Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Missing the Obvious

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.                                                   



Martin said...

Yes, indeed, it's very scary that our intel was so easily fooled by what may have been nothing more than the normal non-use of radio before an operation.

Not that anyone in Washington, at any level, cares about history any more, but they should read up on what all sides did during WW2, strategic and tactical mis-direction and operational secrecy.

If any of them have functioning brains, which seems very much in doubt, it would be an eye-opener.

sykes.1 said...

Is this actually true? Isn't it more likely that intel analysis didn't conform to the Regimes' magical thinking and so was ignored?

Consul-At-Arms said...

The National Intelligence University offers a "Denial and Deception Advanced Studies Program (DDASP)" (http://www.ni-u.edu/prospective_students/Explore_NIU_Programs_DDASP.html ) that addresses precisely this problem set.

If only more of our intelligence analysts and leadership were properly trained.

Former Skivvy Niner said...

A long time ago I read a paperback titled "Inside the GRU" written by a supposed Soviet defector using the pseudonym of Victor Suvohrov.

This book goes into detail as to how the Soviets would prepare to invade another country, including using agents in place, visiting sports teams, etc to seize strategic areas such as government buildings, air fields, etc.

Perhaps our young analysts of today should read this book. It looks like Putin has.

Since Alaska was once part of the Russian Empire, I wonder if Putin has designs on it as well ;)

Unknown said...

Consul: the intel community actually has teams of analysts who are supposed to be experts in the field of D&D. I knew many of them during my last stint as an analyst several years ago. Not sure who's handling that account these days, but they should have been raising red flags.

Skivvy Niner--We you there when the site had to shut down because the Korean painter took a smoke too close to those nearby fuel tanks and triggered the "big bang?"

Sykes--the political influence on reporting is undeniable...the big guys learn quickly what the POTUS and his nat'l security team want to hear, and adjust accordingly.

James said...

Agreed with above comments. You have to add the press into this mix. If (ahem) it's probable that the national media is an ideological extension of the political leadership then of course they are validation/reinforcement of policy decisions. This also can't be lost on the analysts or intel community in general. So no outside voice that can be heard there.

Vinnie and Liz said...

Thank you for your return to thoughtful analysis. Sorry about the Fonzie comparison, it was a low blow.

Former Skivvy Niner said...

Nate - I had almost 12 years at Skivvy Nine. I was TDY in country attending Yonsei University on the Agency's dime when that event happened. I retired at the Fort in '95.

Unknown said...

Skivvy Niner-With that much time at Osan, I'll go out on a limb and guess you were/are a Korean linguist. I was an ops intel type at Kunsan in the early 90s; not the end of the earth, but you can see it from there. Didn't have a SCIF at "The Kun" at the time, so most of the interaction I had with Skivvy Nine came when I was TDY to Osan.

I remember the COMINT guys telling me about all of the HF traffic they picked up on the islands off of Kunsan on a regular basis. The islands were a favorite transit point for NK agents infiltrating the south. None of them tried coming in through the base (the beach was mined and the ROKs would open up on anything that moved on the sand), but there were plenty of entry points along the coast.

Poor Richard said...

You needed no HUMINT, COMINT, SIGINT or any other INT to know the Russians would seize Crimea. What you need is lower-case intelligence. Such as knowing Palmerston, as interpreted by DeGaulle: "Nations have no eternal allies, nations have no perpetual enemies. Nations have eternal and perpetual interests."

One would hope our Russian analysts had at least taken a course in European history, but if not it's all set out in Robert Kaplan's recent book, "The Revenge of Geography:"

Russia has had the same interests for over 500 years: Ensure buffer states as protection against invasion from the West, exploit the resources of the East, secure a warm-water port.

Russia's best warm-water port is -- you guessed it, Crimea! One of Russia's prime buffer states, if not the primest, is -- correct again, Ukraine!

Ukraine undertakes a sudden and unexpected turn toward the EU and NATO. What is Russia going to do?

Do you need to go 50/50? Ask the audience? Phone a friend?