The Man in the Kremlin Must Be Smiling

| Mark Kelton
Mark Kelton
Former Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, CIA National Clandestine Service

Vladimir Putin is smiling because he thrives on chaos, particularly in the camp of the “Main Enemy,” a term the Soviet and Russian intelligence services have long used to refer to the United States.  He is surely happy as he sees any indication of American uncertainty, irresolution, or confusion as, by definition, beneficial to his country.  The Russian leader likely embraces chaos, because like every experienced intelligence officer, he sees in it opportunities to further weaken his American adversary, to collect better intelligence, and to engender yet more chaos so as to do more of the same. 

As a graduate of the KGB’s Red Banner Institute, Putin must relish the success Russia’s “Special Services” have achieved.  Indeed, given that he is a “Chekist” at heart, Putin may see himself as the orchestrator of an intelligence coup akin to the so-called “TRUST” operation—a Soviet counterintelligence operation in the early-mid 1920s designed to neutralize the anti-regime activities of Russian émigrés and the intelligence operations of European services—so famous in Soviet intelligence lore.

While efforts by Moscow to influence American elections are not new, the scale and brazen nature of Mr. Putin’s recent attempt to impugn American democracy are novel.  That being said, there is apparently no evidence that Russia’s purported “Active Measures” campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election actually affected voting.  Nor, according to former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, citing information available to him when in office, is there any evidence of collusion between Moscow and the campaign of then candidate Donald Trump. 

Nevertheless, the revelation of this alleged Russian effort to influence the election, combined with the passions engendered by a heated election campaign and numerous leaks of classified information, have played into a counterfactual narrative that is serving to advance Putin’s over-arching goals of degrading American power, denigrating American ideals, and driving a wedge between President Trump and the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).  Of such fortuitous confluences of intent and circumstance are intelligence victories often won. 

A key factor serving to advance Putin’s aims has been the stream of leaks of purportedly classified information coming out of the U.S. government.  President Trump has, quite properly, condemned instances of leaking that constitute what House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has described as “major crimes.”  

Although he is certainly the first to take up the issue on Twitter, President Trump is not the first American leader forced to deal with the leaking of secret information to the media.  The greatest American, George Washington, addressed the danger of leaks in the stylized language of his day, lamenting that it was “…much to be wished that our printers were more discreet in many of our own publications.”  Lincoln, in his ironically humorous manner, remarked that: “It’s not me who can’t keep a secret.  It’s the people I tell that can’t.”  More recently, President George W. Bush faced numerous leaks that gravely jeopardized our country’s security in the face of vicious terrorist enemies.  And President Barack Obama’s ability to confront pressing national security issues was heavily impacted by the betrayals of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden. 

Indeed, every American President has had to confront the consequences for U.S. national security resulting from the leak of secret information by those charged with protecting it.  And those consequences can be considerable, ranging from national embarrassment and damage to diplomatic or intelligence relationships; through the compromise of military or intelligence collection operations; up to the loss of the lives of American citizens, those of our allies, and of the foreign spies who have entrusted all they are to our intelligence services.

The impact of leaks of classified information on U.S. national security notwithstanding, all of history’s leakers have, predictably, professed higher motives for their actions; or have had such motivations ascribed to them.  In truth, they have almost invariably been driven to break the law by a mix of motivations, most commonly overweening ego and political ideology.  There seems little doubt that when those responsible for the latest spate of leaks are identified, they will also insist they acted as they did for noble reasons.  And their justifications will surely be shown to be similarly false. 

Government service is a privilege and a choice.  When working for a leader with whom they are not in agreement, or when tasked with work they believe in inappropriate, government employees have a number of choices: they may seek redress through their chain of command, approach their agency’s Inspector General; resign or retire from their position; or continue to serve honorably.  Breaking the law is never a justifiable option.  That is the nature of government service in our democratic system. 

Over the course of my career, I proudly served five presidents and eleven Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Directors or acting Directors, though I was not always in agreement with their policy goals or their vision for the Service.  A couple of years ago, however, when confronted with CIA being taken in a direction I was unable to support, I left government.  It was a painful choice to make after 34 years of doing what I loved, but I felt it the only honorable thing for me to do.  I wish these as yet unknown leakers had done likewise.  As it is, I hope they are swiftly brought to justice for what they have done.  They have broken their oaths, violated the trust the American people put in them and given de facto aid to our country’s adversaries.  These leakers have damaged our country’s national security and I will have no sympathy for them when they are caught.

As for the Man in Moscow, we should not anticipate he will rest on his operational laurels.  Indeed, we should expect him to do all he can to feed more politically combustible material into the U.S. political maelstrom his intelligence services did so much to help engender.  The recent WikiLeaks exposure of purported CIA hacking tools should be seen in this light.  Almost certainly, that exposure will be a basis for yet more disinformation directed at CIA and the broader U.S. government.  What is to come need not be true.  It need only be seen as plausible by an audience willing to believe it so.  That is not a very high bar, as almost every seed of distrust Putin’s services sow is likely to find some fertile ground in an era when even the most implausible conspiracy theories easily take root. 

In fact, the receptivity of audiences to such tales is not peculiar to this age.  Indeed, there is nothing new in Moscow’s “Active Measures” repertoire; we have seen the same play-book used countless times.  Unfortunately, even the most outrageous claims are often granted some credence.  One need only think back to the early 1980s and the resonance garnered by preposterous KGB-planted stories that the deadly AIDs virus was created by the CIA to wipe out homosexuals and African Americans, to see the truth in this. 

What has changed over the intervening years is the means for delivering such stories.  In the analog era, KGB officers would pay journalist-agents, mostly in the Third World, to publish Moscow-produced material.  Those stories would then get re-printed by other papers and journals, preferably in the West.  Such a process took time and was hit-and-miss in its effectiveness as its impact was largely limited to readers of media that picked up the story.

In the post-Snowden world, however, a number of widely available Internet fora are perceived as either legitimate “whistleblower sites” or as the purveyors of unbiased reporting under the guise of promoting the free flow of information.  That the information such sites puts out is available almost instantaneously world-wide and its accessibility limited only by a reader’s ability to click a mouse has significantly enhanced the Russian services’ ability to exploit them as channels for Moscow-authored or engendered disinformation. 

Moreover, considering subsequent events, it appears that dating back at least to the time of Snowden’s defection, Moscow has worked to “operationalize” WikiLeaks.  That endeavor has seemingly succeeded to the point where, judging from recent revelations and the fact the site never puts out comparable information deleterious to Russian interests, it would appear the Russian services can, at minimum, orchestrate (if not direct) the placement of anti-American propaganda on the site.  Given the effectiveness to date of such placements, we can anticipate Moscow’s ongoing “Active Measures” campaign, utilizing WikiLeaks or other suitable means, to continue for as long as Putin sees operational and political utility in it.

In this context, the recent WikiLeaks exposure of purported CIA data should be seen as a pre-emptive strike on Moscow’s most dangerous and feared adversary.  Putin certainly knows that the greatest threat to his current efforts is the oft-demonstrated capacity of U.S. intelligence, and particularly CIA, to steal secrets that grant U.S. policymakers unique insight into his country’s activities, plans and intentions. 

The WikiLeaks expose is likely intended both to distract CIA and to damage its credibility.  As regards the former, CIA is a tough and resilient organization staffed by deeply professional personnel, to include an immensely skilled counterintelligence cadre.  Working together with the FBI, I am confident they will run the source of the compromised information to ground.  But this may take some time, and Moscow likely hopes this will distract the new CIA leadership team from its efforts to repair the damage to CIA’s core clandestine human intelligence mission, and particularly, its ability to operate against its toughest intelligence adversaries, wrought by an ill-considered “re-organization” initiated in 2015.   From Putin’s perspective, this would be all to the good.  

The Russian leader may also calculate that public embarrassment might undermine trust in the Agency.  Putin likely hopes for a repeat of the pain inflicted on CIA by the exposure of Aldrich Ames as a spy.  Fostering a rift between the White House and the U.S. IC would serve Putin’s broader aims by diminishing the confidence of the former in any reporting from the latter that might reflect negatively on U.S. efforts to engage the Russians on such seemingly compatible issues as counterterrorism and counterproliferation.  

That such negative reporting would arise is a virtual certainty, as Moscow would undoubtedly exploit any cooperation with Washington as a means of expanding collection against the American target.  For evidence to support this assertion, one need only look at the fact, as demonstrated by the VENONA project, that hundreds of Americans were working against their own country as agents of Soviet intelligence at a time when the U.S. and Soviet Union should have been the closest of allies in fighting their common Second World War enemies.

Finally, if Putin believes the WikiLeaks expose will serve to diminish White House faith in CIA, I think it an error he will come to rue.  The new Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, has the confidence of the President and leads a work-force that will, as it has done countless times before, deliver intelligence that helps the White House shape policies that protect our country. 

Those new to handling and consuming such hard-won intelligence will soon enough come to appreciate both its advantages and limitations.  In time, it will become clear to all involved that the best riposte to the Man in Moscow, the best way to wipe that smile off his face, is to spy the hell out of him.  CIA will continue to win victories that reveal the truth about Putin’s actions, intentions, and capabilities.  Given the quality of the adversary and the high stakes involved, that truth will necessarily be hard won and of great significance to the safety of our country and its citizens.  It will, to paraphrase and play on Churchill, ‘be so precious that it must be attended by a bodyguard of spies.’

The Author is Mark Kelton

Mark Kelton is currently Director of Threat Insider Solutions at Cipher Systems, LLC. Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations.  He completed his career in 2015 after serving as Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence.  Mr. Kelton's distinguished career includes sixteen years of overseas service, to include four assignments in key CIA field leadership positions.

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