A few days ago, we analyzed an ABC News report on a document unearthed in the Baghdad archives of Saddam' s regime. According to the translated document, the Russian ambassador to Iraq passed information on U.S. military movements in the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam from power.
As we noted at the time, the fact that Russia was passing information to Saddam was hardly a revelation. The same thing happened before Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when Russian officials provided imagery and other intelligence information, detailing U.S. preparations to liberate Kuwait. Even with the demise of the Soviet state, Russia maintains an extensive intelligence collection system and robust analytical capabilties, surpassed only by the United States. The Russians are certainly willing to share their information with allies and client states, particularly if it advances their own interests. The information provided in 2003 was likely designed to send the same message as in 1991: the Americans and their allies are coming after you, Saddam, and you'd better make a deal before than first B-2 arrives over Baghdad.
Luckily, Saddam was (and is) a military imbecile, who remained convinced that the U.S. would never march all the way to Baghdad. So, he ignored the Russian information, and Moscow's counsel to cooperate with the UN--or face his own demise. So, the Russian intelligence went for naught, and Vladimir Putin watched Moscow's "interests" (billions in energy contracts and debts for weapons systems) evaporate during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But the question remains: how did Russia gather information on U.S. intentions in the months leading up to Iraqi Freedom. I'm betting that Moscow gathered most of the data the old-fashioned way, through its extensive network of overhead collection platforms (including imagery satellites), signals intelligence (SIGINT), open source reporting, and old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger spying.
That may be one reason the U.S. has apparently decided not to pursue this issue with the Russians, despite recent statements to the contrary from Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. When it comes to technical intelligence, the Russians have the resources to gather vast amounts of data, and fashion it into finished intelligence, with accurate predictions of our capabilities and intent. And sadly, we make the job easier for Russia (and other potential adversaries). With our open society, sensitive information on military units, personnel and activities can often be gleaned through press reporting, the internet, or by simply hanging out in bars and restaurants near military bases.
And, as we've noted before, this problem is exacerbated by our spotty efforts in operations security (OPSEC) and denial and deception (D&D). It should come as no surprise that Russia, China, and North Korea practice D&D at all levels of their military, making it more difficult for us to divine their intentions. In an age where unclassified web sites offer information on the orbits of suspected spy satellites, it becomes easier for potential foes to conceal their activity, and complicate the tasks facing our intelligence services.
But there is a more troubling aspect to this controversy. The captured Iraqi document suggested that Russia had an agent inside the U.S. headquarters in Qatar, which directs our operations in the Middle East. If that story is correct, then the Russians could have provided much more accurate information to the Iraqis, including the precise timing of planned attacks--information that can't necessarily be discerned from a SIGINT intercepts, or the latest overhead imagery. There is also the disturbing possibility that the Russian agent (or agents) is still at work, and still funneling information to Moscow.
Privately, the search for a possible spy within the CENTCOM command structure is probably underway. But publicly, the Bush Administration will refrain from criticizing the Russians, since Moscow has taken the lead in talks aimed at deterring Iran's nuclear program. For that reason, a public "spy scandal," is out of the question, at least for the short term. But behind the scenes, there will be careful checks to determine what the Russians knew, how they learned it, and if they had any help from the inside.