The Mueller probe and a lesson in Russian strategic deception.

The Mueller Probe and a Lesson in Russian Strategic Deception

The Mueller Probe and a Lesson in Russian Strategic Deception

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 3 2017 3:47 PM

A Lesson in Russian Strategic Deception

How Moscow tries to throw us off the trail.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 28.

Adaem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

This piece was originally published on Just Security, an online forum for analysis of U.S. national security law and policy.

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The 2016 election will be remembered for, among other things, Russian attacks including cybertheft, propaganda, trolls, bots, disinformation, efforts to use social media to stoke negative passions, and possible espionage (in common parlance, collusion). Several commentators have correctly reminded us that such activity is wholly consistent with Russian intelligence activity over the decades. As such, we should also be on the lookout for another classic Russian trick: strategic deception. Lack of public awareness about this part of the Kremlin playbook threatens to unravel whatever traction we gain in finding the truth about 2016 and in defending ourselves against current threats and ones over the horizon.

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Strategic deception is a secret, offensive effort to create an alternative narrative that serves Moscow’s interests. Unlike Russia’s fake news and disinformation efforts designed to confuse or meet tactical ends, strategic deception is designed to build a believable and consistent narrative forcing the recipient to take a specific action. It was used in the past to safeguard the identity of Russian spies in the U.S. and uncover perceived threats to the regime. Efforts to deceive are most effective when they play to preconceived notions and tell an adversary something it is desperate to know. In this sense, Facebook and Russian deception have something in common—they succeed by selling us exactly what we want to hear. Facebook tracks your likes and interests, providing you with what you are inclined to believe. Clever deception, especially when dipped in some of the same insights of behavioral psychology, does much the same thing.

While I can’t pretend to know when and how the Russians will undertake a deception operation, my sense is that it will be around the issue of collusion. If there was collusion with the Trump team, the Russians will surely be looking to steer U.S. authorities toward alternate explanations for the activities of 2015 and 2016. If there was no collusion whatsoever, the Russians may follow an alternative strategy of actively promoting the story as a means of weakening the Trump administration and our trust in the democratic system. In either case, their goal is the same: turn the U.S. against itself and protect Russian interests.

Moscow’s effort to safeguard the identity of its spies in 1980s Washington is a classic example of this deception strategy in action.

In the mid-1980s, the KGB was facing a dilemma. They found themselves in the enviable position of having two highly placed spies inside the U.S. national security apparatus—Aldrich Ames at CIA and Robert Hanssen at FBI. The two had informed the KGB of a group of Soviet officials who had been spying for Washington. Despite KGB efforts to quietly remove the traitors from positions of access, the Soviet leadership insisted that the Russian spies be immediately arrested, imprisoned, and executed. The KGB was left with the burden of safeguarding Ames and Hanssen from U.S. officials who would now be looking hard for explanations of why their longtime spies were suddenly uncovered. The Soviets needed to provide alternative explanations rather than allow the Americans to accept the real answer—that they had their own spies in their midst.

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The Russians turned to one of their most developed and time-honored skills sets: deception. They looked to send false signals to the Americans to force them to look anywhere else for an explanation for their losses, and not focus on a possible mole inside the grounds.

The deception effort was aimed directly within the walls of CIA. The KGB knew that CIA was hesitant to again turn itself inside out looking for spies. CIA had suffered through a period of self-destruction at the hands of the recently retired powerful counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, who had convinced CIA leadership that the Soviets were 10 feet tall. The subsequent hunt for moles inside CIA had destroyed careers, severely damaged the effort to recruit new spies and created a sense of paralyzing paranoia within the ranks. Into this atmosphere the Russians sought to create a narrative that the CIA’s 1986 spy losses were a combination of poor CIA tradecraft, KGB luck, a technical penetration of Moscow Station and possibly a breach of CIA communications between their headquarters and the field.

They did this primarily by dangling a double agent to the CIA station in Moscow. Senior KGB counterintelligence officer Alexander Zhomov (GTPROLOGUE) made clandestine contact with the CIA station chief in Moscow and over several months provided detailed information on the KGB monitoring CIA officers in the capital. Zhomov provided a wealth of real, sensitive information that was twisted slightly to shape a narrative that the CIA was ready to accept—that the losses were due to a mixture of CIA mistakes and KGB lucky breaks. Zhomov was taken more seriously than he might otherwise have been due to his high position in the KGB. The CIA was on guard for possible double agents who would sell false or low-value information. Past experience, however, had taught them that the KGB was extremely unlikely to provide CIA direct contact with a senior staff officer with access to the crown jewels for fear that he might be turned. That’s the very risk that the KGB took and changed their MO in furtherance of the highly crafted deception effort to protect their penetrations in Washington.

A separate but complementary project was also launched suggesting the KGB had success breaking into CIA’s encrypted communications, which further taxed the agency’s limited resources devoted to uncovering the reasons for the spy losses. All of these efforts were designed to shape the narrative, send signals to the Americans and buy time that could be used to protect their investments in Ames and Hanssen. Once CIA and FBI had finally untangled it all, the passage of time had bought the KGB several more years to exploit Ames and Hanssen (and others?).

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By the mid-’80s, the CIA was ready to believe almost any other explanation other than the obvious—that they had a mole in their midst. Angleton’s paralyzing paranoia and distrust had torn the CIA apart to the point that the pendulum might have swung too far in the other direction.

Deep knowledge of your adversary is critical in crafting an effective deception effort. The tendency to accept what you want to hear and dismiss what you don’t is a hazard to policymakers and intelligence analysts (and laypersons) alike. We wanted to believe that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Also, for many years the Soviets dismissed the reporting of their best secret source—Kim Philby—because he told them (accurately) that the British Intelligence Service did not have any spies inside the Kremlin prior to WWII. Soviet leadership simply couldn’t believe that they were not the top target of the vaunted British Intelligence Service.

Russia has long experience with strategic deception and has invested heavily in understanding American psychological fibers. Indeed, the first operation of the nascent Soviet intelligence service following the Russian revolution was the creation of an elaborate but fake monarchist organization to attract opponents of the regime. “Operation Trust” ran for several years and led to the (literal) liquidation of the anti-Bolshevik resistance. In the 21st century, Putin has invested heavily in his intelligence services, benefiting from sensitive stolen information from cyberthieves and human spies, to include recently reported NSA breaches and access to Edward Snowden, among others.

In 2016, it was clear that the United States was not ready to defend against Russian interference. Unlike the Europeans who were far more savvy about Russian intentions, there is a tendency in U.S. culture to “trust but verify.” U.S. journalists tend to report about Russia as if it is a Western country where rule of law reigns. We try to verify and question every allegation before we accept the worst. We assume things are on the up-and-up unless we can prove otherwise—innocent until proven guilty.

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Russia benefits from our naïveté. What we need to do first is open eyes to the consistent, decadeslong pattern of Russian attacks. Corruption, espionage, lies, disinformation, and deception are the routine tools of Putin and the Kremlin, and will continue to be so into the indefinite future. We would be better served to assume ill-intent, and not feel obligated to uncover conclusive evidence of wrong doing in every case. Totally uncorrupted business is an aberration in Russia, and we have decades of experience with their use of disinformation and deception to push any agenda that damages U.S. and Western cohesion. While we may not find incontrovertible proof every time, the cumulative and historical effect is that Americans should preserve a very healthy skepticism when evaluating the motivations of the Russian government—guilty until proven innocent. What’s more, because so much of what Russia does is secret and managed by the intelligence services, we are rarely going to be able to develop the kind of “evidence” that we would like to divine guilt or innocence.

As I’ve written recently, I believe that collusion is possible and that the much-maligned Steele dossier is more right than wrong. However, I also suspect that it will be very hard to prove. Into this atmosphere, Russian intelligence will certainly look to frame the narrative to fit their interests. They may, for example, provide a false lead suggesting collusion with the Trump campaign, only to pull the rug later to try to discredit the whole investigatory enterprise. Or they may allow the release of a false and weak form of kompromat on the president to suggest they don’t have anything stronger. Who knows what exactly their craft will deliver to a segment of the population ready to believe a certain narrative. The recent flood of information on Russian troll factories and use of social media may be part and parcel of a Russian effort to divert our attention away from possible collusion. I don’t know. They certainly left many fingerprints in their use of social media platforms. At the very least, however, what we do know is that Moscow will most likely seek to muddy the waters and make it hard to know what information is real, and what’s not. A basic awareness of strategic deception can help us avoid these traps, and pry ourselves loose when we’re found in one.

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John Sipher is a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service.