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Bragging about US Intelligence Assistance Increases the Value and Solidarity of NATO Membership

The US is dick-wagging about intelligence successes again, this time by making it public that its intelligence-sharing helped Ukraine target the Moskva.

Intelligence shared by the U.S. helped Ukraine sink the Russian cruiser Moskva, U.S. officials told NBC News, confirming an American role in perhaps the most embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s troubled invasion of Ukraine.

A guided missile cruiser carrying a crew of 510, the Moskva was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It sank on April 14 after being struck by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, U.S. officials said. Moscow said the vessel sank after a fire. The Moskva was the largest Russian warship sunk in combat since World War II. American officials said there were significant Russian casualties, but they don’t know how many.

The attack happened after Ukrainian forces asked the Americans about a ship sailing in the Black Sea south of Odesa, U.S. officials told NBC News. The U.S. identified it as the Moskva, officials said, and helped confirm its location, after which the Ukrainians targeted the ship.

The U.S. did not know in advance that Ukraine was going to target the Moskva, officials said, and was not involved in the decision to strike. Maritime intelligence is shared with Ukraine to help it defend against attack from Russian ships, officials added.

The news comes amid unconfirmed reports that Ukraine has struck the Admiral Makarov in the last day, which David Axe described as the most important Russian ship remaining in the Black Sea, reportedly with another Neptune missile.

To be sure, even on its face, this dick-wagging serves another purpose. The reports all include details that explain where the US is involved — intelligence sharing — and where it is not — targeting decisions. I noted after the sinking of the Moskva that Ukraine accomplished that feat using Ukrainian weapons assisted by Turkish drones, not weapons supplied by the US or UK. By leaking details of the US involvement in Ukraine’s military success, the US is also making public details about where it is not involved, which extends to the implementation of the most controversial strikes. The US is making the limits of its engagement public, which actually could help avoid escalation (and, if critics were more honest than they are, entails giving Ukraine full credit for the tremendous success it is having).

Nevertheless, this declassification has raised a number of complaints that the Biden Administration invites escalation by bragging about its intelligence exploits.

I think those complaining are ignoring a number of obvious benefits of declassifying this information. First, releasing this information promises to exacerbate three problems that have already badly harmed Russia’s war effort: Putin’s isolation and with it, bad decision-making on his part, poor command structure within the Russian military, and snowballing paranoia in the Russian security community and with it a collapse of morale.

But Russia is likely not the only audience for these leaks. Existing and aspiring NATO members, including the voters within those countries, likely are also the intended audience.

Trump spent four years degrading the value of NATO and doing everything he could to sow distrust in the alliance. America’s past mistakes, most notably in Afghanistan, have made NATO membership more controversial in Europe. Because the Iraq War catastrophe was public while other American intelligence successes were private, it became routine to assume American intelligence wasn’t all that reliable. Russia has done everything it could to exacerbate such controversies, including with information operations targeting anti-imperialist and anti-war activists. Germany was a particular focus for such efforts on Russia’s part.

As a result, when Russia started this invasion, Putin believed, with good reason, that the alliance would crumble. Biden’s Administration did remarkable work, along with key allies, in defying those expectations. But the solidarity of NATO will come under increasing stress as inflation soars, refugees exacerbate housing shortages, and the media attention on Ukraine wanes.

Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden are about to start the process of quickly joining NATO. Russia is already making incursions on countries that border Ukraine. But until such time as Finland and Sweden formally join NATO, they will be in a vulnerable position, lacking the guarantee of NATO membership while having provided Russia a reason to want to strike.

What is being portrayed as dick-wagging offers a number of advantages in this climate. Without exposing sources and methods, it demonstrates that American sources and methods that come with NATO membership are excellent — far better than what Russia could offer (say) Hungary or Moldova, or even Saudi Arabia, right now. By emphasizing the way that the US has offered intelligence but not taken over targeting decisions, the US makes it clear that one can remain sovereign even while benefitting from the advantages NATO offers. The stories make it clear that the superior intelligence accessible with NATO membership can help a vastly overmatched country defend itself against an invader.

This may feel like dick-wagging. But it also makes a tremendous case for the value of alliance with the United States, particularly (for the Finnish and Swedish public) within the framework of NATO.

I wrote in March how important it was — even by his own telling — to have lifelong diplomat William Burns in charge of CIA as the US declassifies such information, because he understood how declassifying intelligence could be used to strengthen alliances.

[U]nder this former diplomat, the Intelligence Community is actually using the intelligence it gathers to gain tactical leverage. After years of Russian intelligence operations designed to split American alliances, that has had the effect of raising US credibility with allies.

Burns said then, and I assume he still believes, that after a career of losing information wars to Putin, “this is one information war that I think Putin is losing.”

I can only assume the US has reviewed these earlier decisions, including the effect they’ve had on strengthening US alliances, and decided that the advantages vastly outweigh the risks.

Update: See also Cheryl Rofer’s comments on this.

On the Benefits of Having a Career Diplomat Run CIA: “This Is One Information War that I Think Putin Is Losing”

Thus far during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the intelligence community has declassified at least four major reports and a slew of smaller ones:

I would bet a fair amount of money that, when the history of these events is told twenty years from now, we’ll learn of similar, but non-public, selective declassification with NATO-plus-Sweden-and-Finland partners, starting at a NATO summit in February, immediately after which a number of European countries (most spectacularly, Germany) took dramatic and unified action.

There has been a slew of commentary about the aggressive use the US has made of declassified intelligence. The triumphalism of such commentary may yet prove premature.

After all, it’s possible that Putin arrested two FSB officers because he suspects they were sources for some of the intelligence that got shared to undermine Russia’s efforts. It’s possible that Russia’s focus on neutralizing western support for Ukraine in recent days, particularly its attack on the western training base in Yavoriv yesterday, reflects a counterintelligence crackdown responding to declassified US intelligence.

But for now, such declassification has been tremendously successful. It allowed the US and its European partners to repeatedly undercut Russian efforts to gain surprise or legitimize their invasion with disinformation. It has exposed specifics about China’s support for the invasion, raising the costs of such support and, potentially, providing leverage to convince China to distance themselves both publicly and privately from Russia’s efforts. And it seems to have provided a basis for Western countries to unify quickly.

This most recent instance — the organized sharing of information about Russian pleas to China for help just before Jake Sullivan meets with Yang Jiechi in Rome — makes this comment from CIA Director William Burns at least week’s Global Threats hearing resonate.

In response to a question from Susan Collins about Russia’s efforts to use false flag attacks, he tied his own years losing information wars with Russia to decisions to declassify information now.

Well, thanks very much Senator. I think it underscores the concern that all of us need to focus on those kind of issues, whether it’s the potential for a use of chemical weapons either as a false flag operation or against Ukrainians. This is something, as all of you know very well, is very much a part of Russia’s playbook. They’ve used those weapons against their own citizens, they’ve at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere, so it’s something we take very seriously, and it’s one of the reasons, as Director Haines said earlier, that I’m convinced that our efforts at selective declassification, to pre-empt those kind of false flag efforts and the creation of false narratives have been so important.

In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians. In this case, I think we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression, built on a body of lies and false narratives. So this is one information war that I think Putin is losing.

Among other posts Burns served in, he was Ambassador to Russia in the final years of the Bush Administration (months before Russia’s invasion of Georgia) and he served as Deputy Secretary of State during Russia’s response to Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, including its annexation of Crimea.

He knows how successful Russia has been at lying in the last twenty years.

And he explicitly tied his experience of attempting to diplomatically negotiate with Russia and others while Russia’s lies held sway to the decision to declassify information here.

Normally, CIA Directors protect such secrets with knee-jerk obstinance. But under this former diplomat, the Intelligence Community is actually using the intelligence it gathers to gain tactical leverage. After years of Russian intelligence operations designed to split American alliances, that has had the effect of raising US credibility with allies.

This is assuredly not just Burns. Even under Trump, Paul Nakasone was much more aggressive about taking credit for NSA or CYBERCOM operations than past NSA Directors. And Avril Haines, whose background is more diverse, promised a more open Intelligence Community during her confirmation as well.

But after the two decades of paranoid secrecy that followed the Iraq intelligence debacle, the United States is actually using the intelligence it makes such efforts to collect.

Avril Haines Committed to Reviewing Past Redactions of Intelligence on Russia’s Support for Trump

In the wake of the confirmation that Konstantin Kilimnik did, in fact, share campaign data with Russian Intelligence, some people are asking whether Trump withheld information confirming that fact from Mueller or SSCI.

There are other possible explanations. After all, DOJ stated publicly in 2019 they were still working on decrypting communications involving Manafort and Kilimnik. There are likely new sources of information that have become available to the government.

It’s also certain that the government did share some information with SSCI that was not publicly released in its report last year. Indeed, we’re still waiting on information in the SSCI Report that probably will be made public.

Ron Wyden complained about the overclassification of the report when it came out, and — in his typical fashion — provided bread crumbs of what we might learn with further declassification.

(U) The report includes new revelations directly related to the Trump campaign’s cooperation with Russian efforts to get Donald Trump elected. Yet significant information remains redacted. One example among many is the report’s findings with regard to the relationship between Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik.

(U) The report includes significant information demonstrating that Paul Manafort’s support for Russia and pro-Russian factions in Ukraine was deeper than previously known. The report also details extremely troubling information about the extent and nature of Manafort’s connection with Kilimnik and Manafort’s passage of campaign polling data to Kilimnik. Most troubling of all are indications that Kilimnik, and Manafort himself, were connected to Russia’s hack-and-leak operations.

(U) Unfortunately, significant aspects of this story remain hidden from the American public. Information related to Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik, particularly in April 2016, are the subject of extensive redactions. Evidence connecting Kilimnik to the GRU’s hack-and-leak operations are likewise redacted, as are indications of Manafort’s own connections to those operations. There are redactions to important new information with regard to Manafort’s meeting in Madrid with a representative of Oleg Deripaska. The report also includes extensive information on Deripaska, a proxy for Russian intelligence and an associate of Manafort. Unfortunately, much of that information is redacted as well.

(U) The report is of urgent concern to the American people, in part due to its relevance to the 2020 election and Russia’s ongoing influence activities. The public version of the report details how Kilimnik disseminated propaganda claiming Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, beginning even before that election and continuing into late 2019. [one sentence redacted] And the report includes information on the role of other Russian government proxies and personas in spreading false narratives about Ukrainian interference in the U.S. election. This propaganda, pushed by a Russian intelligence officer and other Russian proxies, was the basis on which Donald Trump sought to extort the current government of Ukraine into providing assistance to his reelection efforts and was at the center of Trump’s impeachment and Senate trial. That is one of the reasons why the extensive redactions in this section of the report are so deeply problematic. Only when the American people are informed about the role of an adversary in concocting and disseminating disinformation can they make democratic choices free of foreign interference.

Redactions suggest there was more to an April exchange of information between Kilimnik and Manafort involving Oleg Deripaska than has been made public, describing something else that happened almost simultaneously with that exchange. SSCI learned about that even without obtaining information from Manafort’s email server, which Kilimnik was using long after he stopped working for Manafort and which they subpoenaed unsuccessfully, but Mueller did obtain it.

There’s also a very long redacted passage in the more general Additional Views from Democrats on the committee that laid out the significance of the SSCI findings for the 2020 election (ostensibly what yesterday’s sanctions addressed).

Also in typical Wyden fashion, he already took steps to liberate such information as could be released. In his Questions for the Record for both Avril Haines and William Burns, Wyden asked that this information be declassified. He also asked that more information behind Treasury’s sanctions imposed on Andrii Derkach last September be declassified. Haines committed to ordering a new declassification review of both.

QUESTION 150: If confirmed, will you review the Committee’s Report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, in particular Volume 5, for additional declassification?

Yes, if confirmed, I will order a review of the Committee’s report to determine whether additional declassification is possible consistent with the need to protect national security.

QUESTION 151: If confirmed, will you review intelligence related to foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election, including with regard to Russian agents referenced in the Treasury Department’s September 10, 2020, sanctions announcement, for additional declassification and public release?

Yes, if confirmed I will order a review of these materials to determine whether additional declassification is possible consistent with the need to protect national security.

So we should be getting a newly declassified version of the SSCI Report that will reveal what the Trump Administration did share, but buried under redactions.

Which will also reveal what Trump knew about Manafort’s affirmative ties to Russian intelligence when he pardoned Manafort to pay off Manafort’s silence about all that during the Mueller investigation.

Final Push for P5+1 Deal Begins Against Backdrop of US Working With Anti-Iran Groups

Very high level US diplomats, including William Burns and Wendy Sherman, are in Geneva for talks today and tomorrow (for the second time in a month) with  an Iranian delegation headed by Abbas Araghchi, whose position in Iran’s Foreign Ministry is similar to theirs. This meeting follows one on Monday between the EU’s chief negotiator Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif. Reuters has more on today’s meetings, informing us that they are a prelude to the resumption of P5+1 negotiations (which now have a November 24 deadline when the interim deal expires):

Iran and the United States met in Geneva for bilateral talks on Thursday as international diplomacy intensifies to end a decade-old dispute over Tehran’s atomic activities by a new deadline in late November.

The office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed Iran and six world powers would hold their first negotiating round since they failed to meet a July 20 target date for an agreement in New York on Sept. 18.

It is a wonder that Iran continues negotiations, as the US blacklisted a new group of companies last week that it accused of trying to help Iran work around sanctions. More from the Reuters article:

State news agency IRNA and a U.S. official confirmed the discussions were underway. “If there is good will and a constructive approach, we can reach a desired result before Nov. 24,” IRNA quoted Iran’s deputy foreign minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi as saying late on Wednesday. The United States last week penalized a number of Iranian and other foreign companies, banks and airlines for violating sanctions against Tehran, saying it was sending a signal that there should be no evasion of sanctions while talks continue. Rouhani said on Saturday the sanctions were against the spirit of negotiations, but added he was not pessimistic about the viability of the talks.

There is a very interesting backstory on parts of the blacklisting process. A seemingly “independent” group, United Against Nuclear Iran, has been very active in the process of “naming and shaming” individuals, companies and organizations that it accuses of violating the spirit of the sanctions against Iran. Despite the fact that they are supposed to be independent, the US has stepped into a lawsuit brought against UANI by a businessman claiming he was defamed (I owe Marcy a big thank you for alerting me to this part of the story). The government is specifically intervening to keep the funding of UANI secret:

The Obama administration has gone to court to protect the files of an influential anti-Iran advocacy group, saying they likely contain information the government does not want disclosed.

The highly unusual move by the Justice Department raises questions about the connections between the American government and the group, United Against Nuclear Iran, a hard-line voice seeking to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The group has a roster of prominent former government officials and a reputation for uncovering information about companies that sometimes do business with Iran, in violation of international sanctions.

The Justice Department has temporarily blocked the group from having to reveal its donor list and other internal documents in a defamation lawsuit filed by a Greek shipping magnate the group accused of doing business with Iran. Government lawyers said they had a “good faith basis to believe that certain information” would jeopardize law enforcement investigations, reveal investigative techniques or identify confidential sources if released.

Wow. So this “independent” group seems to be getting intelligence directly from the government, if we are to believe what the US said in its filing. So just who are the “former government officials” in UANI? A look at their “Leadership” page is nauseating. The first entry in the section for “Advisory Board” is none other than war hawk Joe Lieberman. Next to him is Fran Townsend and directly below him is a former director of the Mossad. The Advisory Board photos go on and on, a virtual “Who’s Who” of pro-war, pro-Israel media darlings. There also is a former Deputy Director of the IAEA even though it is supposed to be apolitical. Intellectual luminaries Mike Gerson and Mark Salter appear much lower on the list, perhaps out of a semblance of embarrassment. So, regarding those “investigative techniques” and “confidential sources” that the government doesn’t want to reveal in how UANI gets its information, consider this tidbit we got recently from David Albright, another player in the Iran-smearing business, this time branching out to comment on the recent tensions over US spying on Germany (also brought to my attention by Marcy): Read more