Commentary Magazine


Topic: KGB

Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Vladimir Putin, Victim?

“Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed.” With that sentence, uttered by Vladimir Putin just after his election to succeed Boris Yeltsin more than a decade ago, the paradigm of Kremlin control had shifted immeasurably. Putin made the remark–according to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who spoke to witnesses–at a private ceremony at the old KGB headquarters on the occasion of a Stalin-created holiday in honor of the secret police.

That sentence was a promise fulfilled. The heirs to the KGB, with Putin at the helm, have consolidated control of Russian political life. And that sentence is what came to mind when I read this pro-Putin screed from Stephen F. Cohen. The headline, which accurately sums up the post, is “Stop the pointless demonization of Putin.” This is the same Putin whose office today said any Russian protesters who hurt a police officer should have their “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” But Cohen has more to say, including the claim that “there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true.” But it turns out Cohen has a funny definition of the terms he uses.

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“Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed.” With that sentence, uttered by Vladimir Putin just after his election to succeed Boris Yeltsin more than a decade ago, the paradigm of Kremlin control had shifted immeasurably. Putin made the remark–according to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who spoke to witnesses–at a private ceremony at the old KGB headquarters on the occasion of a Stalin-created holiday in honor of the secret police.

That sentence was a promise fulfilled. The heirs to the KGB, with Putin at the helm, have consolidated control of Russian political life. And that sentence is what came to mind when I read this pro-Putin screed from Stephen F. Cohen. The headline, which accurately sums up the post, is “Stop the pointless demonization of Putin.” This is the same Putin whose office today said any Russian protesters who hurt a police officer should have their “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” But Cohen has more to say, including the claim that “there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true.” But it turns out Cohen has a funny definition of the terms he uses.

For example, he says “if Putin really were a ‘cold-blooded, ruthless’ autocrat, tens of thousands of protesters would not have appeared in Moscow streets, not far from the Kremlin, following the December presidential election.” First of all, Cohen should consider the possibility that tens of thousands were protesting the fact that Putin is a ruthless autocrat. But leaving that aside, by Cohen’s definition the Arab Spring was pointless. Egyptians wouldn’t have flooded Tahrir Square if Hosni Mubarak were really a ruthless autocrat. The Green Movement in Iran, too, must have looked like a parade of fools to Cohen.

It turns out, however, that Cohen has identified the real culprit for us: Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin, the stubborn and brave revolutionary who risked life and limb to put a stake in the heart of global Communism, is Cohen’s real enemy. That’s revealing in and of itself. But Cohen couches his critique of Yeltsin in terms he thinks the West would be silly enough to swallow.

It was Yeltsin who initiated the “de-democratization,” says Cohen. How? In part because he “‘privatized’ the former Soviet state’s richest assets on behalf of a small group of rapacious insiders.” Privatization is an essential component of democratization, of course. And many of the “oligarchs” made their fortunes not by cashing a check handed to them by Yeltsin but by outmaneuvering the state during the privatization process, most notably through the “loans for shares” scandal in which bankers wrested control of state assets by taking them as collateral for government loans and then rigging auctions to claim the majority of shares.

And that actually gets at the fallacy of Cohen’s comparison between Yeltsin and Putin. Cohen says Yeltsin presided over a period in which journalists were killed with impunity and corruption was rampant, and that Putin was bequeathed this as-yet-unreformed system. The difference, though, is contained in the quote above. Many of Yeltsin’s failures stemmed from his lack of control. Media magnates operated with impunity precisely because they had independence from, and often power over, Kremlin insiders. Corruption was rampant because the lightning transition left the security services in disarray and economic enforcement measures all but absent. (That’s how “loans for shares” came about in the first place; the Russian government couldn’t get anyone to pay their taxes and thus had no money to pay for the federal budget.)

This is what Putin reversed. He jailed or exiled media magnates who wouldn’t take orders. He renationalized energy firms and imprisoned their executives. He turned the Russian parliament into a virtual rubber stamp. And he empowered the FSB far beyond anyone’s imagination save his own.

As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan explain in The New Nobility, members of the security services were “left behind” in the transition after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin, however, “former and current security service agents permeated the ranks of business and government structures.” Under Putin, the security services have become, Soldatov and Borogan write:

something very different from either the Soviet secret services or the intelligence community in Western countries. In some ways the FSB most closely resembles the ruthless mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world: devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted, and unopposed to employing brutal methods against individuals and groups suspected of terrorism or dissent.

Those “brutal methods” presumably include “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” And that’s just what they’ll admit to in public. The whole purpose of the “power vertical” is that everyone is ultimately answerable to Putin. So Cohen absolves Putin of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, because he hasn’t seen the Russian police produce hard evidence of Putin’s involvement (seriously). Cohen’s Russia is the land of coincidence. And it doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny–not to mention Putin’s own account of his intentions. But if privatization is the root of the problem for Cohen, then it’s not de-democratization he’s really worried about, is it?

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RE: RE: Leftist Soccer Agony: U.S. Victory Equals Jingoism

Emanuele, I understand your enthusiasm for the sport the rest of the world calls football, but I’m a little confused by your argument that the World Cup is good because it allows liberal NPR-types who run down their own countries the rest of the year to engage in a little meaningless nationalist chest-beating. That may provide us with an interesting irony, but it can’t be considered commendable. Confusing sports with politics is bad regardless of whether it is done by totalitarians or democrats, and that is why I insist that wrapping national sports teams in the flag is sheer humbug. While Americans are, unfortunately, as vulnerable to the appeal of sports globaloney, such as the Olympics, as anyone else, for the most part, we much prefer our own team sports to international competitions, and that is all the better. Keeping those flags and nationalist sentiments, which are so easily and wrongly manipulated by tyrannies, out of the realm of sport is much to be preferred.

If, as you suggest, the success of the U.S. team in the World Cup will discourage those who root for American decline in the world, then so much the better. Let the foes of the United States tremble, whether the reason be substantial or not. But the notion you advance, that the possibility of future American dominance in soccer (a sport in which it has lagged behind principally because most Americans don’t care much about it) will illustrate the greatness of the American character, is, while flattering to our vanity, just as much of a humbug as the idea that Eastern-bloc dominance in other sports during the Cold War illustrated the superiority of communism.

Indeed, the best example of this was the “miracle on ice,” when an underdog bunch of American college ice-hockey players defeated the mighty professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. As an American hockey fan, I was thrilled by it. But the widely believed notion that it was an illustration of American greatness or, heaven help us, that it helped win the Cold War, is sheer hyperbole. It was an amazing upset — but just a hockey game. The players on the Soviet hockey team were just athletes in red uniforms, not off-duty Gulag prison guards or KGB agents being bested by all-American G.I. Joes. The outcome had nothing to do with the triumph of American values any more than the numerous defeats inflicted on American squads at other times by that magnificent Soviet team portrayed the preeminence of the totalitarian ideology of their masters in the Kremlin.

While I wish the American team well in the subsequent rounds of the World Cup and encourage our friends around the world — who care more about this game than most of us here do — to root for them if they like, let us not make the mistake of confusing sports with politics or national character. Love of country has many admirable as well as distasteful manifestations. But good or bad, it has nothing to do with soccer or any other sport.

Emanuele, I understand your enthusiasm for the sport the rest of the world calls football, but I’m a little confused by your argument that the World Cup is good because it allows liberal NPR-types who run down their own countries the rest of the year to engage in a little meaningless nationalist chest-beating. That may provide us with an interesting irony, but it can’t be considered commendable. Confusing sports with politics is bad regardless of whether it is done by totalitarians or democrats, and that is why I insist that wrapping national sports teams in the flag is sheer humbug. While Americans are, unfortunately, as vulnerable to the appeal of sports globaloney, such as the Olympics, as anyone else, for the most part, we much prefer our own team sports to international competitions, and that is all the better. Keeping those flags and nationalist sentiments, which are so easily and wrongly manipulated by tyrannies, out of the realm of sport is much to be preferred.

If, as you suggest, the success of the U.S. team in the World Cup will discourage those who root for American decline in the world, then so much the better. Let the foes of the United States tremble, whether the reason be substantial or not. But the notion you advance, that the possibility of future American dominance in soccer (a sport in which it has lagged behind principally because most Americans don’t care much about it) will illustrate the greatness of the American character, is, while flattering to our vanity, just as much of a humbug as the idea that Eastern-bloc dominance in other sports during the Cold War illustrated the superiority of communism.

Indeed, the best example of this was the “miracle on ice,” when an underdog bunch of American college ice-hockey players defeated the mighty professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. As an American hockey fan, I was thrilled by it. But the widely believed notion that it was an illustration of American greatness or, heaven help us, that it helped win the Cold War, is sheer hyperbole. It was an amazing upset — but just a hockey game. The players on the Soviet hockey team were just athletes in red uniforms, not off-duty Gulag prison guards or KGB agents being bested by all-American G.I. Joes. The outcome had nothing to do with the triumph of American values any more than the numerous defeats inflicted on American squads at other times by that magnificent Soviet team portrayed the preeminence of the totalitarian ideology of their masters in the Kremlin.

While I wish the American team well in the subsequent rounds of the World Cup and encourage our friends around the world — who care more about this game than most of us here do — to root for them if they like, let us not make the mistake of confusing sports with politics or national character. Love of country has many admirable as well as distasteful manifestations. But good or bad, it has nothing to do with soccer or any other sport.

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Re: Leveretts Revealed

In case you thought Michael Crowley may have gotten it wrong (really, could any two supposedly sophisticated people have willingly revealed themselves to be pawns of a brutal dictatorship?), or in case you thought the Leveretts really hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of shillery for the butchers of Tehran, think again. They have their own blog, a CONTENTIONS reader informs me. This particular post should be read in full, not so much for the suck-uppery for the University of Tehran or for giddy flattery bestowed on its students, who put American students to shame, tell Flynt and Hillary Mann. No, that’s sort of par for the course for the pair who find Tehran the happiest place on earth. Rather, it is this bit of jaw-dropping propaganda, putting Jane Fonda circa 1972 to shame, which deserves a gander:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

Brutal military repression? What military repression? Amir Taheri, writing recently and not under the thrall of the Tehran regime, reminded us:

The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound…

For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.

Foggy Bottom isn’t exactly home base for aggressive Iran analysis. But really, it’s well accepted at this point that the IRCG has infiltrated and is now controlling government ministries. But the Leveretts, surrounded by evil, see and hear and speak of none.

The comments below the Leveretts’ inanity are worth a read. One of the Leveretts’ readers remarks: “As far as your jab on Iran being a militarized state — only a fool would have derived at the Clinton’s comments and more importantly the actions of Sepah in the past years that what was meant was that if one drives around Tehran with a government guide s/he will see tanks and soldiers! … Are you two really analysts or politicians?” Hmm. Propagandists, I think.

UPDATE: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism and Islamism, reacts to the Leverett’s observations: “It is astonishing that people who consider themselves political scientists have concluded that the Revolutionary Guards are not in control because ‘as they drove around Tehran’ they didn’t see in many soldiers in the streets. One wonders: If they had visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and not seen members of the KGB in the streets, would they have included the USSR was not a police state?”

In case you thought Michael Crowley may have gotten it wrong (really, could any two supposedly sophisticated people have willingly revealed themselves to be pawns of a brutal dictatorship?), or in case you thought the Leveretts really hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of shillery for the butchers of Tehran, think again. They have their own blog, a CONTENTIONS reader informs me. This particular post should be read in full, not so much for the suck-uppery for the University of Tehran or for giddy flattery bestowed on its students, who put American students to shame, tell Flynt and Hillary Mann. No, that’s sort of par for the course for the pair who find Tehran the happiest place on earth. Rather, it is this bit of jaw-dropping propaganda, putting Jane Fonda circa 1972 to shame, which deserves a gander:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

Brutal military repression? What military repression? Amir Taheri, writing recently and not under the thrall of the Tehran regime, reminded us:

The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound…

For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.

Foggy Bottom isn’t exactly home base for aggressive Iran analysis. But really, it’s well accepted at this point that the IRCG has infiltrated and is now controlling government ministries. But the Leveretts, surrounded by evil, see and hear and speak of none.

The comments below the Leveretts’ inanity are worth a read. One of the Leveretts’ readers remarks: “As far as your jab on Iran being a militarized state — only a fool would have derived at the Clinton’s comments and more importantly the actions of Sepah in the past years that what was meant was that if one drives around Tehran with a government guide s/he will see tanks and soldiers! … Are you two really analysts or politicians?” Hmm. Propagandists, I think.

UPDATE: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism and Islamism, reacts to the Leverett’s observations: “It is astonishing that people who consider themselves political scientists have concluded that the Revolutionary Guards are not in control because ‘as they drove around Tehran’ they didn’t see in many soldiers in the streets. One wonders: If they had visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and not seen members of the KGB in the streets, would they have included the USSR was not a police state?”

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More Peace in Our Time

Another year brings another wintertime oil dispute between Russia and an Eastern European client. In January 2009 it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. Although oil has surged to more than $80 a barrel since the threats and counter-threats began on December 31, Russia is reassuring European customers that the dispute won’t affect their access to refined petroleum. Other concerns, however, are likely to surpass this one in the capitals of Western Europe if Russia’s career of subjugating Belarus continues at its current pace.

Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Minsk was a holdout last year against inclusion in Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), incurring painful Russian sanctions on its dairy industry with its determined resistance. But after Russia put thousands of troops in Belarus in September, for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Lukashenko changed his mind and joined the CSTO. He then committed Belarus to participation in the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), announced by Dmitry Medvedev in February 2009, as an armed counterweight to NATO. Democracy groups in Belarus oppose all these developments, taking as a given that the CRRF will be used to suppress dissent in CSTO nations. (The Belarusian KGB will, predictably, be an element of the CRRF.)

In another wearisome echo of the region’s perennial dynamics, tiny Lithuania could be effectively crippled by the current oil dispute. Lithuania closed its last 1980s-era nuclear plant on December 31 as a price of admission to the EU,and now relies for electric-power generation on Russian oil from Belarus. Foreseeing this vulnerability, Nicolas Sarkozy gamely brought up the EU’s concern about it with Medvedev in late 2008, a venture in mediation that Medvedev summarily rebuffed.

In Belarus’s eyes, however, EU leaders have done even less than that to bolster Minsk’s independence from Moscow. Granted, the EU adopted its “Eastern Partnership” initiative in May 2009, with Belarus as one of the six former-Soviet targets. But this hasn’t produced any effective EU communication on the topics of Minsk joining the CSTO in November, or Russia’s fraternal determination to form a customs union with Belarus. With both developments having substantial implications for the Partnership’s objectives – vague and underfunded though they may be – the EU’s silence on them has been more informative than its abstract policy proclamations.

I agree with Max Boot that our European allies are more resilient and resourceful than their reputation with some American pundits would indicate. But their stately-paced, ineffective responses to events in Eastern Europe suggest that they are as subject as anyone to a dangerous, bureaucratized complacency. Only one force – American military might – has ever kept Europe in stasis during periods of geopolitical perturbation like the current Russian campaign. Perhaps the unity of the EU’s major nations will survive an accelerated Russian campaign, even without the context of U.S. dominance. But we have no historical justification for believing that it will. The EU has a number of tests facing it; Russia’s peculiar concept of power and security may well be the biggest one.

Another year brings another wintertime oil dispute between Russia and an Eastern European client. In January 2009 it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. Although oil has surged to more than $80 a barrel since the threats and counter-threats began on December 31, Russia is reassuring European customers that the dispute won’t affect their access to refined petroleum. Other concerns, however, are likely to surpass this one in the capitals of Western Europe if Russia’s career of subjugating Belarus continues at its current pace.

Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Minsk was a holdout last year against inclusion in Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), incurring painful Russian sanctions on its dairy industry with its determined resistance. But after Russia put thousands of troops in Belarus in September, for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Lukashenko changed his mind and joined the CSTO. He then committed Belarus to participation in the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), announced by Dmitry Medvedev in February 2009, as an armed counterweight to NATO. Democracy groups in Belarus oppose all these developments, taking as a given that the CRRF will be used to suppress dissent in CSTO nations. (The Belarusian KGB will, predictably, be an element of the CRRF.)

In another wearisome echo of the region’s perennial dynamics, tiny Lithuania could be effectively crippled by the current oil dispute. Lithuania closed its last 1980s-era nuclear plant on December 31 as a price of admission to the EU,and now relies for electric-power generation on Russian oil from Belarus. Foreseeing this vulnerability, Nicolas Sarkozy gamely brought up the EU’s concern about it with Medvedev in late 2008, a venture in mediation that Medvedev summarily rebuffed.

In Belarus’s eyes, however, EU leaders have done even less than that to bolster Minsk’s independence from Moscow. Granted, the EU adopted its “Eastern Partnership” initiative in May 2009, with Belarus as one of the six former-Soviet targets. But this hasn’t produced any effective EU communication on the topics of Minsk joining the CSTO in November, or Russia’s fraternal determination to form a customs union with Belarus. With both developments having substantial implications for the Partnership’s objectives – vague and underfunded though they may be – the EU’s silence on them has been more informative than its abstract policy proclamations.

I agree with Max Boot that our European allies are more resilient and resourceful than their reputation with some American pundits would indicate. But their stately-paced, ineffective responses to events in Eastern Europe suggest that they are as subject as anyone to a dangerous, bureaucratized complacency. Only one force – American military might – has ever kept Europe in stasis during periods of geopolitical perturbation like the current Russian campaign. Perhaps the unity of the EU’s major nations will survive an accelerated Russian campaign, even without the context of U.S. dominance. But we have no historical justification for believing that it will. The EU has a number of tests facing it; Russia’s peculiar concept of power and security may well be the biggest one.

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Intelligence Failure

Why do intelligence agencies get things wrong? A whole catalog of factors would have to be produced to answer this question. At the top of list is the sheer difficulty of the work. Trying to piece together information about an adversary operating in secret is an inherently difficult challenge. In the face of deception, denial, and uncertainty, it is understandable that analysts at a place like the CIA sometimes get things wrong.

But one of the more common pitfalls that intelligence analysts face is their own preconceived ideas. It is remarkable how powerful a force these can be. Perhaps this is one factor explaining the bizarre language of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) flatly declaring that Iran had shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 even as the same document presents evidence that the most critical aspects of a nuclear program–the uranium-enrichment process–is humming along at steady clip at Natanz.

If this is an instance of intelligence officers clinging desperately to their ideas in the face of evidence to the contrary, it would not be the first time in the history of the CIA. A fascinating case concerns the question of whether the USSR was supporting international terrorism in the 1970’s and 80’s.

In 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig publicly and controversially asserted that the USSR was behind terrorist actions around the world. It was only after this statement that he asked the intelligence community to produce an NIE assessing his claim. This, of course, was backward; public statements by high-ranking officials should follow intelligence, not the other way around.

In any event, the task of producing the estimate fell to the Soviet division of the CIA. The full story is told in Robert Gates’s indispensable 1996 memoir, From the Shadows. “The first draft by the analysts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Haig had exaggerated the Soviet role — that the Soviet did not organize or direct international terrorism.” The NIE stated, in Gates’s summary:

that the Soviets disapproved of terrorism, discouraged the killing of innocents by groups they trained and supported, did not help free-lance third-world terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization, and under no circumstances did Moscow support the nihilist terrorist groups of Western Europe — the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction [RAF], and so on. It cited Soviet public condemnations of such groups and carefully described the distinctions the Soviets made between national liberation groups or insurgencies and groups involved in out-and-out terrorism.

This estimate made its way for approval to Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, who found it thinly sourced, improperly framed, and tendentiously argued: it had been too “narrowly focused on whether the Soviets exercised direct operational control of terrorist groups” and in Casey’s view “‘had the air of a lawyer’s plea’ that an indictment should issue because there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Disappointed by the quality of the NIE, Casey sent it back for redrafting, this time not by CIA’s Soviet division but by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. The document that emerged after a prolonged interagency wrangle was more nuanced than the original CIA draft. On the crucial question of whether the USSR had supported the nihilist terrorist groups it reported that the evidence was “thin and contradictory,” but also:

that some individuals in such groups had been trained by Soviet friends and allies that also provided them with weapons and safe transit. It also observed that the Soviets had often publicly condemned such groups and considered them uncontrollable adventurers whose activities on occasion undermined Soviet objectives It noted that some such nihilistic terrorists had found refuge in Eastern Europe.

How well did either estimate — the ultra-cautious CIA one, and the cautious DIA one — hold up?

A decade later, after Communism collapsed and the archives opened, the full picture became clear, and it was now obvious, writes Gates, that both CIA and DIA had been far wide of the mark:

[w]e found out that the East Europeans (especially the East Germans) indeed not only had provided sanctuary for West European “nihilist” terrorists, but had trained, armed, and funded many of them. (For example, during the late 1970’s — early 80’s, the East German Stasi (intelligence service) supplied the West German Red Army Faction with weapons, training, false documentation, and money. The training and weapons were put to use in the RAF car-bomb attack against Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany on August 31, 1981, which injured seventeen people. The same group was also involved in the unsuccessful rocket attack against the car of General Frederick Krosen in Heidelberg in September 1981.) It was inconceivable that the Soviets, and especially the KGB, which had these governments thoroughly penetrated, did not know and allow (if not encourage) these activities to continue. . . .

We also learned in March 1985 about a Soviet effort to target U.S. servicemen in West Germany for terrorist attacks that shocked us all. According to information from Soviet sources, Soviet agents had been assigned the task of locating dead-drop sites — places for information being transmitted to and from agents — inside bars and restaurants near American military installations in West German cities. The purpose of these sites, however was not for dead drops, but for hiding explosive devices that would be set off in a way to make them look like terrorist attacks. The sites included behind vending machines, in a ventilation cavity under a sink, in a bathroom stall over the windowsill, on a wooden beam over a lavatory, under the bottom of a paper-towel dispense, and so on. CIA  checked out fourteen of these reported sits and confirmed the existence of all but one, just as reported. And every location was filled with U.S. servicemen or dependents or was known to be frequented by U.S. and NATO servicemen. We later concluded that the targeting had been done in 1983, probably in connection with the very aggressive Soviet campaign against deployment of the INF missiles.

How was all this missed? The widespread conviction within the agency that the Soviet leaders would not do such violent things led analysts to rule out the possibility. “The same analysts who complained constantly,” writes Gates, “about the lack of good human intelligence on Soviet activities in effect argued that the absence of such reporting proved their case.” In other words, systematic bias led the CIA to produce an estimate that was the diametric reversal of reality.

If that sounds familiar, it is.

Why do intelligence agencies get things wrong? A whole catalog of factors would have to be produced to answer this question. At the top of list is the sheer difficulty of the work. Trying to piece together information about an adversary operating in secret is an inherently difficult challenge. In the face of deception, denial, and uncertainty, it is understandable that analysts at a place like the CIA sometimes get things wrong.

But one of the more common pitfalls that intelligence analysts face is their own preconceived ideas. It is remarkable how powerful a force these can be. Perhaps this is one factor explaining the bizarre language of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) flatly declaring that Iran had shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 even as the same document presents evidence that the most critical aspects of a nuclear program–the uranium-enrichment process–is humming along at steady clip at Natanz.

If this is an instance of intelligence officers clinging desperately to their ideas in the face of evidence to the contrary, it would not be the first time in the history of the CIA. A fascinating case concerns the question of whether the USSR was supporting international terrorism in the 1970’s and 80’s.

In 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig publicly and controversially asserted that the USSR was behind terrorist actions around the world. It was only after this statement that he asked the intelligence community to produce an NIE assessing his claim. This, of course, was backward; public statements by high-ranking officials should follow intelligence, not the other way around.

In any event, the task of producing the estimate fell to the Soviet division of the CIA. The full story is told in Robert Gates’s indispensable 1996 memoir, From the Shadows. “The first draft by the analysts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Haig had exaggerated the Soviet role — that the Soviet did not organize or direct international terrorism.” The NIE stated, in Gates’s summary:

that the Soviets disapproved of terrorism, discouraged the killing of innocents by groups they trained and supported, did not help free-lance third-world terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization, and under no circumstances did Moscow support the nihilist terrorist groups of Western Europe — the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction [RAF], and so on. It cited Soviet public condemnations of such groups and carefully described the distinctions the Soviets made between national liberation groups or insurgencies and groups involved in out-and-out terrorism.

This estimate made its way for approval to Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, who found it thinly sourced, improperly framed, and tendentiously argued: it had been too “narrowly focused on whether the Soviets exercised direct operational control of terrorist groups” and in Casey’s view “‘had the air of a lawyer’s plea’ that an indictment should issue because there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Disappointed by the quality of the NIE, Casey sent it back for redrafting, this time not by CIA’s Soviet division but by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. The document that emerged after a prolonged interagency wrangle was more nuanced than the original CIA draft. On the crucial question of whether the USSR had supported the nihilist terrorist groups it reported that the evidence was “thin and contradictory,” but also:

that some individuals in such groups had been trained by Soviet friends and allies that also provided them with weapons and safe transit. It also observed that the Soviets had often publicly condemned such groups and considered them uncontrollable adventurers whose activities on occasion undermined Soviet objectives It noted that some such nihilistic terrorists had found refuge in Eastern Europe.

How well did either estimate — the ultra-cautious CIA one, and the cautious DIA one — hold up?

A decade later, after Communism collapsed and the archives opened, the full picture became clear, and it was now obvious, writes Gates, that both CIA and DIA had been far wide of the mark:

[w]e found out that the East Europeans (especially the East Germans) indeed not only had provided sanctuary for West European “nihilist” terrorists, but had trained, armed, and funded many of them. (For example, during the late 1970’s — early 80’s, the East German Stasi (intelligence service) supplied the West German Red Army Faction with weapons, training, false documentation, and money. The training and weapons were put to use in the RAF car-bomb attack against Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany on August 31, 1981, which injured seventeen people. The same group was also involved in the unsuccessful rocket attack against the car of General Frederick Krosen in Heidelberg in September 1981.) It was inconceivable that the Soviets, and especially the KGB, which had these governments thoroughly penetrated, did not know and allow (if not encourage) these activities to continue. . . .

We also learned in March 1985 about a Soviet effort to target U.S. servicemen in West Germany for terrorist attacks that shocked us all. According to information from Soviet sources, Soviet agents had been assigned the task of locating dead-drop sites — places for information being transmitted to and from agents — inside bars and restaurants near American military installations in West German cities. The purpose of these sites, however was not for dead drops, but for hiding explosive devices that would be set off in a way to make them look like terrorist attacks. The sites included behind vending machines, in a ventilation cavity under a sink, in a bathroom stall over the windowsill, on a wooden beam over a lavatory, under the bottom of a paper-towel dispense, and so on. CIA  checked out fourteen of these reported sits and confirmed the existence of all but one, just as reported. And every location was filled with U.S. servicemen or dependents or was known to be frequented by U.S. and NATO servicemen. We later concluded that the targeting had been done in 1983, probably in connection with the very aggressive Soviet campaign against deployment of the INF missiles.

How was all this missed? The widespread conviction within the agency that the Soviet leaders would not do such violent things led analysts to rule out the possibility. “The same analysts who complained constantly,” writes Gates, “about the lack of good human intelligence on Soviet activities in effect argued that the absence of such reporting proved their case.” In other words, systematic bias led the CIA to produce an estimate that was the diametric reversal of reality.

If that sounds familiar, it is.

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Who is Michael J. Sulick and Does al Qaeda Have a Mole Inside the CIA?

Michael J. Sulick is the man CIA Director General Michael Hayden has put in charge of gathering HUMINT, i.e., human intelligence, i.e., old fashioned man-on-man, man-on-woman, and woman-on-man espionage.

According to Newsweek, “Sulick learned his tradecraft—the James Bond side of spying—in the old Soviet Union. Like other Western spies, he learned to follow ‘Moscow Rules,’ the rigorous countersurveillance measures used to avoid detection by the ubiquitous KGB.”

Sulick quit the agency in September 2004 in a highly public row with Porter Goss, the CIA director who ended getting chewed up by the agency’s permanent bureaucracy, readily helped along in the chewing by his own staff, one member of whom had an old shoplifting charge on his résumé.

The CIA has been repeatedly castigated for weakness in collecting HUMINT. And one root cause of its perpetual weakness is undoubtedly our national fascination with technology, which has led us to invest in hugely expensive satellite-reconnaissance systems while neglecting the relatively cheap art of recruiting spies in enemy ranks.

In the war on terrorism, HUMINT is essential. Satellites are good for tracking tanks and other masses of mobile metal, but communications-interception aside, they are far less valuable for finding out the whereabouts of an Osama bin Laden or a Genghis Khan.

But at the same time, not all HUMINT targets are the same. Soviet diplomats and KGB agents were one kind of target–many of them liked to drink, have sex, and spend money, and some even admired America—all of which made them susceptible to recruitment. Al-Qaeda cell members are something else. They do not like to drink or to admire America; whatever they might do in private with their multiple wives, they are far more puritanical in their attitude toward sex, and among suicide bombers money is seen as having little value in the world to come.

All of this makes them a hard target. And all of this raises a question: if Sulick cut his teeth playing by the “Moscow Rules,” is he the best man for the job?

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Michael J. Sulick is the man CIA Director General Michael Hayden has put in charge of gathering HUMINT, i.e., human intelligence, i.e., old fashioned man-on-man, man-on-woman, and woman-on-man espionage.

According to Newsweek, “Sulick learned his tradecraft—the James Bond side of spying—in the old Soviet Union. Like other Western spies, he learned to follow ‘Moscow Rules,’ the rigorous countersurveillance measures used to avoid detection by the ubiquitous KGB.”

Sulick quit the agency in September 2004 in a highly public row with Porter Goss, the CIA director who ended getting chewed up by the agency’s permanent bureaucracy, readily helped along in the chewing by his own staff, one member of whom had an old shoplifting charge on his résumé.

The CIA has been repeatedly castigated for weakness in collecting HUMINT. And one root cause of its perpetual weakness is undoubtedly our national fascination with technology, which has led us to invest in hugely expensive satellite-reconnaissance systems while neglecting the relatively cheap art of recruiting spies in enemy ranks.

In the war on terrorism, HUMINT is essential. Satellites are good for tracking tanks and other masses of mobile metal, but communications-interception aside, they are far less valuable for finding out the whereabouts of an Osama bin Laden or a Genghis Khan.

But at the same time, not all HUMINT targets are the same. Soviet diplomats and KGB agents were one kind of target–many of them liked to drink, have sex, and spend money, and some even admired America—all of which made them susceptible to recruitment. Al-Qaeda cell members are something else. They do not like to drink or to admire America; whatever they might do in private with their multiple wives, they are far more puritanical in their attitude toward sex, and among suicide bombers money is seen as having little value in the world to come.

All of this makes them a hard target. And all of this raises a question: if Sulick cut his teeth playing by the “Moscow Rules,” is he the best man for the job?

To Sulick’s credit, as evidenced by the talk he gave last month at the Harvard Seminar on Intelligence, Command, and Control, he has an acute understanding of what he is up against:

Unlike the Soviet Union—one large land mass—the terrorists operate in very small cells. They cross borders easily. They’re very compartmented. They screen their recruits probably better than the U.S. government does. They can work in a bank, in the real-estate industry, or for an Islamic relief organization. Basically they are less vulnerable as targets to all the other means of intelligence collection the United States has at its disposal. In the cold war, the satellites in the sky could see if Russian missiles were moving between silos or if troops were moving. The NSA was even able to intercept conversations between members of the Politburo as they traveled around Moscow in their cars. You can’t do that with terrorists. You don’t know where to point those eyes and ears in the sky unless you have a human agent—a spy—who tells you where to direct those things.

Unfortunately, though, Sulick didn’t offer much in the way of a solution beyond having the CIA and FBI work more closely with local police departments in tracking suspects in places like New York City. That’s a great idea, but it’s not the same thing as working to recruit operatives in Londonistan or Waziristan.

In part, the CIA, and Sulick himself, might be hamstrung, and traumatized, by our cold-war past. Key counterintelligence officials—Aldrich Ames in the CIA, Robert Hanssen in the FBI—were working for the other side. Could this happen again?

Sulick not only believes it’s a possibility, he’s actively troubled by it, and believes that the implications would be far graver than they were in the cold war:

What if you had somebody like Robert Hanssen working for al Qaeda? Try to imagine that! All the stuff that Hanssen and other spies gave away was in the cold war. Nobody was locked in combat. There was time to compensate, take countermeasures, for what those spies gave away. You’re not going to have that time in the war on terrorism. Imagine that you hire somebody, because you need a speaker of Farsi or Arabic, and that person is a spy. That allows the terrorists to launch attacks a lot more easily when they know what the intelligence community’s capabilities are and who their assets are. That’s my big bugaboo: the terrorist spy.

In short, we’re engaged in an intelligence war and we’re on the defensive, worried about an al-Qaeda mole in our ranks even as we are unable to place a mole in theirs.

This is not exactly an encouraging indicator of our progress in the war on terrorism. But it is difficult, for one simple reason, to be harshly critical of Sulick and the CIA: I know that I don’t know what I don’t know.

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No Investment in Repression

The Washington Post has picked up the shocking story (broken by the New York Times and mentioned in contentions last week) of China Security and Surveillance Technology. This is a company that supplies high technology tools of repression to Beijing’s secret police and whose stock is hot right now; it has also received the lion’s share of its capital from U.S. hedge funds, and is about to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Columnist Harold Meyerson tells the story in today’s edition. He estimates that “high-end surveillance equipment” which was a $500 million industry in 2003 may be worth “$43 billion . . . by 2010.”

“To be sure, leading American companies have a long and sordid record of investing in totalitarian states, including Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and axis-of-evil Iran,” Meyerson notes. “But distinguish as we must among the various levels of hell, at least those American companies did not invest in the Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, or the Revolutionary Guard. Maybe that was only because it was hard to turn a buck on the Stasi. Once China turned repression into an investment opportunity, however, capitalism responded as capitalism is supposed to respond: it wanted in. There are mega-bucks to be made, the hedge funds concluded, in hedging against democracy.”

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The Washington Post has picked up the shocking story (broken by the New York Times and mentioned in contentions last week) of China Security and Surveillance Technology. This is a company that supplies high technology tools of repression to Beijing’s secret police and whose stock is hot right now; it has also received the lion’s share of its capital from U.S. hedge funds, and is about to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Columnist Harold Meyerson tells the story in today’s edition. He estimates that “high-end surveillance equipment” which was a $500 million industry in 2003 may be worth “$43 billion . . . by 2010.”

“To be sure, leading American companies have a long and sordid record of investing in totalitarian states, including Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and axis-of-evil Iran,” Meyerson notes. “But distinguish as we must among the various levels of hell, at least those American companies did not invest in the Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, or the Revolutionary Guard. Maybe that was only because it was hard to turn a buck on the Stasi. Once China turned repression into an investment opportunity, however, capitalism responded as capitalism is supposed to respond: it wanted in. There are mega-bucks to be made, the hedge funds concluded, in hedging against democracy.”

When we set up today’s special economic relationship with China, our plan, ostensibly, was to encourage China’s embrace of freedom and democracy; unfortunately, our current relationship with China entails turning our backs on our most fundamental values. Meyerson reports that when “[a]sked about the hedge funds’ activities, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, ‘It’s not appropriate to interfere in the private decisions of Americans to invest in legally incorporated firms.'”

Not appropriate? The United States government forbids any economic relations with Cuba and other designated states—and once forbade them totally with a Communist China that has changed less, when it comes to human freedom, than some imagine. And under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act we ban bribery, kickbacks, and so forth by American firms doing business overseas—even when other, competing countries are using such tools to win contracts.

What we need now is a “Foreign Oppressive Practices Act” that would outlaw American investment in, technology transfer to, or any other cooperation or collusion with the secret police and militaries of states that are not free. Drafting such a law will not be difficult. All we need is will and leadership. Some investors and traders will squeal, yes. And China and other dictatorships will still get much of what they need from countries that do not have such rules. But equipping foreign secret police organizations is no business for the United States of America (or any other country claiming to possess democratic values). The White House should speak out clearly. The Congress should take immediate action.

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Is an al-Qaeda Nuclear Suitcase Bomb On the Way?

Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

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Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

I’ve long been skeptical that these things could be floating around. States that build nuclear weapons are well aware of their destructive potential and go to extraordinary lengths to keep them under control.

To be sure, there have been reports pointing in the other direction. In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian national security adviser, told CBS’s Sixty Minutes that the Russian military had 250 such weapons and had lost track of more than 100 of them. But was Lebed in a position to know? As James Kitfield pointed out in National Journal, other Russian authorities have asserted that the KGB was in charge of these devices, which would explain why the Russian military could not offer an accurate accounting of their numbers and whereabouts.

In his 2000 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Yossef Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” But this claim was unsourced and seems difficult to credit. Although bin Laden has openly expressed interest in getting the bomb, and also obtained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric giving him divine permission to use one against American civilians, presumably, if he already had one in the 1990’s, we would have seen or heard it go off by now.

Still, the fact that there has been some sensationalist reporting does not mean there is no reason to worry. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains a chief concern. The country hemorrhaged nuclear-weapons technology for years when its atomic-energy program was being run by A. Q. Khan, who remains a national hero. Even if Khan is no longer in the loop, other elements within the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment might well offer to supply one to al Qaeda either for cash or to earn a place in heaven.

George Tenet adds significantly to our anxieties on this score. Although there are many things wrong with his recent memoir—and I point out some of them in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) —what he writes about this problem seems credible. Immediately after September 11, it turns out, the U.S. government was uncertain whether or not al Qaeda already had such a device:

In late November 2001, I briefed the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser on the latest intelligence. . . . I brought along with me my WMD chief, Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, and Kevin K., our most senior WMD terrorism analyst. During the ensuing conversation, the Vice President asked if we thought al Qaeda had a nuclear weapon. Kevin replied, “Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qaeda nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can’t assure you that they don’t.”

Tenet continues for many pages laying out precise intelligence about al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and from Russia. Whatever his flaws as a CIA director, Tenet was in a position to know all that can be known about this issue. His memoirs show that we do have reason to be afraid. But we shouldn’t be quivering in our boots. Rather, even as we work to avert a disastrous vacuum from forming in Iraq, we should be prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and allied Islamic terrorists with a vigor commensurate with what is at stake.

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Ignorance, Not Bliss

During the cold war, the American public often recoiled from the possibility that the Soviet Union might be behind some outrage too horrific to ignore. A lot of people understandably didn’t want to know if the KGB was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of the Pope. (Note to conspiracy-mongers: I am not saying that the Soviet secret service was responsible for either dastardly deed, but there was certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing that way, at least in the latter case.) After all, if the Soviets were to blame, what were we prepared to do about it? If the answer was nothing, perhaps ignorance was a rational choice.

That seems to be the dominant American attitude these days toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ever since 1979, the radical mullahs who control Tehran have been waging covert war on the United States and our allies, and we have scarcely responded. Especially now, when we are mired deep in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans and especially most of our politicians would seemingly prefer not to focus on actions that might embroil us with war on another front.

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During the cold war, the American public often recoiled from the possibility that the Soviet Union might be behind some outrage too horrific to ignore. A lot of people understandably didn’t want to know if the KGB was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of the Pope. (Note to conspiracy-mongers: I am not saying that the Soviet secret service was responsible for either dastardly deed, but there was certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing that way, at least in the latter case.) After all, if the Soviets were to blame, what were we prepared to do about it? If the answer was nothing, perhaps ignorance was a rational choice.

That seems to be the dominant American attitude these days toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ever since 1979, the radical mullahs who control Tehran have been waging covert war on the United States and our allies, and we have scarcely responded. Especially now, when we are mired deep in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans and especially most of our politicians would seemingly prefer not to focus on actions that might embroil us with war on another front.

Yet that kind of ignorance becomes harder to preserve in light of fresh evidence of Iranian aggression. Just today, Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner, the chief spokesman for U.S. military forces in Iraq, revealed new links between the Iranian government and the attack on an Iraqi government compound in the city of Karbala on January 20, an attack that resulted in the deaths of five American soldiers. As reported by Michael Gordon of the New York Times:

[Bergner] said that interrogations of Qais Khazali, a Shiite militant who oversaw Iranian-supported cells in Iraq and who was captured several months ago along with another militant, Laith Khazali, his brother, showed that Iran’s Quds force helped plan the operation.

Similar information was obtained following the capture of a senior Hezbollah operative, Ali Musa Daqduq, General Bergner said. The capture of Mr. Daqduq had remained secret until today.

Both Ali Musa Daqduq and Qais Khazali state that senior leadership within the Quds force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack that killed five coalition soldiers, General Bergner said.

Documents seized from Qais Khazali, General Bergner said, showed that Iran’s Quds Force provided detailed information on the activities of American soldiers in Karbala, including shift changes and the defenses at the site.

More generally, General Bergner added, Iran’s Quds Force has been using Lebanese Hezbollah as a “proxy” or “surrogate” in training and equipping Shiite militants in Iraq.

When presented in the past with evidence of Iranian involvement in the Karbala raid—or in the far more frequent and deadly use of explosively-formed penetrators against American armored vehicles—apologists for the Iranian regime have questioned whether the mullahs were aware of what their own security forces were up to. This is a bit reminiscent of what Nazi apologists used to say—that surely Adolf Hitler could not have known what the SS and Gestapo were up to. That pretense becomes harder and harder to sustain in the case of Iran. The Times account concludes:

Our intelligence reveals that the senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity, [Bergner] said. When he was asked if Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be unaware of the activity, General Bergner said that would be hard to imagine.

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Do Not Bluff

Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

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Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

In addition to the CIA’s Family Jewels, which are stealing all the headlines, astonishing cold-war documents—the CEASAR, POLO, and ESAU papers—have been declassified by the spy agency in the last few days. The flood of information summons to mind a peculiarity of the Aldrich Ames espionage case. Ames was promoted repeatedly within the CIA’s counterintelligence division while actually working as a Soviet and then a Russian spy until his arrest in 1994.

Ames and the American agents he betrayed were used to convey disinformation to the United States. The KGB employed this devious channel to create the impression that the USSR’s military prowess was stronger than it actually was. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized the gist of the disinformation campaign, it was designed to create “the effect that the Soviet colossus was growing in economic strength and military might and spoiling for a confrontation with the decadent and divided West.”

Moynihan, writing in 1996, was vastly overstating what the USSR was up to, but he was pointing in the right direction. The CIA’s own review, prepared by a Damage Assessment Team [DAT], put the matter in more measured terms. Ames’s activities, it stated:

facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in “perception management operations” by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge. Although the extent and success of this effort cannot now be determined with certainty, we know that some of this information did reach senior decision-makers of the United States. . . .

it is very likely that the KGB, and later the SVR [the KGB successor organization], sought to influence U.S. decision-makers by providing controlled information designed to affect R&D [research and development] and procurement decisions of the Department of Defense. The DAT believes one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.

So the fact remains that, at least to some degree, the Kremlin was bluffing. But as both the Soviet leaders and Saddam were to find out, this was not a smart strategy.

In the Soviet case, perceptions of Moscow’s military might helped to sustain a U.S. counter-buildup, which the USSR could not compete against without straining itself to the breaking point. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it broke.

Saddam Hussein, for his part, got himself into a shooting war that he rapidly lost, and he soon found himself hiding for his life in the basement of a hut.

A cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: some authoritarian regimes have a desperate desire to appear strong, even if it means exaggerating their capabilities and risking a tougher or more vigorous response from their enemies.

A second cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: not every authoritarian regime is always bluffing. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran, for example, is bluffing about its growing nuclear program.

A third cautionary conclusion is for foreign dictators: when dealing with the United States, it is generally not smart to bluff.

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Weekend Reading

Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.

“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.

The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.

It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.

Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie Fiedler

Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Irving Younger

Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Michael Ledeen

Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric Breindel

Hiss: Guilty as Charged
Sam Tanenhaus

Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.

“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.

The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.

It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.

Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie Fiedler

Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Irving Younger

Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Michael Ledeen

Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric Breindel

Hiss: Guilty as Charged
Sam Tanenhaus

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