Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had an article that would be funny--if it weren't so frightening.
Intelligence sources tell the paper that Russia (apparently) got a jump on the U.S. during the build-up to its recent invasion of Crimea. While American spy satellites detected Moscow's troop build-up along the Ukrainian border well in advance, the smart boys (and girls) in the intel community decided Vladimir Putin was bluffing. That judgment was based on an absence of communications intelligence (COMINT) that might have confirmed Russian intentions.
Suppose for a moment that you're on the Russian military team at Langley. You've spent years following their habits and tendencies. A steady stream of electro-optical and radar imagery from your colleagues at NGA confirm that Russian forces are massing along Ukraine's eastern border, as the political crisis between Moscow and Kiev builds. This type of mobilization is rare, particularly in the post-Soviet era; mechanized forces, special ops units, even electronic warfare battalions are spotted out of garrison and in position for an incursion into Crimea.
Being prudent, you look for confirmation and check with the folks at Fort Meade. All is quiet, they report. No discernible increase in communications, no intercepts of Putin and his advisers discussing their plans; no chatter between commanders and subordinates. There's a sizable Russian force poised to invade the Crimea, but for some reason, they're not talking about it--or they are, we're not picking up their discussions.
So, what's your call Mr./Ms. Analyst? Having been an that position (specializing in operational and tactical issues for much of my career), I can make a case both ways. First, the observed build-up along the Ukrainian border was significant, particularly if it occurred apart from normal training or military exercises. It's also useful to examine the event in terms of historical context, i.e., when was the last time we saw Moscow mass its forces along that frontier? Apparently, it wasn't a regular occurrence, since it caught the attention of imagery analysts at NGA--and other agencies--almost immediately. Factor in the political considerations and the evidence pointed in the direction of a Russian invasion.
But what about the lack of chatter? That too, is easily explainable. Russia has long employed effective communications security (COMSEC) practices, limiting our collection haul. And, with the run-up to the Crimea operation, it's logical that Russian military units would further tighten those measures. So, the absence of detectable communications could be another indicator.
There's also the Snowden factor. Did our analysts forget that the NSA turncoat is currently living in Moscow, after providing a treasure-trove of information on our eavesdropping programs and technologies? And with that data in Russian hands, isn't it also likely that Moscow would take steps to close those collection windows? Once again, the lack of chatter may been a signal that Putin was preparing for military action, but we (apparently) read it the other way.
And let's not forget about Bradley Manning and the other traitors who have spilled intelligence secrets over the past three decades. Not only did they provide specific reporting (or details about technical capabilities), their treachery also gave Russia (and other enemies) greater insight into our intelligence tradecraft. Scan through thousands of intel summaries posted an Wikileaks, and a few trends become obvious.
The first is the reliance on multiple intelligence disciplines to provide the "whole" picture. Ideally, you want ELINT or COMINT traffic to confirm what the satellites or drones are seeing, and if you're really lucky (given our traditional dearth of human sources), perhaps a HUMINT report as icing on the cake.
The other major trend is our reliance on technical means. Our development and utilization of HUMINT sources has been spotty at best, so we don't always have a steady stream of reliable information from living, breathing, credible informants. And besides, you won't go very far as an intelligence officer if you're not involved with a major collection system or analytical tool. Hitch your wagon to the acquisition process, and there is the opportunity for bonuses, recognition and advancement, to the GG-15 level and beyond.
In fact, it's a poorly-kept secret that an "analyst" doesn't want to stay in the trade for their entire career. At some point, you want to move into the managerial ranks, which means you lose expertise in your particular specialty or discipline. Meanwhile, some relatively new hire--often fresh out of college or the military--is trying to master your former craft. Turnover and experience levels have long been major problems in the analytical community, and I see no signs of change.
These problems have been exacerbated by our focus on terrorism and less interest in other issues, including Russia. With the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow's once-mighty military largely collapsed, so there was less need to devote much of our intel budget to a threat which had (seemingly) evaporated. So, the analytical "rust" on the Russian account grew a little deeper.
It is also worth noting that recent administrations--and their senior officials--have been less receptive to negative reporting on Russia. With the demise of communism, they believed, the U.S. could do business with Moscow on a host of issues, particularly if there was a "reset" in the relationship. Intelligence officers quickly learn the theories and themes that work with a particular official or administration, and adjust their reporting to fit that context. That flies in the face of "telling them what they need to hear," but analysts (and their supervisors) are also cognizant that key assessments may never see the light of day if they don't fit the overall template.
Collectively, these tendencies painted us into an analytical corner that Mr. Putin, the former KGB agent, cleverly exploited. Knowing that we rely heavily on COMINT for confirmation, he used information from the Snowden leaks to plug his holes and block our collection. Lack of HUMINT reporting? No problem--just one less thing for the Russians to worry about. Less experience among our Russia analysts? Throw them a little curve; ground forces mobilizing for the incursion into Crimea (reportedly) did not include mobile medical units, so many our experts believed the Russians were bluffing. Or maybe--knowing the Ukrainian military was weak and they would enjoy support from Russian nationals in the region--Moscow expected few casualties and left its field hospitals behind.
And the faulty logic didn't stop there. Analysts who follow Moscow politics and international relations decided that Putin wouldn't risk the G-8 summit in Sochi (scheduled for May) by invading Ukraine. Gee...how did that theory work out? Other members of the intel community likened the Russian leader to a "kid playing with gasoline and matches," projecting irrational--even dangerous--tendencies on Mr. Putin.
That makes for a cute "pull quote," but it does nothing to solve our analytic deficiencies. What we really need are skilled, experienced analysts who know their subject and are willing to think outside the box, accounting for external factors (such as Snowden's treachery) on our collection capabilities. We could also use analysts who can look at the world through the eyes of various adversaries and adopt their perspective.
By our standards, the Crimea incursion was an irrational act which jeopardizes Russia's relations with the West. From Putin's perspective, the invasion was a chance to permanently secure access to key bases in the Black Sea, while taking another step towards rebuilding Russia's sphere of influence, and sending a clear message to the world community. In a time of U.S. weakness, Putin signaled he is prepared to act to further his interests and fill the vacuum created by our timidity and hesitation.
Crimea won't be Russia's last aggressive move. We'll see if our spooks are any better at forecasting the next one.