In defense of spying
What we can learn from the US success around Ukraine, plus thoughts on the Ford Precedent...
Welcome back to Doomsday Scenario, Issue #7, where we ask whether things are really as bad as they seem? Before I dive into this week’s essay, I wanted to share an op-ed I wrote in last week’s New York Times about the pardon of Richard Nixon, the so-called “Ford Precedent,” and why America should be more comfortable in prosecuting presidents. Or, at least, prosecuting one specific former president. I’m sure we’ll talk more about this subject in the weeks ahead, perhaps relating to a certain southern state that rhymes with SHMORGIA.
I’ve often thought over the past year that living through the US rapidly declassifying and releasing intelligence ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to screw with Putin’s decision making, was one of the most remarkable and surprising US intelligence operations we’ve ever seen—and surely one of the most successful. Now I had the chance to tell the full story of how that operation happened.
For the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, I compiled a POLITICO Magazine oral history of the Biden administration’s run-up to the attack—the year of warnings, amazing diplomacy and secret missions, its remarkable strategy of “downgrade,” and the immediate aftermath of the invasion.
It’s a literal first rough draft of history and unlike anything else you’ll see around this anniversary: Compiled of nearly three dozen interviews by POLITICO’s rockstar team with almost all the top US decision-makers, from the CIA Director to the National Security Advisor to the Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs—even then-UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss!
Read the full thing here:
You could easily teach an entire intelligence, military strategy, or foreign policy seminar off the lessons and observations in this piece—from the challenge of assessing a military’s “will to fight” to the importance of alliances to how the war has been affected by the shortcomings of Russian-style military training vs. NATO-style training. Honestly, I hope someone takes this piece and turns it into a semester-length seminar at Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, or West Point.
The combination of working on this Ukraine history while living through the recent episode with the Chinese spy balloon had me thinking about one of the often-unspoken truths about espionage: As much as we crow, complain about, and combat spying, spying can be really good for the world.
In fact, it’s generally in everyone’s interest for countries to be good at espionage—and for all the efforts major countries put into catching spies and counterintelligence, we as citizens of the world all have in an interest in both friendly and adversarial countries being at least semi-successful with their political and military spying efforts. Successful intelligence gathering promotes geopolitical stability.
In fact, the Ukraine example is a great example of how successful espionage improves stability.
Unpredictability and opacity is bad in geopolitics; it means you don’t know how your adversary (or allies) make decisions, what they’re thinking, what they value, or what they’re doing. (That’s one of the reasons that North Korea is such a difficult regime for the US to deal with — we have almost no visibility into the so-called Hermit Kingdom.) And there are some remarkable examples from history about how bad intelligence destabilizes — in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union and KGB misread the NATO and US military exercise known as ABLE ARCHER as actual preparations for nuclear war and prepared a counterstrike. It took years for the confounded US to untangle the Russian response and the events had a major impact on Ronald Reagan, pushing him to make peace in the Cold War as he realized how close he’d come to stumbling into war.
It’s hard to trust public statements without good visibility into an adversary’s private actions. Are they saying they want peace, but their ammunition factories just switched to 24-hour manufacturing? What’s the level of activity at their air bases? Or, very specifically, in the case of the 2021 crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, are they saying the military movements are an exercise but actually deploying blood supplies to the front lines?
Surprises in geopolitics, politics, and the military realm are usually bad—and spying helps reduce surprises.
The Ukraine oral history is, at its core, a fascinating tale of how American and western intelligence provided unique and early visibility into Russian decision-making and military movements—through NSA intercepts, satellite reconnaissance, and more—that helped set up the Biden administration to rally the world to aid Ukraine in advance.
“It’s a very rare thing in international affairs that you get such a clear, unmistakable and advanced warning of a major geopolitical event,” says deputy national security advisor (and fellow Vermonter!) Jon Finer. “More often, they just happen and you’re forced to scramble and respond and react.”
The article and quotes from senior leaders give hints of just how incredible US intelligence really was. Between satellite imagery and what certainly sounds like highly detailed and exquisitely sourced “signals intelligence” (SIGINT) and “human intelligence” (HUMINT), the US saw the plans come together both back in Moscow and out in the field. Pentagon Under Secretary for Policy Colin Kahl says, “We had pretty good visibility into what the Russians were planning — in fact, probably better than some of the Russian generals and certainly most of the soldiers who carried out that mission.”
That visibility included not just the “what” but the “who.” CIA Director Bill Burns says, “It’s our impression that the basic decision to invade and a lot of the planning was in a circle of probably no more than three or four people around Putin.”
But the Biden administration did much more than just read intelligence. What made the Ukraine run-up so fascinating to watch unfold was how the White House uniquely and unprecedentedly weaponized that same intelligence—declassifying and making public information that would normally be kept under very close wraps, information that helped defeat Russian strategies to provoke war. The speed of that information translating from highly classified to public statements from places like the White House press podium stunned many longtime intelligence practitioners. I’ve heard from so many over the last year at their near-wonder in reading secret intelligence and then, almost simultaneously, looking up at the TV to see officials announcing warnings to the world based on that information.
Much of the run-up to the war was marked by the US having better intelligence than the world was ready to comprehend; there were months of diplomacy in the fall of 2021 and early 2022 in part because the US could see the war plans but even seasoned leaders and diplomats in Europe couldn’t comprehend such an action.
As the US ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, says, “People had a hard time believing that there was going to be a major land war in Europe. ‘Yeah, maybe it’ll be like 2014-15 — there’ll be some ‘little green men,’ and there’ll be a minor incursion here, etc.’ I was saying: ‘No. What they’re massing is not what happened in 2014-15. This is a World War II-style, or 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia-style military operation.’ That’s what they had trouble wrapping their minds around.”
It took repeated briefings from the US and allies like the UK to put the pieces together and bring the world around to the seemingly inevitable—even though, right up until the end, everyone couldn’t fathom Putin would make what seemed like a colossal miscalculation.
As Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, says, “What was hard to process was that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was going to happen, and yet the intelligence also overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was — I think the technical term is — ‘a crazy thing to do.’ It’s weird to process both of those at the same time: OK, this is going to happen, and it is really strategically, morally bankrupt, and bereft of common sense — yet, there they were, going off to do it. There was an element of ‘What the hell are you guys thinking?’”
The end result, of course, was the US, Europe, and western allies were well-positioned, prepared, and poised to react by the time Russia crossed the border on February 24th last year — making sure that, besides Ukraine, the primary country destabilized by Russia’s action was Russia, not the west.
That advantage and success was delivered by the remarkable success of US intelligence. I’m generally doubtful of the whole self-congratulatory intelligence maxim of “Our failures are known, our successes are not,” but the run-up to the Ukraine invasion will surely be taught by history as a tremendous success and one that the US government should be proud of and one that we as taxpayers are proud of too.
I hope, moreover, that lessons from Ukraine will also lead the government to continue to declassify more intelligence faster. As we all know by now, the US government hides too much for too long.
PS: A fresh reading recommendation for you: Will Sommer’s new book on QAnon just came out, which I had the chance to read and blurb last fall. QAnon of course is a hugely important (and deeply corrosive) phenomena for our politics today, and this is the first great explanation of what it is and how it happened—although I should warn you, I wrote Will after reading and said, “I thought reading a book about QAnon would finally make it make sense, but it actually makes even less sense the more you learn about it.”
As I said in my blurb: Will Sommer all but invented serious cultural reporting on the far right, inhabiting the worst corners of the internet so that the rest of us could understand them, and his new book on QAnon serves as a vital road map to one of the strangest and most disturbing movements of modern politics. Writing with insight, empathy, and historical expertise, Will masterfully documents how a random anonymous internet post on Reddit in 2017 rose up and swallowed the Republican Party.