While this space usually does not concern itself with domestic matters, there are persistent reports coming out in the media involving serious claims of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. That any foreign intelligence service worried about the outcome of presidential politics would want to monitor the situation is obvious. To take that interest further in an operational sense is difficult and dangerous.
To begin with, there is a vast difference in gathering information for intelligence use and the ability and desire to exploit that information for the sponsoring country’s advantage. This operational difference in covert intelligence gathering and covert action-taking is the basic division in any nation’s intelligence capability. Major countries, such as Russia, have the ability in some instances to meld both activities. However, from a professional standpoint, operations in the area of covert influence are far more difficult and potentially counterproductive in political terms.
Intelligence operations in less developed areas tend to not separate the information gathering and action taking sectors to the same degree as the same type of projects in the more advanced and politically important targets. One of the several important reasons for this organizational challenge is the type of access and assets required to accomplish the objective. Between major services – both friendly and unfriendly – there is usually some form of covert liaison and/or mutual penetration so as to reveal a sense of operational ambition and/or deniability. Even if such contact/analysis is not readily available, covert information gathering is usually available from friendly professional services.
The problem always exists, nonetheless, that foreign services not only have their own interests to serve but also may be passing on concepts unknowingly desired by the target country itself. This is always a challenge in all operations and shared info-gathering. The “quality controls” of other services, no matter how friendly they might be, are always a matter of concern. In the case of Russian targeting any sophisticated service such as the U.S. must be especially cautious in evaluating the “take” even from its most highly valued sources. Innocent mistakes can and are made.
The foregoing therefore requires the maintenance of a broad array of covert (and even overt) assets and capabilities to gather accurate information on the opposition’s aims, ambitions and ability to carry such analysis to a positive conclusion. In other words, in the U.S. – Russian case, Washington’s ability to deeply penetrate Moscow’s appropriate professional service there must be exceptional capability and longevity. Of course, it also works the same way in reverse. For these reasons high-level penetrations and thus equivalent intelligence gathering (to say nothing of action-taking) is extremely difficult especially in human sourcing. Here is where electronic methodology must be counted on to redress the built-in unreliability of “humint.”
The problem in this electronic intercept and codebreaking is that this too is fallible, as all sides know these efforts are ongoing. To counter this, all sides have highly complex methods of countering penetration and false detail covering true activities and information. To make up for this aspect of security weakness most services are forced to rely once again on human contact and information exchange. This circular methodology is obviously a very vulnerable backup activity.
All in all, what this means is that covert Russian operations to gain classified information on high-level U.S. targets may be very desirable, but very difficult and even dangerous in the wider political sense. To turn such information ops into an effective operational activity – such as influencing the American presidential elections – has vast international political and security import. Objectively speaking, an extremely careful daily review of the American media would provide all the information necessary to calculate current domestic factors and actions. Third country cooperative and capable diplomatic and other professional sources provide contacts and information adequate to assist in assessing the gathered information both overt and covert. These are tested against the same “take” provided by the Russian diplomatic staff and others operating under non-governmental cover and even cooperative legitimate commercial concerns.
In the end, the final source for information gathering and/or action-taking is the famous deep cover operative in a high American position – or with access to such. Of course, there are always well-placed individuals who will do almost anything for adequate sums of cash or other advantages. These are the least dependable and usually more easily detectable. However, they do exist.
What this all boils down to in professional intelligence terms is that political operations by foreign nations, such as Russia, are more trouble than they are worth – unless of course they have controlled and capable assets in top-level Washington positions. This is supposedly why the United States has experienced and non-politically aligned counterintelligence operatives. The history books show we used to have them. Have they all died? Happily, the Russians obviously can’t afford to think so!
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