Monday, November 13, 2017

Putin over reaches himself- but the West must respond.

In espionage the standard of proof is a variable measure. There are very few times that information can be said to be "beyond reasonable doubt". Nuances and circumstances acquire great significance and it requires an analyst with a deep sense of intuition to piece together an accurate narrative from small pieces of partial information. There may be much data, but to find the information it contains is like putting together a shattered mirror, where you do not know whether you have all the pieces. Thus intelligence can be a double-edged sword, and it is dangerous to rely purely on secret intelligence without bringing one's own sceptical biases into the equation.  Spies are much given to using two quotes from Sherlock Holmes: the first dictum is about positive truth: "once you eliminate the impossible, what ever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth". The second is "the curious incident of the dog in the night time" "the dog did nothing in the night time" "that was the curious incident". This second refers to how positive information can be determined by things missing or absent.

I point these things out because the growing awareness of Russian subversion and propaganda in the democratic world is being played out against a very strong background of secret services involvement.  Yet the Russian secret services are rather different from their rivals in the West. As we have seen from the Steele dossier, the primary purpose of MI6 is to acquire secret information from a variety of sources in order to build up an understanding of the direction of Russian actions. The document is written in the fairly standard format of MI6 reports, with as much cross referencing as may be available. By definition it is not a document intended to prove beyond reasonable doubt. Nevertheless the emergence of other source material has substantially corroborated the dossier. By the standards of secret intelligence the dossier is very strong evidence indeed. Where there are faults, they have tended to be the result of caution. For example, Steele writes of a five year business relationship between the Trump organisation and Russian money, the evidence now suggests that the relationship is both deeper and longer -as long as fifteen years- than first alleged.

The Russian security apperat: Internal FSB, external SVR, military GRU and SigInt SSSR, has two mandates. The first is the gathering of secret intelligence. The second is the active disruption and subversion of critical targets. Of course, Western agencies have attempted to disrupt certain targets: terrorist cells, for example, but the difference is that Russia has devoted substantial resources to the disruption of western democracy. This is no longer a matter of opinion: as the evidence grows of Russian government support for an army or information trolls, including millions for false Facebook posts, and the direct financial support for far-right political parties, this is not even a matter of reasonable doubt, it is a matter of fact. Russia is actively campaigning to undermine Western democratic values and norms.

There is now substantial evidence of Russian support for the election of Donald Trump. The fact that Donald Trump says that Vladimir Putin told him that there was no such collusion can be safely put into the "he would say that, wouldn't he" box of political scandals. In intelligence terms the evidence is extremely strong that Donald Trump's campaign self consciously accepted substantial Russian support and that he did this because a large part of his supposed wealth is in fact Russian money and the Russian intelligence services hold kompromat including personally and sexually compromising material on Mr Trump himself.

Meanwhile, it grows increasingly clear that the election of Donald Trump was not the only campaign waged from the Kremlin in the last two years. It is a matter of proven public record that Russian finance supported the election campaign of the far right Marine LePen in France.  The other, far more successful, Russian intervention in European politics was the British referendum vote of June 23rd 2016. Although there is some evidence that Russian money was involved in the Scottish referendum vote of September 2014, the evidence for the EU vote is much stronger. As with the US Presidential election an army or twitter-bots and Facebook propaganda was deployed in support of the Leave campaign. 

Nor was the support simply external to the UK. As we now beginning to understand about the Russian subversion campaign against the US, there were several agents of influence who provided secret back channels of communication and of finance. One of the leading financial backers of the Leave campaign, Arron Banks, has a Russian wife and has publicly praised the Putinist government in Moscow. More to the point, the sources of his apparent  wealth are not transparent. Insurance is a business where changing actuarial assumptions can allow significant changes in the financial position of the company.  Were Russia to wish to launder large sums into British politics, it could be a fairly easy way to do it. 

Although poo-pooed by the Brexit camp, the connections between Nigel Farage and Julian Assange, and his partner, suspected Russian agent, Edward Snowdon, are clearly suspicious in intelligence terms.  The inquiries now underway on both sides of the Atlantic have already proven the intent of the Kremlin to subvert the US and the UK. There is substantial circumstantial evidence that suggests they succeeded in their attempts.

So what now?  Putin played and he won.

Not so fast.

There are material differences between the shallow and weak rule of law in Russia and the entrenched strength of wealthy and powerful western democracies. The appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the Presidential election not only brings one of the world's leading figures in counter espionage to the inquiry; it also brings one of the straightest arrows in US law enforcement.  Mr. Mueller believes in the government of law, not of men, and he clearly considers it is patriotic duty to uncover the whole plot and clean the stables, no matter what. Although Mr. Mueller is working to the highest standards of proof: "beyond reasonable doubt",  it is becoming clear that, as with the substantial corroboration of the Steele dossier, such proofs do indeed exist, as the guilty plea by George Papadopoulos indicates.

The wheels of justice may grind slow, but they do grind fine and eventually, if Bob Mueller has his way, the truth will prevail.

What then?  Russia is already exposed as a hostile power, attacking the West directly or by proxy in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and any other place they can. Russia has been waging a war directly on Western democracy, largely without the notice of all but those most closely involved.  However, as with Japan in 1941, it is very dangerous to launch a surprise attack. The election of Donald Trump and the subversion of the British referendum are, in my view, the equivalent of the burning battleships of Pearl Harbor. However, Russia is weak and poor, and getting poorer.  Even China is cautious about accepting such an unstable and disruptive ally. In Chinese eyes the model is not the Second World War, but the First, with Russia playing the role of Austria Hungary. 

Putin will not survive a determined push back from the West. He has drastically overplayed the hand of a weak, corrupt, poor and divided country: Nigeria with nuclear weapons.

The recent release of the Kennedy papers has shown one critical thing. That Lee Harvey Oswald kept in touch with his KGB handlers, and that the CIA hid this information in order to avoid emotional demands that the Soviet Union be punished, which in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis could have led to nuclear confrontation. It maybe that certain circles in Washington would like to avoid revealing the full scale of the possible involvement of the Trump organisation in what is, after all the most heinous of crimes: treason. This could be for reasons of national prestige or to avoid the threat of a similar nuclear confrontation as might have occurred in 1963.Nevertheless, it is clear that the much of America now clearly understands the direct threat of Putinism to Democracy.

The United Kingdom must now also understand what has been done to them and to respond accordingly.  Ben Bradshaw's request for an enquiry is only the beginning of a process that needs to clean the British stables of corrupt money and Russian influence. 

The circumstantial evidence that secret intelligence relies on already points to something a lot bigger than covert Russian funding of the Leave campaign.  There are significant issues of intelligence interest that demand answers even from serving ministers.  We cannot exclude collusion by figures well beyond the names that are in the public domain.      

            

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