Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Russia-U.S. Intel Relations and the Need for a Delicate Balance

In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has come under scrutiny for its handling of a request made by the Russian government in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev be questioned by federal agents for his possible adoption of radical Islam. Apparently, federal officials found no reason to pursue the accusations after preliminary questioning back in 2011, having deemed Tsarnaev not to be a threat--something which we now, most unfortunately, know not to have been the case.

Senator Susan Collins (R- Maine) was quoted by the Associated Press as citing "serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information... not only among agencies but also within the same agency in one case," after a closed hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Collins' colleague, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R- Georgia), said he could not see "anybody yet that dropped the ball," but was still looking into whether information was properly shared. “If it wasn't, we've got to fix this," he stated according to the AP. Later during a closed briefing by the House intelligence committee, Congressman Charles “Dutch” Ruppensberger (D- Maryland) stated that, based on testimony, the FBI followed proper procedures, which ultimately led to the closing of the Tsarnaev case in 2011.

Whatever happened, this is a case-in-point of a disadvantageous overall trend in Russia-U.S. intelligence relations. Make no mistake, Russian intelligence activity directed against the West has come back with a vengeance, thanks, in part, to the fact that Russia’s chief political leader is a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, and that several top positions in government and business (often interlinked) have gone to former KGB colleagues (collectively known as the siloviki, which translates loosely as “strongmen”).
The bottom line is that there was a dangerous lack of cooperation between the Russian and U.S. intelligence communities, yet at the same time, given so much overt hostility between the two sides, this should not come as a great surprise. Nevertheless, it is a deficiency which must be corrected, for while counterintelligence against Russian espionage threats are, and should remain, remain a top priority for the U.S. and its chief allies, Russia and the United States do, at the same time, face mutual threats to their respective national securities. It is imperative that U.S. intelligence officers devise a way to cooperate with Russia on areas of mutual concern while also safeguarding America's national security against the threat of Russian intelligence – in short, to strike a delicate balance between cooperation and caution.

Russian intelligence activity against the U.S. and its allies (especially Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, with which the U.S. has extensive intelligence-sharing agreements, such as the UKUSA Agreement of 1946) has continued well after the Cold War. In 1994 and 2001, two U.S. citizens (Aldrich Ames of the CIA, and Robert Hansson of the FBI, respectively) were arrested and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling secrets to Russian intelligence officials.
More recently, we have seen a spread of Russian espionage activity, such as the Illegals Program involving Anna Chapman, the sale of nanotechnology by Texas-based businessman Alexander Fishenko to Russian military intelligence, and attempted penetration of the British and Canadian navies by Russian intelligence. Jonathan Evans, director of MI5, the U.K.’s domestic intelligence agency, famously stated that Russian espionage activity in Britain was back at “Cold War levels,” a reality which, once again, has direct implications for U.S. national security. With all of this Russian activity, it is completely understandable that the U.S. intelligence community should be wary of Moscow and its intentions.

The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, published every year by the Director of National Intelligence, has consistently cited both counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence as top security priorities for the U.S. over the past several years. While Russian espionage activity has been a major target of American counter-intel operations (although China is cited as the biggest threat in corporate and cyber espionage), both Russia and the U.S. face a mutual threat in Islamic terrorism.
The cause for independence in the predominantly Muslim republics in southern Russia (such as Chechnya and Dagestan) has become hijacked by the broader, worldwide Islamic jihad, with deadly results for the Russian people. Thus, not only do Russia and the U.S. face a mutual threat from Islamic terrorism, the threat emanating from this particular region extends to both Russia and the U.S. (as an aside- the FBI’s recruitment website,, lists “Caucasian languages” as a critical skill needed in the recruitment of Intelligence Analysts, which is evidence of how the North Caucasus is also a security priority for the U.S.).

While we cannot be certain of anything at this point, we must entertain the possibility that part of the reason the FBI did not see Tsarnaev as a threat in 2011 was because of the FBI’s relationship with the FSB (essentially, the FBI’s Russian counterpart, and successor to the KGB), which we can imagine must be rather poor and fraught with mistrust. The FBI states that they received an initial tip from the Russians, but when the FBI asked for a follow up on the allegations, they did not receive anything from the Russian security services, and thus, followed the proper protocol by closing the case against Tsarnaev. The Russian security services should have been more diligent in its relationship with the FBI, the failure of which to do so has cost lives and untold damage.

Recently, we have seen not only a dangerous lack of cooperation but even overt hostility between Russian and U.S. law enforcement and intelligence organizations in fields other than counter-terrorism, such as Russian attempts to stem U.S. counter-narcotics activities in Central Asia: a strong presence by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Central Asia is seen as encroaching upon not only the FSKN (the DEA’s Russian opposite number) but Russian geopolitical hegemony in the region in general. Never mind that the Central Asian drug trade, mostly emanating from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, presents a threat to both Russia and the U.S., especially since much of the money earned from this illicit trade is used to fund terrorism (I will be publishing more on this topic soon).  

Obviously, much of the findings produced from closed Congressional hearings, internal investigations, and the like, will not be known or made for public consumption, except in the event that something should be leaked to the media, of course. And as Senator Chambliss has stated, we still don’t have any conclusive evidence of a failure or mishandling by the FBI, but the notoriously poor relations between the Russian and U.S. intelligence communities may indicate that such a lack of cooperation on certain issues can have deadly and destructive results. Thankfully, we have seen an indication of acknowledgement to correct these relationships. “The need to open FSB and FBI offices in the U.S. and Russia respectively has been mooted for years. The latest situation proves that this is necessary,” says retired KGB colonel Gennady Gudkov.

The specter of Russia-U.S. cooperation on security issues to meet a common threat is not without precedent. Of course Russia (then as the Soviet Union) and the U.S. came together to defeat the mutual threat of Nazi Germany and, toward the end of the war, Imperial Japan. More recently, a group of former Russian and U.S. intelligence officials based at Harvard’s Belfer Center, known as the Elbe Group, have come together to work on ways to prevent that most unthinkable and horrific threat, namely, nuclear terrorism.
If, in both of these cases, two groups of people otherwise opposed to one another can come together in cooperation--not based on a feel-good spirit of solidarity but rather the need for survival and security--then there must be a way that Russian and U.S. intelligence communities can find a way to cooperate more closely on other issues of mutual concern. To be frank, it is a tall order, but if the U.S. is to protect its own national security, the U.S. Intelligence Community will need to devise a way to counteract Russian intelligence penetration of its security organs, while at the same time, not letting this defensiveness inhibit cooperation between the two countries on very real threats of mutual interest. Likewise, Russia would do well to be more diligent in its relations with the U.S. intelligence community. It is, after all, not a polite request, but a matter of security for both countries.  

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