It was a big national security story only a few days ago, but like any news these days it simply disappeared within some 72 hours.  In case you missed it the essence was that the U.S. intelligence community had determined that Russian military intelligence (GRU) had been engaged with the Taliban to encourage attacks on American forces, and had even offered bounties for American deaths.

While the intelligence community was significantly in agreement to repeatedly put the possibility of Russian involvement with the Taliban in Presidential security briefs, no action at all had been taken in response to the intelligence over a period of several months.  Putting the matter into context, it appears President Trump and his national security advisors had made it so clear over time that president did not want to hear negative intelligence on Russia that there was no taste for pushing the report or forcing the issue of even a minimal response. Of course that in itself is not news by this point in time.

Even when the issue was forced by public exposure, the White House responded that there was going to be no response. The reasons given were diverse, including the fact that the intelligence was incomplete and that not all elements of the intelligence community were able to support it. Intelligence community sources suggested that the report had largely been based on human intelligence, and that while the CIA found them extremely credible, NSA was unable to confirm with technical intelligence.  That would not really be surprising given the nature of the Russian contacts with the Taliban.

What the White House did not comment on was that regardless of the “bounty” issue, the intelligence contained hard data including financial transactions which certainly confirmed that Russian military intelligence was in contact with and engaged with the Taliban – and not in a manner that contributed to the security or military activities of Americans in Afghanistan.

The White House also commented that there would be no response since the intelligence was “not actionable”.  That sounds like a formal term and perhaps it actually meant something – with that in mind a little context is necessary to judge the overall incident and the White House response.

First off, ”actionable intelligence” means only is that the intelligence is specific enough that a threat has been identified to the extent that the source is identifiable, its nature of the threat has been characterized, and plans can be made to deal with it in some fashion.  In this particular instance all of those criteria were clearly met.  

Secondly, threat intelligence is always less than one hundred percent certain and it’s not at all uncommon to find differences in levels of assessment from the various parts of the intelligence community.  That’s why there is a Director of National Intelligence and a staff that is built to be the most experienced and expert resource the nation has available – with the ability prepare the best overall judgement. In this instance that is exactly what was done and why this particular threat made it into the President’s daily security briefing.

One of the major areas of progress in national intelligence over the decades has been to move on from one person decisions within individual agencies or military services. There a number of examples of how one person decisions have led to disasters. For example before Pearl Harbor FBI Director Hoover had been given considerable evidence indicating that Japan was actively collecting combat intelligence for a strike at Pearl Harbor, however Hoover did not endorse nor promote the information and it received no War Department consideration.  During the Korean War, General MacArthur was provided with intelligence pointing to a massive (and imminent) Chinese intervention, but he chose not to credit or endorse the information to the Joint Chiefs or to President Truman, and his forces were shattered by massive Chinese ground forces.

Over the time our intelligence community did evolve beyond that and there is now considerable information sharing, an intelligence group dynamic, and an overall position with the experience and expertise to weigh positions among the agencies and produce a balanced product – which goes to the president.  In earlier administrations that position was headed by the CIA Director, not it’s the Director of Nation Intelligence.  In both instances the intelligence and estimates are gated by the president’s own national security advisor, that is intended to enhance the process and in some cases it has – in other cases it has not.

Late in the Clinton administration a relatively vague but urgent threat emerged, from jihadists who were organizing to make major soft target attacks during the celebrations at the end of the century.  In that case the national security advisor responded and had the confidence of President Clinton and a series of “millennium” attacks were interdicted in both the U.S. and Canada. A year later, much more specific intelligence emerged about Al Qaeda plans to attack the U.S. – either overseas or domestically. In that case the national security advisor, reflecting President Bush’s priorities, gave no particular endorsement to the intelligence, carried out no actionable response and even with special efforts by the CIA to brief President Bush on the threat, no real initiative was launched to deal with it. After September 11 the explanation was given that the threat was too vague and not actionable.

It is fair to say that given the size and nature of the American intelligence community, as of this date no potential threat (whether to the nation, American citizens or its military forces) gets into the president’s daily brief without considerable endorsement to support it.  In particular, nothing about Russia is going to get into President Trump’s briefing papers without having a reasonably  solid level of support. And it’s not going to get there if there are not some sorts of actions that could be initiated to explore it, prioritize or even to reduce or neutralize it. In the end the excuse that Russian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan is going to simply be ignored because it is not “actionable” just does not wash – what it boils down to is yet another matter of personal (albeit executive) priorities as to whether action is taken. 

In this particular instance, the presidential decision not to respond in any fashion may be excused, supported or cursed, however one thing is certain –  it most certainly does provide a window into President Trump’s priorities.

6 responses »

  1. AnthonyM says:

    Hi Larry
    Yes, it got a certain amount of attention over here in the UK, which makes a change as the ‘mass’ news programmes etc have really reduced their coverage of anything not Covid related during all this.
    There is quite a list of things now where Russia has been the main beneficiary of the loss of focus of the USA, particularly in the MENA region, such as Syria, Turkey, Libya etc. May be incompetence but you have to wonder a bit given the way the current administration started off about Russia.

    • larryjoe2 says:

      Whatever the cause, the bottom line is that for Trump, Russia in general – and Putin in particular – are more than just a “non-priority”, they represent a risk (political, personal, who knows). That was clearly true from Day 1, however the same can now be said for Saudi, for North Korea, for Iran, for Turkey and increasingly for Afghanistan. All of them represent areas where he sought to engage and invested time and energy with no useful political return. I find it hard to believe that any of his advisors now spend very much time going over threat intelligence related to any of them.

      What I was really trying to do in this post was to point out that to be useful (which means getting ahead of the curve in regard to potential threats) intelligence briefings are always advisory in nature, always given with something less than one hundred percent confidence (that only occurs when thread turns into reality), and that everything taken to the commander and chief is “actionable” in some fashion – even if action means no more than directing contingency plans be made.

      In the case of GRU engagement in Afghanistan – which was documented – there could have been a number of more positive actions taken and I’m virtually certain they would have been offered to Trump if he had requested options.

      Bottom line – when the White House rebuffs intelligence because its not one hundred percent or fails to respond to it by calling it not actionable, what you are seeing is a failure in command.

      • AnthonyM says:

        Agreed. It’s not just on foreign policy though…some of those Coronavirus press conferences were just surreal. I’m not sure if I’m more alarmed by the actual content and what that indicates of POTUS’ ability to grasp complex facts or the way in which the news media over here began to treat them almost as light entertainment..It became something like ‘we’ve had the really grim news and now for a bit of a laugh lets all go look at this and count ourselves lucky’

  2. larryjoe2 says:

    Why is no one holding him accountable? Speeches on the floor of Congress? Nothing.

    • AnthonyM says:

      And that is a really good question.

      Given that political parties are generally owned, for all practical purposes, by their major donors and manufacture consent for policies that further the interests of their major donors, I suspect the main Republican donors see something in all this for themselves. Not at all clear what that is to me…it may be they are too focused on short term profits to worry too much about these wider issues, but somehow I doubt it.

      I do wonder how far the whole thing can carry on. A system that is designed to progressively extract wealth from the large majority of people and the environment and focus it ever more strongly in the hands of a tiny minority who use that wealth to further their own interests and manufacture consent for it through buying the political process strikes me as fundamentally unstable…if most people see through it, which at the moment they don’t. To keep the show on the road requires ever greater efforts to whip up emotion, fear and ‘them and us’ thinking….

      But as to why this group of countries is so special is a really good question. Isreal + oil might cover most of it somehow but I may be looking for a logic when there is only chaos.

      • larryjoe2 says:

        Its outside of my normal blogging which has to do with Cold War history and national security – but I think the answer lies beyond “logic” and even “rationality”. It has to do with a combination of Skinner’s analysis of conditioned reflex in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” coupled with the biological origins of social behavior, the sort of thing written about in The Territorial Imperative by Audrey or the The Imperial Animal by Tiger and Fox.

        Human groups tend to claim “cultural territories” (which can include economic territories and even geographic “spheres of influence”) and defend them with the same conditioned reflex that we find in purely animal behavior as regards to physical territories. That is where you find truly “deep politics” (and for that matter aggressive religious behavior) – it doesn’t have to be logical, rational or even have any particular survival value. Primates and even heard animals can be found to sacrifice themselves for their groups or for their territories. Political parties, religious fanatics and even nations behave in the same fashion. And at this point it appears that so does the Republican party, especially as typified by its Senate leadership. Territorial defense at its most illogical.

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