Intelligence, Trump, Putin, and Russia’s Long Game
The Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential campaign and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration continue to dominate the news this week, with President-elect Donald Trump planning to reveal what he knows that we don’t about the situation, and a Senate hearing with senior intelligence officials scheduled for Thursday. Cipher Brief CEO Suzanne Kelly talked with former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell about the ongoing controversy and what he makes of the Russian tradecraft and U.S. sanctions.
Suzanne: It looks like President-Elect Donald Trump is getting his own sources of information when it comes to the Russian election issue. As a trained Intelligence Analyst, what do you make of that?
Michael: I don’t know. I have no idea what he thinks he has. There is a track record here of him saying, ‘I’m going to have a big announcement in the next couple days or next week,’ and it turns out to be nothing. I have significant doubts that he has anything that the U.S. Intelligence Community doesn’t already know, so I guess we’ll see.
Suzanne: With the understanding that sources and methods need to be kept secret in order for an intelligence organization to be able to effectively do its job, can you give a sense of how rigorous a source is vetted by an intelligence agency? It’s not like they are taking the first thing they hear and calling it intelligence, right? Can you give us an idea of how rigorously information is checked before it is presented to the President?
Michael: The analytic process itself is fact-based. It’s rigorous from the perspective of the analyst who is doing the work, and it is, as you know, reviewed by a large number of people, including other analysts in the agency in which you’re working, other analysts in other intelligence community agencies, as well as your superiors. In the case of a significant judgment like the one we’re talking about, it goes to the very top of the intelligence community. So I’m sure that (Director of National Intelligence) Jim Clapper, (CIA Director) John Brennan, and the other leaders of the Intelligence Community have paid very close attention and have looked very closely at the judgments and how they were arrived at and asked a lot of questions, sent people back to the drawing board to look at this or look at that, so that’s point number one.
Point number two is, since the Iraq war, the Intelligence Community has put a huge amount of focus on stating their level of confidence in a judgment that they make. It turns out that the real mistake in the Iraq war was not the judgment that they came to, but the fact that if they had really thought about it, the analysts would have only said that they only had low confidence in that judgment that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. That would have been a completely different message, right?
That was a mistake, so the lesson learned from Iraq was to really focus on your level of confidence in the judgment you’re making. ‘Not only do I think its going to rain tomorrow, but I have high confidence in that,’ or ‘It’s going to rain tomorrow but you guys have to know that I only have low confidence in that.’ That has become a big focus. What really caught my attention in the leaks that came out about the CIA’s judgment about what Putin was trying to achieve in his interference in the election is that the analysts applied ‘high confidence’ to that judgment. What that says to me, because we don’t attach high confidence levels to just any judgment, very few judgments actually have a high confidence level, so to get that, you have to have more than one source of data. I think we’re looking at multiple sources of data here, and you have to have something that is stronger than just a circumstantial case. I think you have to have some direct evidence, so I think we have some direct evidence.
The stuff that’s being talked about publicly, is all stuff that doesn’t really damage sources and methods, and that’s stuff that seems to be circumstantial, right? How do you know what Russian intentions are simply from the fact that they hacked the DNC, right? It’s the stuff that takes you directly to the top and directly to Putin’s intentions that probably have very sensitive sources and methods involved, and that’s why you’re not hearing anything about them.
So when the CIA says it has high confidence that they not only interfered in the election, but they did with the intent of helping Trump and hurting Clinton, I’d put very high stock in that for the two reasons we just talked about.
Suzanne: So what about the U.S. response? You told me last month that you thought that Russian meddling in the U.S. Election was the political equivalent of 9/11, so what do you think about the response? Are the announced sanctions and expulsions enough and will they be effective?
Michael: It’s a great question. I was not the only one to talk about the significance of this. I said political equivalent of 9/11. Speaker Ryan called it the political equivalent of Pearl Harbor, so other people are talking about it with the same kind of significance that I’ve talked about it.
Suzanne, I think you have to measure the Administration’s actions against the policy objectives. I was not, of course, in the Situation Room for these discussions, so I don’t know for sure what the policy objectives were, but I certainly hope that the primary policy objective was deterrence. To deter Putin and anybody else watching—the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans—from doing anything like this in the future. That would be the appropriate policy objective. So, measured against that policy objective, I have to say, and I have a hard time saying this because I have affection for the national security team in this administration, I have to say that their actions fall well short of what’s necessary to meet that policy objective. I think the actions they announced last week are both confusing and weak. I think if you’re Russian President Vladimir Putin, and if you think you played a role in influencing the outcome of a U.S. Election to your liking, which I’m certain he does, there is nothing in this package that would even give him pause against doing that again.
I say confusing because the Administration merged two issues here. They said they were responding to both Russian interference in the election as well as to the harassment of our diplomats in Moscow, and I think that the merging muddies the deterrence message. If you’re in Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, wherever, you have a lot of questions because of this merging. What in the package is a response to which of the two issues? How much of the package was a response to harassing diplomats and how much was a response to election interference? The answer to that is not clear, and I think that next to carrying a big stick and being willing to use that stick if necessary, nothing is more important than being clear, and I think there is a huge lack of clarity in this package. That’s why I say confusing.
I also think it’s really, really important to note that there is no equivalence in these two issues. It’s not even close. One is an attack on our very democracy, an attack on our Constitution, an attack on our very way of life, and that is so much more significant than the other, which is the harassing of diplomats. They’re not even close, they’re not even in the same league.
Then there is the question of why do I say weak, and I think to see why I say weak, you have to really quickly walk through each of the four pieces of the package.
First, the sanctions, I think the sanctions will have little to no impact. That’s a pretty big statement. I say that because the sanctions between the FSB and the GRU are kind of meaningless. As far as I can see, there is no practical effect of that. Their officers are overseas undercover, any bank accounts they have overseas are covert, you can’t find them, so I don’t know what the practical effect is of putting sanctions on a foreign intelligence service. And then sanctions against the small number of individuals, simply means that they can’t have financial accounts in the U.S. or in U.S. financial institutions or travel here. So as far as I know, none of the sanctioned individuals have any known financial interests that would be affected, and they’re going to wear that travel ban like a badge of honor.
Second, the closing of the two Russian compounds I think will certainly temporarily setback whatever intelligence operations were being conducted there, but they’re going to be replaced with other physical platforms and that’s going to take the Russians some time, but its also going to take us some time then to identify where they move those operations to, so a setback for them but also a setback for us.
Third, the expulsion of the Russian intelligence officers is very similar: short-term setback to their operations followed by replacement of those officers over time and our need to figure out then, who they are. There is always a cost to expelling an intelligence officer: somebody is going to replace him, and it will take a little bit of time to figure that out.
And lastly, the public distribution of the Russian hacking tactics, techniques, and procedures is certainly embarrassing to the Russians, but I think it will have little impact. You know, the Russians must have assumed that those codes and techniques had been compromised when they got caught spying on the DNC and on Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta. They must have assumed that. So now they are certain of that, and they’re going to have to come up with new approaches and that will take them some time but they certainly will do so. When you add all of that up, it just doesn’t amount to anything that is going to cause any pain to Putin and therefore give him any pause from doing this again. It certainly muddies the message when it comes to other countries and what they’re supposed to take away from this.
Suzanne: Do you have thoughts on what would have been a stronger and more effective response?
Michael: It’s hard. None of this is easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it. That’s an important caveat, but this is not just an academic question. Congress can still take action here, and there are both Republicans and Democrats talking about the need to take additional action. So it’s an important question that you asked. I think that the action has to meet two criteria. One is it has to hurt Putin. It has to be painful to him, and it has to be seen as such by both the Russian public and by other adversaries in order to generate the deterrence that we’re looking for.
What I would have recommended to the President is that we take a page from the Iran sanctions playbook, and what I would have recommended goes something like this: for a set period of time, any international financial institution—British, German, Italian, Chinese, whatever—any international financial institution doing business with a Russian bank, cannot do business with a U.S. bank. That would have a really powerful impact. Those international financial institutions, because their business with U.S. financial institutions is so much more important than their business with Russian financial institutions, would step back from their business with the Russians, and that would have a huge impact on the Russian economy. That would get Putin’s attention.
I’m not a lawyer, but I believe the President could have imposed such sanctions, with powers under his executive authorities, and if for some reason he could not do that, he should have asked Congress to do so. I think that would have gotten everybody’s attention. That’s the kind of response that the Russians would see as painful, and everyone else in the world would see as painful, and therefore would have had the deterrence effect.
Suzanne: Let me ask you what may seem like an obvious question, but if the U.S. knew that there were Russian compounds gathering intelligence on U.S. soil, why would they have allowed them to continue to operate?
Michael: Cause you’re able to watch them. You’re able to get some insight into what they’re doing in them. If you’re at the CIA or the FBI or NSA, by shutting them down, they would just go some place else, and then it would take you some time to find them again, so that’s why you let those kinds of activities continue. And I wouldn’t be surprised—I have no insight into this—but I wouldn’t be surprised if the intelligence community argued against, or at least some people in the intelligence community argued against, taking those actions against those compounds and taking those actions against the Russian Intelligence Officers.
Suzanne: With the assumption that now they’re just going to go somewhere else and do the same thing and we’re now one step behind?
Michael: Yes, exactly.
Suzanne: Putin’s response to not expel any U.S. diplomats in retaliation is a change of play. Did it surprise you?
Michael: Putin's response was unusual but not surprising. ‘Unusual,’ in that the Russians typically respond tit-for-tat to the U.S. expelling intelligence officers. That is indeed what the bureaucrats in Moscow wanted to do – respond in kind. But Putin's overruling of that recommendation is "not surprising," because it is consistent with Putin's approach to Mr. Trump: win him over, make him a friend. Putin's play paid an almost instant dividend. Mr. Trump responded to Putin's decision by praising the Russian President.
Putin is playing for the long-term. The first thing he will want is a summit meeting with President Trump that would produce a deal – the U.S. agreeing to the elimination of western sanctions over Ukraine, and the U.S. agreeing not go forward with missile defense in Romania and Poland in exchange for a joint military effort against ISIS in Syria. Such a deal would have strategic benefits for Putin, and he is counting that the domestic political benefits to Mr. Trump – the vast majority of the U.S. public does not really care about Ukraine or missile defense in Eastern Europe, but they do care about ISIS – to override what is in U.S. strategic interests.
Suzanne: What is your greatest fear in regard to the Russian hacking?
Michael: I do have one great fear with regard to Putin and this hacking, and before I say what it is, I should say that I see absolutely no evidence of it. But my fear is that he not only used cyber-based information operations to try to influence the outcome of our election, but that he is also using such operations to widen and deepen the many cleavages that exist within American society over issues ranging from race and gun control to sexual orientation and income equality, and you can go on and on. If I were President Obama and if I were President-Elect Trump, I would want to make sure that my intelligence agencies were all over this potential. Just think of the damage that Russia could be doing by trying to play to those very important societal rifts that we’re struggling with.
Suzanne: Is it a very simple strategy of divide and conquer that you’re referring to? If you can have Americans turn on each other, they won’t be paying attention to Russia?
Michael: Absolutely. And I think the last point here is that the Russians are very, very good at cyber. They are almost as good as we are. The fact that they got caught spying on the DNC and on John Podesta is abnormal, so that hacking for political purposes could have been the tip of the iceberg, and that part of the iceberg that is underneath the water, that we still don’t see, could be huge and could be much broader than just being focused on the U.S. election—it could be focused on our very society.
Suzanne: That almost sounds like an updated, cyber version of the TV show, The Americans, when cyber operators are the new sleeper agents, exerting influence within the U.S.
Michael: Yes, exactly.
The Man in the Middle
Suzanne: I’d like to step back for one second and talk about what Mike Pompeo is going to be facing when he steps into his role as Director of the CIA. He is now in a difficult spot between a boss who doesn’t appear to have confidence in the Agency and a workforce that resents being treated as political pawns.
Michael: I think he’s got two challenges. I think the first challenge is to be able to win over a workforce that is a bit skeptical of him. They’re a bit skeptical of him because he was such a partisan member of Congress, and he spoke out so strongly on Benghazi, on the Iran nuclear deal, on the Clinton emails and was a very partisan member of Congress. Politics is not welcome at the Central Intelligence Agency, so he’s going to have to convince the workforce that he’s leaving that politics behind, that it will be left in Congress, and it will not come with him down the Parkway to the Central Intelligence Agency. I think he knows that, I think he knows the importance of visibly leaving the politics behind, and I think he will win over the workforce successfully. I think he understands the job of the Agency, he understands that it’s a national treasure, I think he’ll say that to the workforce and I think he’ll win them over. He has a very interesting personality that is very much like George Tenet’s and Leon Panetta’s warm, open, embracing, sense of humor, smart. I think he’s going to do very well with the workforce.
Challenge number two is the fundamental job of the Central Intelligence Agency is to put facts on the table. That’s a real challenge to do that for a national security advisor and for a President of the United State who don’t like facts that get in the way of their opinions. It is not a coincidence that the President-elect’s first fight in his executive branch is with that organization whose fundamental job it is to put facts on the table, not a coincidence at all. So Mike’s second challenge is how does he put intelligence on the table in a way that is consistent with what the analysts really think, number one, and to make sure it sticks and is actually taken on board by the President and the national security advisor. I don’t know the answer to that question. Its going to be really hard. Its going to be the defining challenge of his tenure as Director of CIA.
Suzanne: You had a personal interaction with Rep. Pompeo when he was working on the Benghazi issue, and you were accused of being political, so how would you rate how he handled that, other than he just took a political line? Cause you still describe him as warm and open, so there are two messages.
Michael: I had a not so favorable opinion of him during the Benghazi nonsense, and I’ll call it nonsense, but after spending time with him since then, and I have spent quite a bit of time with him since then, I believe that the positions that he took on Benghazi and on the Clinton emails were entirely political. He was doing it out of the political interests of his party, which is certainly acceptable for a member of Congress to do. Based on that interaction I’ve had with him, that’s what gives me the confidence, like I said earlier, that he’s going to meet that challenge of leaving the politics behind and convincing the workforce that he’s doing so.
Suzanne: And what level of confidence do you assign to that judgment?
Michael: Ah, great question. Medium to high. And I’m a conservative analyst when it comes to confidence levels.