How US Got Intelligence on Russia vs Ukraine Right (cf. Iraq failure 2003 and collapse of USSR)–and the USSR, now Russia, as an Intelligence Target

(Map at top of the post is from a CNN article Feb. 18.)

Excerpts from a piece at Talking Points Memo:

Should We Be Surprised US Intelligence Got It Right?

By Josh Marshall|

I wanted to address a few points that have come up in discussions about the Ukraine Crisis in recent days and which John mentions below. I’ll start with the question of U.S. intelligence estimates about an imminent Russian invasion which appear to have been very accurate both in the overall prediction and the specifics of how one would take place.

I’ve seen a number of people say this was a surprise or at least not a given because of the intelligence failure that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But I view this very differently.

We should remember that the U.S. intelligence community actually had a fairly good read on Saddam Hussein, who he was and what weapons capacity he had. Yes, they assumed he continued to maintain stockpiles of chemical weapons. But that was a reasonable assumption inasmuch as he had had them and used them on civilians previously. As we later learned he went to great lengths to create the perception that he still had chemical weapons for their deterrent effect. Also critical: mustard gas or even sarin gas in Iraqi possession had only very limited relevance to U.S. national security. The U.S. intelligence community didn’t have much evidence and made little claim that Iraq had any biological or especially any nuclear weapons capacity.

That is, until the Bush administration started pushing them to find it.

Faulty intelligence didn’t drive the U.S. to invade Iraq. The drive to invade Iraq lead to the manufacture of faulty intelligence [emphasis added–see this post for what I think was the Bush administration’s real motive–fear: “Iraq War II, Intelligence… and Doug Feith“]

The intelligence assessments that were eventually produced still pushed back on the various hyperbolic and often baseless claims administration officials made in the lead up to the 2003 invasion. But they gave them enough backing to leave the CIA and other intelligence agencies holding the proverbial bag when it all fell apart in the months after the invasion. Part of the hoodwinking was created by the neologism of “weapons of mass destruction,” a phrase which conflated low consequence issues like battlefield mustard gas with potentially catastrophic or even existential threats like biological and nuclear weapons…

The CIA [also] somewhat notoriously missed the series of events that led to the liberalization and then internal collapse of the Soviet Union [emphasis added]. This was mostly the economic underperformance (in part tied to laggard technological innovation) which made Soviet military expenditures increasingly difficult to sustain and which spurred the political and economic liberalization which precipitated the state’s collapse.

U.S. intelligence did miss this…

…What it all comes down to is that yes, the CIA and broader U.S. intelligence community did miss many of the signs of the coming Soviet collapse…

…none of this is terribly flattering. It shows how the U.S. intelligence apparatus has been prone to influence by interested political actors — actors not so much interested in quality and accurate intelligence estimates as ones that would support their desired policies.

Which brings us to the last month and the U.S. intelligence on an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. We’ve discussed in recent weeks how there are definitely reasonable arguments that the U.S. helped create the current crisis with its decision to expand NATO to the east starting in the mid-1990s [emphasis added, see this post: “Former US Ambassador to Russia, now CIA Director, Called Out US Policy on Ukraine/NATO when still a Diplomat“]. But it goes without saying that the Biden administration was not looking for a military or diplomatic confrontation with Russia. It’s not in its policy DNA, and, even if it were, this was very ill-timed from a U.S. perspective. So I would assume the administration was getting the information the CIA and even more importantly the military intelligence agencies were sending them — and acting on it without putting their thumbs on the scales [emphasis added].

If anything I suspect that they were likely skeptical of these reports, at least because such a crisis was so unwanted and ill-timed and also because — even now — the decision-making on the Russian side seems quite questionable.

The other part is: let’s look at the subject matter we’re talking about. Even with all the post-9/11 reorientation toward non-state actors and terrorism, if there’s one thing that has always been in the U.S. intelligence community’s wheelhouse it’s orders of battle, military intelligence and tactical operations by the Soviet Union and Russia [emhasis added]. This isn’t alleged cryptic planning for doomsday weapons in the Middle East or the kind of amorphous technological and economic stagnation that was beginning to set in in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. This is battlefield deployments, command and control, planning and tactical communications on the part of the Russian military. Again, they should be pretty good at that. And it turns out that they were [and note OSINT map at top of the post].

This isn’t any brief for the U.S. intelligence community. I assume they’re as good or as fallible as most great power intelligence agencies. But if we’re expecting them to get things wrong “like they did in Iraq” we’re probably going to miss the big and small picture. Because that gets the history all wrong.

Josh Marshall (@joshtpm)  is editor and publisher of TPM.

And for an historical overview on intelligence collection vs the USSR (esp. hard for HUMINT), and the present situation, see this excellent article at War on the Rocks (note OSINT today):

Can Intelligence Tell How Far Putin Will Go?

Calder Walton

Calder Walton is the assistant director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, and director of research of its Intelligence Project. His new book, Spies: Russia’s Hundred Year Intelligence War with the West, will be published by Simon & Schuster (U.S.) and Little Brown (U.K.).

As the intel world turns.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

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