? The list certainly includes the central Afghan government, which has overseen the interrogations on which the story is based and desperately wants the U.S. military to remain in Afghanistan, despite President Trump’s efforts to wind down our presence. Few things could more effectively throw a wrench into the gears of Afghan peace talks than credible reports that the Taliban is working with Russians to kill Americans. The list also includes Trump’s domestic political opponents, who long have attempted to tar him with false accusations of working on the Kremlin’s behalf or even on its payroll. The discredited Russian collusion story is a prime example of this effort.  

Notably, the list does not include Russia. Moscow encouraged and supported the U.S. war against the Taliban for many years after the 9/11 attacks, but as the United States has drawn down its presence, it has backed both a U.S. withdrawal and peace talks with the Taliban. The Kremlin is not looking for ways to impede U.S. departure from a region that Moscow once dominated. Rather, it is trying to cultivate relationships with the many warlords and factions that are likely to rule Afghanistan’s various regions in the aftermath of the American withdrawal. That effort very likely includes limited provisions of weapons and money to Taliban leaders, but it would be quite surprising if it also included special bonuses for killing individual Americans.

Why such skepticism? For one thing, this kind of scalp-hunting would be an unprecedented escalatory act. Even at the height of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States refrained from such activity, despite engaging enthusiastically in proxy warfare in theaters around the world. The KGB even sought an explicit understanding with the CIA that neither organization would kidnap or assassinate its rival’s personnel, largely because it feared where such targeting could lead.

Russia today is undoubtedly hostile toward the United States and desirous of curtailing American global influence, but it nonetheless has not thrown all caution to the wind. There is no evidence that the Russians are head-hunting in Syria, where they would have greater incentives to target Americans and greater ability to do so. Instead, they have by universal acknowledgement worked with their U.S. counterparts to deconflict Russian and American military operations there. In 2018, when U.S. forces used the deconfliction channel to warn of a looming attack by a large contingent of Russian mercenaries who were trying to dislodge the U.S. from a strategic position in Syria, Russian officials did nothing to dissuade U.S. commanders from counterattacking, and Moscow did absolutely nothing after hundreds of Russian fighters were subsequently killed and wounded.

Finally, it is impossible to escape the impression that the rush toward outrage over the Russian bounty allegations is tinged with more than a whiff of hypocritical political opportunism. Senior Democrats who have been quick to charge Trump with treason for failing to punish the Russians might recall their own support for striking nuclear deals and lifting sanctions on Iran not long ago, despite undisputed facts that Teheran provided actual training, operational intelligence and weapons to Iraqi insurgents that led to the killing and maiming of thousands of American soldiers.

None of this disproves the allegation that the Russians are paying bounties for dead Americans in Afghanistan, an activity that, if true, would require a resolute U.S. response. It is not out of the question that the Russian government or parts of it might see such bounties as payback for perceived U.S. perfidy in Ukraine, Georgia and Russia itself. But it certainly means that the standard of evidence for validating such allegations should be much higher than our media’s barely concealed lust to embrace them would suggest.

Confirmed or not, the allegations should serve as a sobering reminder that unconstrained shadow warfare with Moscow can produce genuine dangers for Americans. One glaring difference between the Cold War and today is that the Cold War was fought within the parameters of agreed rules. Today, we have almost none. We would be wise to consider this as our national discourse on Russia proceeds.

David B. Rivkin, Jr., is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He also worked for a number of years for the Defense Department as a defense and foreign policy analyst specializing in Soviet nuclear weapons policy.

George S. Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/505804-why-we-need-a-little-skepticism-and-more-evidence-on-russian

Before this pandemic ends, intel agencies should prepare for a world of threats

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and George Beebe

31 March 2020 in The Hill

Few people regard the novel coronavirus pandemic as an intelligence failure. And, judging by conventional standards, it is not one. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) was created to collect and analyze secret information about our adversaries’ capabilities and intentions that pose strategic threats to American national security. Despite allegations by some foreign propagandists and domestic conspiracy-mongers, COVID-19 was not dreamed up in some biological weapons laboratory and unleashed diabolically on the world. Its origins in Chinese “wet markets” were far more prosaic. Today’s rapidly emerging global dangers could not have been uncovered by intercepting secret Chinese communications or capturing their plans for biological warfare.

In such situations, traditional approaches to gathering and analyzing intelligence can only make limited contributions. They can help to determine what secretive governments, such as those in China and Iran, actually know about the spread of COVID-19 and its lethality, and to what degree they may be hiding the truth. And some spinmeisters, evidently intent on both polishing the IC’s image and tarnishing that of President Trump, already have been portraying classified briefings in January and February as an intelligence success because they did just that.

But the notion that Trump is guilty of failing to heed these briefings — or that Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), and other U.S. senators are legally and ethically culpable for allegedly dumping stocks in response to them — overstates how actionable they were. Anyone who doubts this should ask whether the CIA itself took early action to protect its own personnel and facilities from the coming wave of danger that it supposedly forecast.

Rendering the entirely unsurprising judgment that Beijing was failing to level with its people or the world is not the same as sounding urgent alarms about a global health crisis that could lead to world economic depression. And making a marginal contribution to scaling a deadly threat after it has emerged is not why American taxpayers devote tens of billions of dollars annually to our intelligence cadre. The fundamental purpose of intelligence is to warn effectively about incipient dangers before they become urgent realities, not to help measure their dimensions — or advance partisan political agendas — afterward.

In the context of this larger purpose, the emergence of the novel coronavirus crisis highlights some unacceptable weaknesses in American intelligence. Since its inception in 1947, the IC’s primary mission has been to warn of deliberate, secretly planned attacks by our adversaries, whether they are powerful state actors or non-state terrorists. This challenge endures, as great power competition intensifies, and terrorism persists. While the IC’s record on this is mixed, it is at least a task well-suited to high-technology intelligence collection and to analysis, breaking down a problem and studying its component parts individually.

Unfortunately, our globalized 21st century-world also produces national security threats of a different kind, those that arise when small, non-secret factors combine to produce a devastating cascade of knock-on effects that no one has planned or anticipated. Novel coronavirus turned into a crisis not because it is deadlier than the SARS virus that emerged in China in 2002 (its fatality rate is lower, though it has claimed more lives), but because it debuted in a more entangled but less trusting world, whose weaker physical and psychological antibodies were not up to the challenge. This is the type of a problem that requires synthetic rather than analytic thinking: examining interconnections and feedback loops that can cause small developments to mutate into big dangers.

As it stands today, the IC is ill-staffed and poorly organized for warning about such emerging “complex systems” threats, unfolding in a chaotic world, before they become unmanageable crises. The IC’s enormous cadre of narrowly focused analysts and collectors is ideal for handling traditional intelligence tasks, where uncovering hidden technical details can spell the difference between success and failure in dealing with foreign adversaries.

But large organizational size and narrow specializations can be real handicaps when the task is to bring together a wide range of disciplines and understand the interconnections among factors that could produce “perfect storms” of danger. And old cultural and regulatory barriers between foreign intelligence and domestic American affairs impede understanding the feedback effects between factors internal to the United States and those beyond our borders.

To meet this type of challenge, intelligence must operate on a smaller and smarter scale. It must rely less on secret information, and more on interdisciplinary teams of experts tasked with understanding the larger context of events. In cases such as the novel coronavirus crisis, it must assemble diverse groups of doctors, epidemiologists, economists, business leaders, data scientists, psychologists and other experts who are not typically central players in intelligence assessments.

And it needs to be much better informed about what American entities are doing at home and abroad, because these entities are often important parts of complex international systems. Intelligence experts cannot understand how perfect storms of danger develop beyond our borders — nor can American policymakers know how to deal with them effectively — unless they also understand the ways U.S. factors and capabilities affect them.

Rising to this challenge also requires a much more cooperative and trusting relationship among the IC, White House and Congress. To provide meaningful assessments, intelligence organizations must engage policymakers in their discussion of systemic variables and feedback loops early in the process. They must view their role as helping policymakers to identify variables they can influence, directly and indirectly, and to anticipate the possible impacts on the system of various policy options. They must help U.S. leaders strike an effective balance between punishing Beijing for hiding the true extent of COVID-19’s early spread — a necessary deterrent to future misconduct — and pushing it too far, particularly in an environment where the Communist Party’s reputation and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own sagacity have taken a beating, and adopting measures that might boomerang against our own national security.

None of that can happen when the IC is an active player in domestic political warfare. In this regard, press leaks about the IC’s supposedly perspicacious warnings about the novel coronavirus threat are actually indications of collective failure. Such internecine strife destroys the trust necessary for frank dialogue among those attempting to understand the dynamics of problems such as the novel coronavirus crisis, and those attempting to manage them.

Reckoning with these problems should be an urgent matter for the acting Director of National Intelligence, a position created to bring together diverse entities and foster collaboration across the IC. The cascade of developments flowing from the outbreak of COVID-19 is far from over. To one degree or another, the United States, Europe, Russia and China all will be wounded — physically, economically and psychologically. These wounds could very well contribute to a dangerous new phase of great power competition. Understanding the dynamics that could send it spiraling beyond manageable bounds into deadly warfare is a vital task for American intelligence.

David B. Rivkin, Jr., is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He also worked for a number of years for the Defense Department as a defense and foreign policy analyst.

George S. Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/490160-before-this-pandemic-ends-intel-agencies-should-prepare-for-a-world-of-threats

Election Mirage: Why Claims of Russian Meddling Should Be Questioned

The winner in this deepening struggle between the White House and the intelligence world is not yet clear. But the loser is already evident: American national security.

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and George Beebe

28 February 2020 in The National Interest

What does one do when the country’s intelligence leadership is acting, well, not very intelligently? That is the inescapable question prompted by last week’s reports that a senior representative of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) told members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in an official briefing that Russia is interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and hopes to see President Donald Trump re-elected.

According to the New York Times account, Trump learned of this briefing only after the fact. And if press reports are accurate, the briefer cited no direct evidence of meddling on Trump’s behalf or of Russia’s broader intentions regarding U.S. presidential elections. Rather, the case was apparently based on inferences from such inherently ambiguous evidence as Russian hacking of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, supposedly done to help Trump dig up dirt on Hunter Biden. Such inferences were evidently reinforced by an assessment, lacking in analytical merit but redolent with politics, that the Kremlin would somehow naturally favor Trump over other 2020 presidential candidates.

Republican HPSCI members reportedly erupted in response. They disputed the plausibility of an assessment that Russia would prefer a president who has built up the U.S. military, proved willing to use force in the Middle East, greatly stiffened sanctions on Moscow, fought Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, and toughened other policies affecting Russia. Why would Russians not favor Democrats who would cut the U.S. defense budget, balk at using military force, and impose a ban on fracking that would drive up global oil and gas prices and benefit Russia’s energy export earnings? Trump, in turn, called the allegation of Russian support a “hoax.”

Should Intelligence Assessments Be Taken with a Grain of Salt?

Should intelligence overseers in Congress, the White House, and media subject the judgments of professional analysts to tough scrutiny? History says yes. Formulating intelligence assessments is an inherently uncertain and difficult business. Even establishing basic facts is a challenge when dealing with adversaries, who attempt to shroud their capabilities in secrecy. Intelligence assessments of the Soviet nuclear forces buildup, for example, were plagued by both over- and under-estimations, leading first to erroneous American concerns about a “missile gap” under Khrushchev, and later to surprise when the Soviets tried to put missiles in Cuba and then pushed well past nuclear parity in the 1970s.

In fact, one of the key reasons for the consistent underestimations of the Soviet nuclear force posture circa 1970s–1980s, was not a failure of the U.S. technical collection capabilities, but the CIA’s failure to accept that Moscow’s key strategic goal was to be able to fight and win a nuclear war. Ironically, Moscow was not trying to hide its thinking on this issue, as numerous Soviet military officials laid out their nuclear war-fighting ethos in published books and articles. However, U.S. intelligence analysts discounted this evidence, believing that Moscow, whatever it might have been publicly saying and doing, somehow subscribed to a mutually assured destruction theory as the best way to both maximize deterrence and minimize the risks of nuclear war.

By contrast, in earlier years, the CIA greatly overestimated the then-existing Soviet nuclear capabilities. By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was locked in a strategic arms competition with the United States, and it was losing badly. America enjoyed a considerable and growing advantage in both long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces. Yet, having embarked on an ambitious foreign policy designed to test American resolve, and possibly drive U.S. forces out of Berlin, Khrushchev was not prepared to curtail his aspirations.

To enhance his military capabilities vis-à-vis the United States, he could have deployed a number of costly, inaccurate and vulnerable first-generation ICBMs. Alternatively, he could have chosen to invest the USSR’s large, but not unlimited, resources in the development of more advanced land-based missiles (with deployment many years in the future) and other, more reliable, strategic delivery systems that might tip the nuclear balance in his favor.

Sensibly enough, he chose the latter course. However, to maintain the highest quality deterrence against the West and, even more to the point, to support the enhanced Soviet prestige necessary for an ambitious foreign policy, Khrushchev also engaged in an elaborate deception designed to make the West believe that Moscow had already fielded strategically meaningful numbers of advanced ICBMs. The Soviet leader’s public statements were supported by a carefully tailored intelligence disinformation campaign that not only tried to hide Moscow’s actual capabilities but also masked Soviet insecurities by suggesting Khrushchev wanted to challenge directly the United States in building up nuclear forces.

From Khrushchev’s perspective, the plan worked like a charm, at least temporarily. The alleged “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR was seized upon by a young Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to discredit the Eisenhower Administration and to defeat then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Not only did the Soviet Union avoid wasting billions of rubles, but Khrushchev concluded that he could outmaneuver the inexperienced Kennedy.

To be sure, Moscow’s gambit ultimately failed, as the U.S. eventually discovered that Moscow was not “cranking out missiles like sausages,” in Khrushchev’s oft-used expression, and blocked the Soviets from installing medium and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. This did not, however, negate the fact that for a considerable period of time U.S. intelligence estimates about Soviet capabilities were profoundly wrong.

Divining Intentions Is Extra Hard

Discerning adversary capabilities is difficult enough, particularly when dealing with closed societies with strict government controls on information. But divining an adversary’s intentions is an even more challenging task. In part, this is because capabilities, even when ascertained with the utmost precision, often lend themselves to multiple explanations of intent. Americans accurately recognized that Japan would have enormous disadvantages in an extended war with the United States, but they did not imagine that Tokyo might nonetheless attempt a knock-out blow of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Israelis correctly understood that Egypt could not hope to defeat their forces on the battlefield, but they failed to consider that Sadat might still see some advantage in launching a surprise offensive in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Moreover, decisions made by heads of state can often surprise even their closest aides. Intelligence reporting can accurately convey information from highly-placed foreign officials, yet still miss the mark when it comes to portraying foreign intentions. This problem can arise either because the officials just do not know enough about the intentions of their superiors, or because their superiors changed their minds, or simply because their superiors chose to lie to them. Saddam Hussein, for example, deceived his own generals in leading them to believe that, despite the international sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Iraq retained operational weapons of mass destruction

The difficulty in grasping intentions is particularly acute when it comes to foreign influence operations. Often, media operations are aimed at little more than reinforcing a state’s diplomatic messaging. The BBC and Voice of America have long broadcast content into countries dominated by state-controlled media, hoping to provide audiences with alternative perspectives on events. But sometimes media campaigns are not intended to persuade, but to deceive and even subvert—to tear the social and political fabric of their target audiences and undermine government authority.

The objectives of such subversion, however, can be agonizingly difficult to ascertain with much confidence. Sometimes the goal of subversion can be to topple a foreign authority—to so damage the operations of a regime so that it can no longer function effectively and crumbles from within. In other instances, the aim is less ambitious and more pragmatic—to force the target leadership to do things it would rather not do, such as refrain from behavior perceived as threatening. And when creating controversial online content also happens to be the most effective way to attract views, generate clicks, and bolster advertising revenues, separating subversive intent from other more mundane motivations in digital media campaigns becomes even more challenging.

More generally, given the past record of intelligence failures—particularly when it came to the analysis of intentions of various hostile powers, and the fact that there are still ongoing debates about such key Cold War episodes as the real Soviet motivations that drove a series of Berlin crises, and the Cuban Missile Crisis—the notion that the judgments of the Intelligence Community about Russian intentions virtually delivered in real-time today should be accepted without skepticism is nothing short of risible.

What Does Moscow Want?

In view of such inherent challenges, what can we say about the renewed controversy over Russian electoral meddling? There is no doubt that Russians are continuing to post digital news and social media content aimed at American audiences. It is also clear that Russian hackers have targeted American electoral databases and vote-counting systems in the past. What is less clear are the motivations that lie behind this activity.

That it is aimed at securing the victory or defeat of any particular candidate or party is an unproven hypothesis at best. The Kremlin cannot fail to realize that any significant pro-Trump meddling would be exposed and would hurt rather than help his electoral prospects. This being the case, one might plausibly argue that the real reason Moscow might unveil some footprint of a pro-Trump campaign is because it would expect this to be discovered and actually harm Trump. In fact, such a scenario illustrates perfectly how difficult it is to ascertain Putin’s intentions, even if one had perfect evidence of what Moscow was actually doing in U.S. elections.

Source: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/election-mirage-why-claims-russian-meddling-should-be-questioned-127992