Has Putin already won? He divides US intel from political leaders

On Capitol Hill this week, we witnessed the much anticipated questioning of FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers by the House Intelligence Committee on Russia's intelligence operations against the United States during the 2016 elections.

Was it Putin’s objective to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections?  Or was his objective to generally undermine confidence in our electoral system and our democracy?  These, and many other questions, must be asked and answered.

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However, there is another, equally nefarious objective that Putin has also pursued through his covert influence operations, but it has yet to be discussed in any meaningful way among our political leadership.  It is Putin’s goal to undermine his enduring adversary: the U.S. Intelligence Community.

 

While Putin’s objectives through these “active measures” have been multi-faceted, I believe one of Putin’s key, strategic goals from the get-go has been to drive a wedge between the U.S. Intelligence Community and U.S. political leadership — not to mention the American public.  By creating this wedge, Putin likely surmised that new constraints would be placed on the U.S. Intelligence Community by our political leadership — thereby providing him more freedom of maneuver to pursue his other objectives.

There are three bits of information over the last two weeks that demonstrate to me that Putin may already be winning.

First, on March 7, Wikileaks dumped the “biggest ever” leak of classified documents that outlined alleged CIA hacking tools and capabilities.  This is significant because it was intended to subtlety raise questions about whether the CIA uses these capabilities against Americans — given the common nature of the products that it alleged the CIA could hack: Apple's iPhone, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows, and Samsung smart TVs.

In fact, one has to look no farther than Edward Snowden’s tweets to understand the real objectives of this dump: scaring the American public.

Second, during the March 20 House Intelligence Committee hearing, Director Comey testified that Russian intelligence uses a cut-out to work with Wikileaks.  This is noteworthy because it shows that Russian intelligence is working covertly to influence our population.  One can only assume that they are not just working through Wikileaks.

Third, Members of Congress are already raising questions about the U.S. Intelligence Community’s activities.  During the March 20 hearing, Members, including Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Democrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Democrats seize on Mueller-Barr friction MORE, raised the specter that the upcoming reauthorization of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) was at risk: “We both know it's a threat to the reauthorization of 702 later on this fall.”  

Even though the reauthorization of section 702 had nothing to do with specific topic at hand (as Comey went on to point out, and Gowdy subsequently acknowledged), this is, nonetheless, revealing because it shows how quickly the various activities of the U.S. Intelligence Community can be conflated with one another within our public discussion, and then called into question.  

All of the questions being investigated by the FBI and the House and a Senate Intelligence Committees on Russian ‘active measures’ during our elections must continue.  We cannot afford even the perception that a foreign power meddled and affected the outcome of our elections.  

However, we also cannot lose sight of Putin’s real and immediate objective. Putin wants to constrain the very entity that works against him every day: the U.S. Intelligence Community.  It is important that throughout the investigatory processes, all Members of Congress and the President keep this in mind — and not inadvertently do Putin’s bidding.

We must stand by our civilian and military intelligence officers who risk their lives to serve us.  We must gain greater clarity into Russian intelligence activities in the United States and Putin's goals through such activities.  And, above all, we must never lose sight of who actually wants America divided and weakened: Vladimir Putin.

But, sadly, I do fear that Putin may have already succeeded — in further dividing us.

Alex Gallo is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee for five years. He is a West Point graduate and combat veteran and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review, The Hill and Foreign Affairs.


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