Several developments this week in stories I’ve been following. I finally have some time to post about them.
Questions about how SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans and the so-called Havana Syndrome have both been subjects of recent intelligence assessments. Intelligence assessments are different beasts from scientific conclusions. I wrote about that for Scientific American.
Intelligence analysis privileges the credibility of sources; science privileges the analysis of data. Intelligence keeps much of its analysis secret; science publishes and argues in public.
Intelligence analysis is a poor way to investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Several good scientific studies, linked in my op-ed, point strongly toward the animal market in Wuhan as being the source. Those advocating an origin in a laboratory have put forth a number of scenarios, and very little data. The overall intelligence assessment ranges from “not enough data,” through most agencies’ “low confidence,” to the FBI’s slightly more confidence in a lab leak.
The FBI botched a somewhat similar investigation into the anthrax letters sent after 9/11. There is no reason to believe their assessment, offered without explanation.
The Biden administration used intelligence powerfully in the runup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The intelligence agencies would do well to learn from that experience.
Classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought in a search of former president Donald Trump’s Florida residence on Monday, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The people who described some of the material that agents were seeking spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. They did not offer additional details about what type of information the agents were seeking, including whether it involved weapons belonging to the United States or some other nation. Nor did they say if such documents were recovered as part of the search. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department and FBI declined to comment.
We do not know what kind of classified, what level of classified, or what those documents say about nuclear weapons – whether it is design information, where they are located, or even if they are about US nuclear weapons.
Joe Biden is running a brilliant information operation, and most of the press isn’t covering it. Probably they don’t see it. They are drawn to the drama of weapons fired, tanks blown up or towed away by Ukrainian tractors, ships sunk. An information operation provides no photos, and its most important outcomes may be things that do not happen.
Since last November, the Biden administration has been using intelligence in innovative ways, molding the narrative and perhaps the course of the war. In past administrations, we’ve become accustomed to intelligence as something to be kept secret, in few hands.
But intelligence is to be used. Think Bellingcat: they use intelligence methods on open-source information in order to expose Russian spies and war crimes. They may keep their materials and investigation secret until it’s done, but then they share it publicly. What Biden is doing is more like that than it is like what the US government has done for some time.
There have been three phases of the information operation so far. Their purpose has been to disrupt Russia’s plans for their war on Ukraine and prevent some of Russia’s worst actions. What we see of them in the news is likely the top of the iceberg. Although this innovative strategy relies on making intelligence public, there still are things we’re not going to hear.
Last week, AP diplomatic reporter Matt Lee badgered State Department spokesman Ned Price about sources for intelligence information. I’m seeing others make similar points to Matt’s on Twitter and in the comments on my latest post at Lawyers, Guns & Money.
The concern is whether the intelligence is accurate, often expressed in a context of the runup to the Iraq war of 2003, implying that the US government might be lying to achieve a particular point. This misses the point of releasing the intelligence and the structure of the situation.
Colin Powell’s testimony to the United Nations was intended to justify an incipient attack by the United States on Iraq. The US intelligence releases are intended to delay or avoid a Russian attack on Ukraine.
Anne Applebaum wants to school American and European diplomats in Russian thinking. Her short op-ed gets a number of things wrong and provides an opportunity to point out how gendered thinking about diplomacy and war can undermine analysis.
The headline and subhead are probably not Applebaum’s, but they are of a piece with the text. “Why the West’s Diplomacy With Russia Keeps Failing: A profound failure of the Western imagination has brought Europe to the brink of war.”
In fact, what has brought Europe to the brink of war are Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine and their demands for, among other things, a radical restructuring of NATO. None of this has to do with the “Western imagination.” The headline places the blame squarely upon the failures of failing diplomacy.
War and diplomacy have long been gendered masculine and feminine, respectively. War is physically active, destructive, a display of strength in which one side will dominate the other. Diplomacy has to do with words and has little public display of its actions, which are physical primarily in body language. Masculinity is valued over femininity and thus war over diplomacy. It’s easy, then, to say that diplomacy is a loser and at fault.
Before the Mueller investigation, there was a counterintelligence investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 elections. That investigation (or those investigations) were supposedly wrapped into the Mueller investigation. Or perhaps they continue today. We need to hear more about them.
The purpose of counterintelligence is to thwart the activity of other countries’ intelligence networks. The FBI gives a more expansive definition. For reasons I don’t fully understand, counterintelligence tends to be even more secretive than ordinary intelligence. It has also developed a mystique that may be keeping reporters from digging into questions that the American public needs to know the answers to. Read More
When you work at a place like Los Alamos, one of the potential job hazards is that the spy services of other countries may try to recruit you. Between required training sessions and the rumor mill stories about successful and other attempts, you learn how it’s done.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen explains some of it. The Donald Trump, Jr., meeting was of a different sort than what I was warned against, although there are many similarities. Read More
The ICA covers similar territory to the Steele dossier. The question of Russian hacking of the election is of concern both to the funders of the Steele dossier and to American citizens generally. In addition, the Steele dossier was available to the authors of the ICA. Since the publication of the ICA, we have learned that the FBI wanted to pay Steele to continue his investigation for them.Read More