As much as I would like to talk about my newest book I’m going to have to hold off for just a bit – largely due to my frustration over certain current events. Before I jump into that I have to say that – for a change – what is known as the main stream media is doing a great job at covering what I will be discussing in my next couple of posts. They are interviewing people with real experience, doing some strong fact checking and really working at getting their heads around the larger story rather than just giving into sound bytes.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the White House and worse yet of its national security principals, in particular the SecDef and the Director of Homeland Security (the National Security Advisor had gone so silent he’s not even making the uniformed statements we are getting from the first two principals mentioned).
Where to start, well first lets take their position that “back channels” are nothing special and nothing to be concerned about – even when they involve a major player in the Trump campaign and administration who was repeatedly in contact with Russians who are well known to the intelligence community to play point in Putin’s covert political action campaigns. As reference they cite President’s Kennedy and Nixon using back channels and make vague references to it being a common practice.
For those who have not been following the media deconstruction of such remarks, lets delve into that a bit. It is true that JFK was developing a significant back channel to Fidel Castro at the time of his assassination. However he was doing so with the full knowledge of the Secretary of State and using state department employees in what was intended to be an effort to undermine Russian influence in Cuba, very possibly taking Cuba neutral in the process. I’ve blogged and written about this and it should be known that from its inception that back channel contact (originated by Castro) had been known to the CIA as well as other senior administration figures.
What is less discussed is that one of the main reasons for that back channel approach was that both leaders were very well aware of the extent of Russian intelligence collection operations and cautious about the Russians finding out and moving to abort the contact. At that point Castro was very upset with the Russians and had begun actively suppressing the Communist Party within Cuba itself. It has to be stressed that American intelligence was quite well aware of the very active Russian electronic spying operations conducted by their residencies in New York and Washington D.C. and Castro was more than a concerned about huge electronic collections site they had developed in Cuba itself.
In the case of Nixon, Kissinger and the back channel contacts with China, the story was actually quite comparable to that of JFK and Cuba. Nixon was making a move to separate China from Russia, to at least partially deconstruct the alliance known as the Communist bloc and to take advantage of Chinese and Russian territorial enmities that had been developing.
Once again both sides were quite well aware of Russian intelligence and Kissinger went to absurd lengths to hide his communications with the Chinese. However, absurd or not, it was a sanctioned outreach, carried out with due diligence to communications security and most often using secure White House facilities and communications channels.
In no way can the JFK and Nixon back channel communications be compared to what President elect Trump’s son-in-law was doing. Even in the most generous terms his independent contacts have to be considered as what Russian intelligence, both the the FSB and GRU, would view as an invitation to accelerate their “active measures” practices against the American political environment and specifically against the incoming administration. Nothing could be more attractive than seeing “business people” operating in international policy with no advice from intelligence professionals. The Russians have been playing the “Great Game” for centuries. We one can only imagine the glee that would have been expressed over this type of “back channel” into a new administration – especially with the extent to which the Russians had already had access to others involved in the campaign, individuals obviously destined to be playing major roles in forming American policy.
As a footnote, its important not to confuse these sort of back channel contacts with the routine back channels that exist internally in any ongoing administration. Those sorts of back channels involve attempts to use personal contacts to cut through the formal, official and filtered reporting that occurs within the government. We have numerous examples of that, including JFK’s efforts to get the real story out of Vietnam in the face of overly enthusiastic progress reports from personnel in country.
However this sort of back channel is totally domestic, and generally one directional. It involves no dialogs or discussions or potential quid pro quos – it is for information purposes only and all parties are ostensibly on the same side. Of course it would be naive to think that the principals of any Administration do not establish their own similar back channels, its safe to say that each of them wants the advantage of having the most current and realistic data. LBJ’s back channels into Vietnam come to mind in that context.
But the current smoke screen being created to obfuscate the significance of Trump campaign – Russian back channel contacts is only part of the picture. Even if none of those figures had a clue to what was going on, their Russian contacts most certainly understood the potential of the contacts. In that sense I disagree with the current trend to describe it as checker players competing with chess players; I see it more as marble players going up against Russian chess Grand Masters.
Next post I’ll turn my attention to the denial of Russian information warfare in the 2016 campaign, now even something which Putin laughingly admits – calling it an action by individual “patriotic” Russians. The fact that he is taunting the American intelligence community is obvious; the fact that the White House and its senior security principals refuse event to acknowledge that possibility or comment on it is absolutely dangerous.
You actually need to listen to Putin himself to appreciate how much he is enjoying it all: