Laying out an innovative strategy to counter and deter Kremlin subversion, the Center for Security Policy provided NATO countries with a new way to provide common defense against Moscow’s “hybrid threats.”
Center Vice President J Michael Waller told the thousand or so participants at the Riga Conference that NATO should “map out and exploit the vulnerabilities” of the Putin regime, the Russian gangster-state, and even the Russian Federation itself as non-military ways to defend against the Kremlin’s unconventional forms of aggression.
Those forms of aggression include subversion, disinformation and propaganda, and cyberwarfare. In its present structure and function, NATO has few defenses against hybrid warfare.
Waller also addressed Islamist subversion in the West, saying that when nations deny the truth about jihadist networks and attacks as they did after a truck attack on children across the Baltic Sea in Sweden, they deny Western values.
Participants at the annual Riga Conference included civilian and military officials from NATO member countries, Austria, Belarus, Communist China, Finland, Georgia, India, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries; as well as leaders of Russia’s internal opposition to the Putin regime.
Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis kicked off the two-day event in Riga. The small Baltic republic has taken the lead within NATO to develop unconventional, non-military defenses against Russian subversion.
“Latvia’s contribution to the alliance is important and unique,” Waller said. “It is a very small country with very limited means, and a front-line NATO member with a fresh memory of Kremlin occupation. It sees the world very differently than we do, and has low-cost, high-impact solutions that we Americans tend to overlook.”
The Latvian Transatlantic Organization, the Latvian Ministry of Defense, and the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored September 28 and 29 conference.
Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmannis and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics invited Waller as the final speaker.
Waller shared the panel with Latvian State Secretary of Defense Janis Garisons, Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik, and Earl Howe, Minister of State for Defence of the United Kingdom.
Syrian jihadists belonging to al-Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) oppose a Turkish-Russian agreement to establish a demilitarized buffer zone around the country’s Idlib province. This area in northwestern Syria remains the last area west of the Euphrates River outside the control of the Assad regime and its allies. HTS and other smaller rival jihadist factions dominate the province.
President Trump warned Bashar al-Assad earlier this month not to invade the province, saying it would be a “human tragedy.” Clashes seemed imminent between Russia, Syria, Iran and the jihadists and triggered fears that millions of additional refugees might flood into Turkey.
Had Assad’s troops intervened, they also could have risked accidental clashes with Turkish troops stationed in Idlib. Turkey promised to crackdown on HTS and other jihadists. Numerous Uighur and Chechen foreign fighters are in the province.
An HTS commander who identified himself as “Abu al-Fath al-Fergali” told the Syrian news website Enab Baladi that surrendering his weapon would be “treason” to his religion.
Zaid al-Attar, former head of HTS’s political office, also rejected disarming because fighting provided “the only guarantee to the realization of the revolution’s aims of attaining dignity and freedom.” HTS’s enemies only understand force, he said.
HTS has a high-stakes game ahead of it to keep from splintering. If it looks too weak, it could lose fighters to groups that are even more hard line such as the remnants of ISIS and al-Qaida’s current affiliate Hurras al-Deen.
Turkey warned HTS and other jihadist groups they should disband or face elimination. Thus far, HTS has resisted those calls. The Assad regime has used HTS’s existence as an excuse for carrying out a scorched earth policy.
The Turks and Russians plan to use drones to patrol the buffer area. Rebel groups that cooperate with Turkey and Russia will not be attacked, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said.
Stratfor predicts that the Assad regime and Iran could also eventually challenge the deal because they are motivated to weaken Russia’s relationship with Turkey.
Smoke rising over Hobeit village, near Idlib, after a Syrian forces strike | Photo: AP
Offensive on rebel stronghold called off, they will have to leave Idlib by mid-October, Russian, Turkish officials say • Turkish leader says deal aims to avert humanitarian crisis • Syria’s U.N. envoy: Syrian government is prepared to fight rebels.
Russian and Turkish troops are to enforce a new demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of next month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart.
Russia, the biggest outside backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the seven-year conflict, has been preparing for an offensive on the city of Idlib, which is controlled by rebels and now home to about 3 million people.
But after Putin’s talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has opposed a military operation against the rebels in Idlib, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there would not be an offensive now.
Erdogan, who had feared another cross-border exodus of Syrian refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, said the deal would allow opposition supporters to stay where they were, and avert a humanitarian crisis.
Putin told a joint news conference with Erdogan: “We agreed that by Oct. 15 [we will] create along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops a demilitarized zone of a depth of 15-20 kilometers [9-12 miles], with the withdrawal from there of radically minded rebels, including the Nusra Front.
“By Oct. 10, at the suggestion of the Turkish president, [we agreed] on the withdrawal from that zone of the heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars of all opposition groups. The demilitarized zone will be monitored by mobile patrol groups of Turkish units and units of Russian military police,” Putin said, with Erdogan standing alongside him.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Monday
Neither Putin nor Erdogan explained how they planned to differentiate “radically minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate until 2016.
Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the National Front for Liberation.
“With this agreement, we have precluded experiencing a large humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan said.
“The opposition will continue to remain in the areas where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion,” he said.
Ahead of the trip to Russia, Erdogan had said Turkey’s calls for a cease-fire in Idlib region were bearing fruit after days of relative calm but that more work needed to be done.
Putin this month publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a cease-fire there when the two met along with Iran’s president for a three-way summit in Tehran.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador said Monday that Damascus was committed to “liberate it [Idlib] from terrorism and foreign occupation,” adding that there is no de-escalation zone in rebel-held Idlib because “armed groups refused to dissociate themselves from terrorist groups.”
Bashar Ja’afari told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that “the situation is as it is now in Idlib because the countries sponsoring terrorism do not want to distinguish between terrorists and armed opposition.”
Ja’afari said, “Those who facilitated the entry of foreign terrorist fighters into my country, especially the Turkish government, still have a chance to remove them from Idlib province.”
But he warned that “in case the armed terrorist groups refuse to lay down weapons, refuse to leave Syrian territory to go back to where they came from, the Syrian government is prepared.”
Ja’afari said Syria is aware of the humanitarian consequences that might result and “we take all precautions and preparations to protect civilians, to provide safe passage for them to leave, just as we have done in similar situations.”
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani (left) and Russian president Vladimir Putin at a ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, April 4, 2018. (Tolga Bozoglu/Pool/Reuters)
This week brought signs that the deeply flawed status quo of U.S.-Turkish relations has begun to crack.
For successive administrations, inertia may have kept the flawed status quo of U.S.–Turkey relations in place, but the train appears finally to be running out of track. It was bound to happen eventually, regardless of the Trump administration’s just-announced decision to impose sanctions on two Turkish cabinet officials in response to Turkey’s continued detention of an American pastor. And now it has: The final version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House last week and is set to come to a vote in the Senate in August, contains a handful of provisions that take aim at Turkey, which is officially a NATO ally but has come to resemble a “frenemy” at best over the past decade.
At issue is Turkey’s plan to simultaneously purchase two weapons systems that would have long-term strategic implications for the United States and its most loyal allies. The Senate version of the NDAA contains a provision calling for Turkey to be sanctioned if it completes the purchase of Russia’s S-400 long-range air- and missile-defense system. Another provision directs the Pentagon to submit a plan to Congress to remove Turkey from participation in the F-35 Lightning II program, effectively barring Ankara from receiving the top-of-line U.S-manufactured joint-strike fighter. The House version, for its part, would halt all weapons sales to Turkey until the Pentagon analyzes the worsening tensions between the two nations.
Turkey’s desire to acquire both the F-35 and the S-400 has rightfully set off alarm bells in Washington and beyond, because the two systems were designed by fierce adversaries to counteract each other. Despite having its share of critics, the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet with stealth capabilities is considered by many to be the best multi-role combat aircraft in the world. In the other corner, the Russia-made S-400 is the most advanced air-defense system in use. It would pose a significant challenge to the air capabilities of the U.S. and its allies — including those that fly the F-35.
The problem isn’t merely the fact that Turkey is purchasing a surface-to-air-missile (SAM) system from Russia. Unlike the Patriot SAM system that Ankara rejected, the S-400 doesn’t integrate within NATO’s military architecture. Meanwhile, Israel continues to highlight the Patriot’s ability to tackle a diverse array of targets. This leads observers to question why Turkey would pursue a deal with Russia (or even China) at the expense of its supposed allies, especially if doing so wouldn’t boost NATO’s collective air defenses.
Indeed, while the S-400 wouldn’t play nice with the rest of NATO’s missile-defense systems, it would undoubtedly have more than a sympathetic ear for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. For instance, Russia’s S-400 radar can act as a platform to collect electronic and signal intelligence from the F-35, which is a problem that could threaten the entire F-35 fleet. By operating both systems together, Turkey could test and share information about the limitations or advantages of each. That is valuable intelligence it might choose to share with its newfound partners in Moscow and Tehran rather than with NATO. The result would be an optimized S-400 system able to detect aircraft from an even greater range, with a deeper understanding of how the top-shelf U.S. fighter plane operates.
The problem is not just theoretical, either. It is an immediate operational concern in Syria, where the U.S. is engaged with the Islamic State in the east, Israel is enforcing its red lines regarding Iran in the center and to the west, and the relentless air campaign mounted by Russia and Assad has combined with frequent Iranian air shipments of fighters and military equipment to further crowd the country’s airspace. Given such conditions, the type of air assets and aerial-defense systems at issue here can often be a determining factor in the success of any mission.
Take the F-35. Israel already purchased the aircraft as an upgrade to its aging fleet of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. In May, Israel Air Force (IAF) commander Major General Amikam Norkin disclosedthat the aircraft had already participated in two airstrikes over the Middle East, making Israel the first country to operate an F-35 in combat, just as it was the first to use the F-15 in 1979. But while Israel is now relying on the F-35 for air superiority in Syria, Russia has brought in the S-400 system to protect its expanded Khmeimim airbase along the coast. Why, you ask, did Russia feel compelled to bring in its world-class air-defense system if it was operating against terrorist groups that didn’t even have aircraft? The answer lies in Turkey.
A few months after Russia decisively entered the Syrian war in 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 that allegedly crossed into its airspace. Russia’s solution was to deploy the S-400 in addition to the already-formidable S-300. Both are weapons systems that Israel considers “game-changing,” but since they are operated by Russia — not Assad’s or Iran’s forces — Israel has been forced to work with Moscow in reaching an understanding on its red lines, in addition to maintaining its active de-confliction lines.
Preventing the transfer of such systems to Iran or Israel’s enemies in Syria and Lebanon is a priority for the IAF, which has mounted, by some estimates, over 100 one-off airstrikes in Syria for just that purpose. Notably, in one of three aerial attacks this year on the T-4 airbase deep inside Syria, Israel destroyed a soon-to-be-unpacked “Third Khordad” aerial-defense system, an Iranian version of Russia’s S-300. Iran received this technology when it purchased and tested the S-300 from Russia following the implementation of the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement. It is believed to be currently deployed around the hardened Fordow nuclear facility in Qom. Clearly, both the U.S. and Israel have an interest in minimizing the number of advanced Russian SAM sites guarding Iranian and Syrian assets in case a military showdown over Iran’s nuclear program becomes a necessity.
This congested military dance over Syria is taking place alongside a flurry of recent diplomatic activity in which all concerned parties are plowing a path to Putin. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the Russian leader in late July, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa, to further their cooperation as they prepare to violate the last of four de-escalation zones they created last year. And days before the Helsinki summit in which President Trump and President Putin discussed Syria, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu again met with Putin to impress upon him the need to push Iran out of the country. Short of that, which remains unlikely, Israel hopes to at least keep Russia and the S-400 on the sidelines as it continues to target Iranian assets.
While far from ideal from Israel’s perspective, on an operational level this delicate balance in Syria has worked out for the Jewish state. For instance, on July 22, Israel targeted a military complex north of Masyaf, which is located less than five miles from Russia’s S-400. Hardly a peep was heard from Moscow.
Instead, the most bellicose voice these days comes from Ankara, which is seeking its own advantage over its neighbors and beyond. Erdogan recently slammed the U.S. for asking Turkey to comply with sanctions against Iran, because he considers the regime in Tehran to be Turkey’s “strategic partner.”
Indeed, Erdogan has even picked up some negotiating pointers from Tehran, such as how to use Western hostages as bargaining chips. Andrew Brunson, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina, was arrested in Turkey in 2016, during the regime’s crackdown on journalists, academics, and Christian minorities. He was released on house arrest last Wednesday, but Erdogan won’t let him go free. Another wrinkle in the story developed over the weekend when it came to light that as part of a trade for the pastor’s release, President Trump asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to release a Turkish national arrested earlier in July on terrorism-related charges. Netanyahu complied the following day, but Erdogan failed to hold up his end of the deal. As a result, the Trump administration decided to sanction Turkey’s justice and interior ministers.
It was not exactly the message one would expect to hear from the Turkish president if he were trying to gain favor in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Then again, this is a man who dispatched his security detail to brutally assault peaceful demonstrators in Washington, D.C., last year, while he watched from his limo. The problem runs far deeper than that case or the matter of Brunson, but if such behavior is any indication of what the future holds, there’s little reason for the U.S. to afford Turkey any kind of preferential treatment.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, the state has become a revisionist power with imperial ambitions that include re-creating a version of the Ottoman Empire based on the Muslim Brotherhood model. In this sense, he has far more in common with Vladimir Putin, who seeks to redraw the map of Europe in the service of his vision of “Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” as Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called it.
Erdogan isn’t subtle about his preferences. Whenever he has seen an opportunity to exploit the weakness of a U.S. ally, he has taken advantage, whether it was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood against the Egyptian people or siding with Qatar when the Gulf States had isolated the kingdom. He is downright hostile to Greece and Cyprus, even as he cozies up to Russia, Iran, and China. And, of course, he remains a vocal and major financial supporter of Hamas and never misses an opportunity to liken Israelis to Nazis as he vies for leadership of the Middle East’s anti-Israel powers.
In that sense it isn’t just the thought of the F-35 and the S-400 parked together in a Turkish hangar that should have Washington worried; it’s everything about the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Erdogan’s drift away from NATO’s core values has become an unobstructed stampede toward brutish authoritarianism. He now behaves as an amateur Mafia boss demanding protection money for the damages he causes. The recent episode with Pastor Brunson is just par for the course, not an aberration or passing episode. Moreover, it is rather illustrative: A true ally such as Israel accedes to a U.S. request even when it receives little in return. Reneging on a hostage negotiation while openly courting America’s enemies is adversarial behavior.
So a reevaluation of the relationship is long overdue, and Washington should take the time now to get it right. As long as Turkey continues to prioritize its temporary alliances with Russia and Iran over its relationship with NATO, the U.S. should downgrade its ties and take its own punitive measures. That means the F-35 should be off the table for the foreseeable future and a cost, perhaps in additional sanctions, should be associated with Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400. We cannot afford to reward Ankara’s bad behavior, nor to risk the security of America’s allies and the delicate balance of power that exists over Syria.
MATTHEW RJ BRODSKY — — Matthew RJ Brodsky is a senior fellow at the Security Studies Group in Washington, D.C. and the co-author of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies study, “Controlled Chaos: The Escalation of Conflict between Israel and Iran in War-Torn Syria.”@rjbrodsky
A former CIA station chief in Moscow is worried that top former intelligence agency officials John Brennan and James Clapper are doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bidding, when they sound off about their Russia collusion theories without verifying the facts.
The former CIA director and former director of National Intelligence have both been fanning the flames on the notion that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials in order to steal the election away from Hillary Clinton on cable TV and in various media interviews. As a result, the White House threatened to revoke security clearances from these men and a few others for misusing their access to top secret documents to promote their own agenda.
Former CIA case officer Daniel Hoffman, who was stationed in Moscow, told Real Clear Investigates that Brennan and Clapper are doing Putin’s bidding when they speculate without facts.
“In Brennan’s case that Putin could blackmail Trump, and in Clapper’s that the Kremlin’s interference swung the election to Trump,” Hoffman said. “Senior intelligence officers should know we speculate at our own peril.”
“While they get a favorable response from the ‘Amen’ chorus of Trump opponents, we should also consider the risk they are taking of feeding Trump’s speculation they were partisan officials who sought to do him harm,” he said.
Former CIA chief of station Daniel Hoffman on how Russia has undermined Americans’ faith in the U.S. political system.
Foreign spies from China, Russia, and Iran are conducting aggressive cyber operations to steal valuable U.S. technology and economic secrets, according to a U.S. counterintelligence report.
The report by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a DNI counterspy unit, concludes China is among the most aggressive states engaged in stealing U.S. proprietary information as part of a government-directed program.
Artificial intelligence and the internet of things are giving adversaries new tools for cyber spying, the report said.
Key technologies under cyber attack from foreign economic spies are related to the energy, biotechnology, defense, environmental protection, high-end manufacturing, and information and communications industries.
“China’s cyberspace operations are part of a complex, multipronged technology development strategy that uses licit and illicit methods to achieve its goals,” the report says.
“Chinese companies and individuals often acquire U.S. technology for commercial and scientific purposes,” the report states. “At the same time, the Chinese government seeks to enhance its collection of U.S. technology by enlisting the support of a broad range of actors spread throughout its government and industrial base.”
The report warned that the problem is continuing and urged greater efforts to counter Chinese cyber economic spying.
“We believe that China will continue to be a threat to U.S. proprietary technology and intellectual property through cyber-enabled means or other methods,” the report said. “If this threat is not addressed, it could erode America’s long-term competitive economic advantage.”
Among the methods used for the Chinese economic espionage program are traditional spies attached to the Ministry of State Security and military intelligence offices as well as a wide range of non-traditional spies.
Those include some of the 350,000 Chinese students currently studying in the United States, along with Chinese engaged in business.
Beijing also uses joint ventures between Chinese and U.S. companies, research partnerships with laboratories and other research centers, the purchase of American companies, front companies, and the use of Chinese laws that seek to force American companies operating in China to provide trade secrets.
Chinese economic spying is continuing despite a promise by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in September 2015 not to engage in commercial spying. The level of cyber economic espionage, however, by China has been lower since the accord, the report said.
Security experts have identified Chinese economic espionage targeting of engineering, telecommunications, and aerospace companies.
Beijing cyber spies also hacked the popular CCleaner app that was used by China to target Google, Microsoft, Intel, and VMwar.
A Chinese hacker dubbed KeyBoy last year began conducting cyber spying operations against western corporations, and another group, TEMP.Periscope conducted cyber attacks on the maritime industry and research and academic organizations.
The security firm FireEye said “sharp increases” in Chinese cyber attacks were detected in early 2018.
“Most Chinese cyber operations against U.S. private industry that have been detected are focused on cleared defense contractors or IT and communications firms whose products and services support government and private sector networks worldwide,” the report said.
The report concluded the economic spying poses a strategic threat to the United States advanced research and technology.
“China, Russia, and Iran stand out as three of the most capable and active cyber actors tied to economic espionage and the potential theft of U.S. trade secrets and proprietary information,” says the 20-page report, noting that other states with closer U.S. ties also are using cyber espionage.
“Despite advances in cybersecurity, cyber espionage continues to offer threat actors a relatively low-cost, high-yield avenue of approach to a wide spectrum of intellectual property.”
Russian economic espionage also threatens U.S. technology as Moscow seeks to bolster an economy hit hard by international sanctions and what the report said is “endemic corruption, state control, and a loss of talent departing for jobs abroad.”
“An aggressive and capable collector of sensitive U.S. technologies, Russia uses cyberspace as one of many methods for obtaining the necessary know-how and technology to grow and modernize its economy,” the report said.
Russia uses intelligence penetrations of public and private enterprises to obtain sensitive technical secrets. Commercial and academic exchanges also are used for spying, along with recruitment of Russian immigrants in the United States who have technical skills.
“Russian intelligence services have conducted sophisticated and large-scale hacking operations to collect sensitive U.S. business and technology information,” the report said.
The report said the Department of Homeland Security in September 2017 ordered federal agencies to remove security software from Russia’s Kaspersky Lab over concerns the software could be used by cyber espionage.
The Iranians are a growing cyber economic espionage threat, according to the report.
“The loss of sensitive information and technologies not only presents a significant threat to U.S. national security,” the report said. “It also enables Tehran to develop advanced technologies to boost domestic economic growth, modernize its military forces, and increase its foreign sales.”
Under a section on emerging threats, the report states that cyber spies are infiltrating software supply chain networks and using the compromised software for spying operations.
“Our goal in releasing this document is simple: to provide U.S. industry and the public with the latest unclassified information on foreign efforts to steal U.S. trade secrets through cyberspace,” said the center director, William R. Evanina.
“Building an effective response to this tremendous challenge demands understanding economic espionage as a worldwide, multi-vector threat to the integrity of both the U.S. economy and global trade.”
BILL GERTZ, Senior editor at the Washington Free Beacon, Inside the Ring columnist at the Washington Times, Author of iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (2016):
What is the benign China policy?
Implications of the massive Chinese intelligence collection in the United States
President Obama’s verbal threat to Vladimir Putin to “cut out” the hacking or face the consequences months prior to the 2016 presidential election only reinforced a lesson learned going back to the days of George Kennan’s containment strategy: Deterring the Kremlin requires action, not just words alone.
It’s a lesson we would do well to keep at the forefront as President Trump and Putin continue their attempted rapprochement.
In Helsinki last week, Putin sought to elevate Russia to the same stature as the United States. He wants to soil U.S. soft power by linking it with Russia’s KGB authoritarianism, thereby ensuring that our allies and Russian human rights advocates threatening Putin’s regime security do not derive inspiration from the United States as a beacon of freedom, liberty and democracy.
Second, Putin wanted to drive a wedge between the United States and our allies. Under the guise of Soviet-style “collaboration,” Putin emphasized the United States could not solve any of the world’s problems without Russia, especially the ones Putin himself exacerbated, such as Syria. Putin wants to entangle U.S. and European foreign policy with Russia to dilute and distort NATO’s influence.
Nothing scares Putin more than neighboring Ukraine, an aspiring NATO and European Union member with a sizable Russian-speaking population and commitment to democracy. Alarmed over the Trump administration’s provision of Javelin anti-tank weapons to Kiev, with whom Russia is at war, Putin wants the United States to be perceived as Russia’s global partner to degrade the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.
Third, Putin wants to soil our democracy. He holds a black belt in Judo, a key principle of which is to use an opponent’s strength against them. Our core strength as a country derives from the First Amendment, freedom of the press, liberty and our democratic institutions. We are inherently vulnerable to influence operations, including disinformation, which quickly gain traction in our free and open cyberspace.
Make no mistake, Putin is ruthlessly focused on shaping our political discourse and stimulating partisan bickering by simultaneously supporting extreme, antithetical positions.
There was no better example of this tactic than the Kremlin bots staging simultaneous post-election rallies in favor of Trump and protesting Trump’s election. Putin deliberately left a trail of breadcrumbs and a Kremlin return address during intrusions in our cyberspace because he knows he can most effectively soil our institutions by adding a measure of conspiracy and association with Russia.
The even bigger prize for Putin would be to fracture the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, under whose leadership the United States ended the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union — to Putin, the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in the 20th century.
Last week, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said Russia was the “most aggressive foreign actor” whose cyber threats were “blinking red.” Having missed an opportunity in Finland, President Trump now should publicly announce that we know Russia interfered in our 2016 elections and will make Russia pay a price for continuing what national security adviser John Bolton rightly called an “act of war.” If Russia does interfere in the 2018 midterms, then the United States can take the serious countermeasures that the National Security Agency and Cyber Command have discussed to deter future attacks.
Simply put, Vladimir Putin hates Democrats and Republicans. For Putin, a KGB operative and former Director of Russia’s infamous Federal Security Service (FSB), all of us are the Kremlin’s “Main Enemy.”
We need President Trump to deliver a direct and unambiguous warning to Putin. This might be his last, best chance to induce a change in Russia’s behavior, and unite the Congress and our nation in collective defense before the next Russian cyber onslaught.
Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He reported on the Trump-Putin summit from Helsinki for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
As most of the President’s men and women in senior roles re-iterated and even provided more detail about the Russian threat to U.S. national security in the days following the Helsinki summit, the President tasked his national security advisor to extend an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the White House to continue the dialogue that was started seven days ago.
Meanwhile, the President’s top-serving intelligence and law enforcement leaders rolled out detailed explanations of the threat, including a report released late last week by the Department of Justice that addressed what specific actions the DOJ is taking to address cyber threats.
Former CIA Chief of Station Dan Hoffman talks about the real threat and where the government’s focus should remain while the President sends a different message.
The Cipher Brief: What should the focus of the Intelligence Community be while the President is inviting Putin for a visit to the U.S.?
Hoffman: The first thing I’d say about the Intelligence Community is that there is a flow of intelligence from the IC to the President. The CIA does all-source analysis that informs the President’s decisions. But the IC also relies on policy makers to share what the policy is.
There were countless times when I was serving in senior positions in our headquarters when the director, or the acting director would come back from a meeting downtown and brief us on what was going on so that we would be in the know, and to help us understand what the requirements were for intelligence collection, because at the end of the day, the intelligence community is requirements driven. We send requirements out to the field, with our HUMINT (human intelligence) collectors and foreign sources to collect on what the policy makers, starting with the President, require. So, the first area of concern, and I think it’s reflected in some of the public polling about the way people feel about the Helsinki summit, is that there has been no definitive, detailed statement yet from this administration about what took place. Right now, we’ve ceded the post-summit discourse to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. The President said he didn’t want anyone with him because he was concerned about leaks. If I allow myself to be a little bit presumptuous, if I had been asked I would have said, “Mr. President the biggest concern about leaks is that they end up in Vladimir Putin’s hands. You’re in the room with him, the last thing you need to worry about is leaks.
The second thing about the summit is that we have about four areas of concern. One is on Ukraine and the idea that Putin had floated a resolution there where there would be a referendum to deal with pro-Russian separatists. And that is not something that the U.S. government would support, and the Russians got their answer this week when Secretary James Mattis approved $200 Million dollars in security cooperation assistance in the form of advisors and equipment and training for Ukraine. So, we’re standing by Ukraine, and standing by their independence, but I didn’t hear the President make any public statement about that. We don’t know what he said to Putin privately and that’s important to know.
Another issue is Syria, where there was apparently some discussion about a resolution in Syria whereby the U.S. and Israel might together not oppose Assad taking control of the country, including the area around the Golan Heights. The risk there is that I don’t think we can rely on Russia to have any influence over Iran, or Syria not in that sense, and I’d be concerned with any strategic alliance with Russia based on the fact that they’ve been complicit, and in alliance with Syria and have enabled Assad to commit crimes against humanity. The Russians have never had our interests at heart in Syria. They lied to Secretary Kerry when they said there wasn’t a military solution in Syria, when they went ahead shortly thereafter and imposed one. And it certainly didn’t turn out to be the quagmire that President Obama warned it would be for Russia. It’s really been the key that’s unlocked their resurgent leverage in the Middle East. I think the best we can hope for there is the sort of tactical collaboration of the sort we saw recently in Helsinki when General Joseph Dunford met with Russian Army Chief of Staff Gerasimov and talked about de-conflicting military operations, which is good to do. But strategic partnership, not a chance.
Another area of concern is Putin’s odd proposal to allow the Muller team to go to Russia and interview the 12 GRU Military Intelligence Officers, and in turn the Russians would get to have their turn with Ambassador McFaul, and Bill Browder. Browder’s not even an American citizen, and there is no extradition treaty with Russia and the fact that we’d even come close to equating the rule of law in the U.S., with this warped KGB authoritarianism that exists in Russia is not only wildly disconcerting to any of us who lived in Russia, but really quite dangerous. So those are three areas where we have some concern and I wish the administration would have come out and spoken out about those, and anything else that was discussed in the summit.
The last, and fourth area of concern is related to Russia’s cyber intrusions, and I don’t like to use the word meddle, meddle is too soft. We’ve gotten in this habit of saying they are meddling in our affairs, they’re not meddling they are influencing, they are intruding into our cyberspace with espionage purpose. So I think we should be careful to call it what it is, and raise some alarm bells. This week, the National Security Agency, and Cyber Command talked about taking counter-measures in cyberspace against Russia but before you do that, what you really need is for the President to warn Putin. That’s what deterrence is all about. The aggrieved parties, publicly state “if you cross this red line, we will take action.”
The Cipher Brief: But that’s clearly not the President’s strategy, so from a realists perspective, what now?
Hoffman: Right, so he didn’t do that, and so what Putin knows is that the U.S. intelligence community is preparing counter-measures. But when we take them, Putin will come back at us and portray himself as the aggrieved party. What Putin is trying to do here, in my view, is far more subtle and nuanced. He hates us all. He hates democrats, he hates republicans, he hates Secretary Clinton, he hates President Trump. We are all Russia’s main enemy. And, on Russia, we shouldn’t be each other’s enemies. We should be united, maybe with a slightly different take on specific policies, but at the end of the day we should be united with the understanding that Russia presents a threat to us.
There are limited areas in which we can work together like in arms control and counter-terrorism, we all know that. What I think what Putin wants to do, specifically with the idea of the trade of allowing Mueller’s team to speak with the GRU officers, is to divide the republican party. The same republican party of Reagan, that not only called the Soviet Union the evil empire, but was responsible for tearing down the Soviet Union. There are a lot of other reasons the Soviet Union fell apart, certainly Boris Yeltsin was the most important figure in tearing it apart from within. There was also the war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl, a failed economy and they lost the war of ideas to us. But for Putin, who continues to consider the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century, he knows that the republican party has been a stalwart defense against Russia’s expansion. And nothing would please him more than to divide the party, and drive a stake through it. And I continue to believe that what Putin is trying to do is to soil our democracy, and divide us by using discoverable influence operations and I think what he’d like to do is to continue to see republicans arguing amongst themselves as we see with Senator Lindsey Graham, vociferously arguing about how the President appears to be confusing what Senator Graham calls meddling with collusion. And there are some in the Republican party who are defending the President, and some who are not. But I think the end game for Putin is to try and do what he can to exacerbate the differences within the party, and try to break it. And I’m saying this because I’m trying to see the world through the twisted KGB eyes of Putin. I’m not an expert on domestic U.S. politics I’m the one who’s focused on understanding what makes Putin tick.
The Cipher Brief:We’ve seen Dan Coats, we’ve seen Christopher Wray and a number of other seniors in the administration reiterate the Russian threat on the heels of the Helsinki summit, so for those who do believe the threat is real, including the IC, that should put their mind at least a little at ease. However, what should we be focused on looking ahead that’s going to move the ball in the right direction for U.S. national security despite whether or not the President pushes forward with his next step, which is inviting Putin to the White House?
Hoffman: Where the IC will play a role right now is on reflections of the summit. That’s the immediate goal. So the IC will collect reflections on how Putin and his team assess the summit. So we’ll learn what was discussed in the summit, but we’ll learn it through Putin’s eyes and I guarantee that he will not accurately describe the results of the summit, even to his own people. That’s why it’s vitally important that we know, from President Trump, what the real facts are so the President can parse the intelligence we obtain from Putin and his team, from the facts.
The Cipher Brief: It sounds like you’re getting to the point of why it’s really so complicated to be the only person in the room when you have a meeting like this. Is the IC now handed a mess to try and figure out?
Hoffman: Yes. President Reagan had one on one meetings with Gorbachev, so it’s not unheard of, and it’s ok, but President Trump needed to have sat down, and maybe he did this, I don’t know, with Director CIA, Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and walked them through right away everything that happened. So, to get back to the role of the IC, the first thing is to collect on those reflections and get that back to the President so he is aware what the Russian’s are thinking now about the summit, and their way forward. What does Putin plan on raising in Washington D.C. during the visit? We don’t yet have a date for that summit, but certainly Putin will have his own ideas about what might make sense in terms of the issues he will want to raise and that is up to the IC to think about that. Collection on Russia’s relationships in Europe, and their covert influence operations are always important, never more so than now.
Ukraine is really the canary in the coal mine here. Because they are at war with Russia. I would argue that the country that scares Putin the most is Ukraine. Russia’s neighbor with a sizable Russian speaking population, a commitment to democracy and tilting politically toward the EU, as well as an aspiring NATO member. Putin is trying to influence U.S. political discourse on Ukraine and Europe as well, so collection on how he is going to portray Ukraine, and his plans for influence operations is really important.
Every time you meet with Putin it’s like he’s setting a bunch of traps. It’s like you’re out in the woods someplace, and you wish you had night vision goggles to see all the traps. So for us, the night vision goggles are counter-intelligence and understanding where Putin is trying to hurt us. But if you don’t understand that, you risk getting your leg caught in a whole bunch of traps. He’s setting a whole bunch of traps for us- Ukraine, Syria and this Cyber-Security working group idea, those are all traps that he has set.