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Opinion: Media Too Pliable on Murky Intelligence
Former CIA officer Douglas London questions recent Post, Times stories
RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION WORKS. Of course, too many Americans help by spreading it around. The Kremlin counts on the appeal of conspiracy yarns and the imperative of Occam’s Razor, which postulates that the truth is almost always found in the simplest explanation—no matter, in a world rife with disinformation, how improbable.
Airman Jack Teixeira, ironically, despite sifting through tons of highly classified, verified intelligence documents, apparently believed that the United States was making biological and chemical weapons in Ukrainian labs, created the Islamic State and orchestrated the mass shootings that have plagued this country, all theories openly propagated by the Russian government.
But Teixiera is not alone in his gullibility. What I find even more troubling as a retired CIA operations officer who navigated the world of hidden truths and intriguing fabrications is when respected Western journalists jump at the curious chum that Russia’s intelligence services routinely spoon in their paths.
Moscow’s goal in ginning up conspiracy and falsehood, of course, is to divert attention from the Kremlin’s culpability in a variety of malign deeds and sow divisions among its Western adversaries. A free press should help us counter foreign disinformation, but too often the intense pressure of be-first competition leaves the media vulnerable to Russian tricks. Recently, a number of our most respected periodicals and journalists have published more dubious conspiracy theories concerning the September 26, 2022 sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines than the Kennedy assassinations.
The Washington Post recently published a story with the headline, “U.S. had intelligence of detailed Ukrainian plan to attack Nord Stream pipeline.” The reader moves through 18 paragraphs detailing the plot—as if it's an indisputable truth—before the Post mentions, at last: ”The CIA initially questioned the credibility of the information, in part because the source in Ukraine who provided the details had not yet established a track record of producing reliable information.” After reading “initially,” I assumed the article would later explain how the CIA came around to lending credence to the theory by passing it along to “Germany and other European countries last June.” Spoiler alert: it never did.
The Post based its story on “an intelligence highlight” document discovered among the hundreds that Airman Teixeira stole and circulated in the so-called recent Discord leaks. Readers should be apprised that such “highlights” are often raw intelligence reports gathered and circulated by the staff of the Joint Chiefs to keep their bosses situationally aware. These are not fully evaluated, finished reports. This one was caveated with the CIA’s doubts about the source’s reliability.
There were other red flags the story also failed to fully recognize or chose to omit. It said the CIA’s suspect intelligence came from an unnamed “European partner” which acquired the information from a spy in Ukraine—a spy in whom the CIA lacked confidence. That the “partner” chose not to share the information with Berlin, a European Union and presumably NATO partner, even though it affected Germany’s interests, is curious in and of itself. But that the European service reportedly approved the CIA sharing it with the Germans is another odd twist.
Except in certain very limited cases, usually those of life and death, the CIA respects what’s called the “third country rule” and will not pass intelligence from one partner to another without the former’s approval. The European originator’s reluctance to share the information with the Germans in the first place suggests political considerations and sensitivities. Not all of the European Union members have been as inclined to break ties with Russia and might be more receptive to news that reflects poorly on Ukraine.
The CIA practices a degree of transparency to promote trust and maintain its credibility with its U.S. consumers as well as the foreign partners with which it works. Given the politically sensitive nature of the topic, the CIA would have been obliged to share the information, albeit flagged with caveats, among its domestic and key international stakeholders.
And then what of the caveat itself? The U.S. intelligence community vets sources and their information via a process that assesses veracity, reliability, freedom from bias or hostile control. What those buzzwords mean, in a nutshell, is that in order to stand behind its own reporting, or that from its partners, the CIA has to determine whether the source truly had direct or other access to the information; has a track record of accurately reporting the critical details of an event, meeting or document; or is wittingly or unwittingly providing false information as a double agent under the control of a hostile power or interest.
Not all secrets we obtain are alike. That’s why each CIA report includes a source description and context statement that reflects the originator’s level of confidence in it. This one came with the notice, “buyer beware,” indicating this source flunked one or more of those credibility measurements. Something wasn’t right, but without further derogatory information or insight from its European partner, the CIA passed it along. To be sure, the Post didn’t ignore the issue, but in my opinion it buried an essential element of the story. In doing so, it came off as a patsy to its murky sources.
The Post is not alone. In early February 2023, the legendary American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed to have exposed how a covert U.S. operation, personally approved by President Joe Biden, was responsible for the Nord Stream attack. Even The Intercept, a journal renowned for its exposés and often quick to infer intelligence wrongdoing, suggested that while Hersh’s history merited respectful consideration, caution was warranted. “There is also an emerging counternarrative,” it said, “to Hersh’s reporting from U.S. intelligence that warrants scrutiny, both on its merits and for how it might relate to Hersh’s story.”
In March, the New York Times, the German newspaper Die Zeit and the Wall Street Journal all published stories suggesting that a pro-Ukrainian group had carried out the Nord Stream attack. The Times noted that “U.S. officials declined to disclose the nature of the intelligence, how it was obtained or any details of the strength of the evidence it contains,” but still injected a conspiratorial takeaway, without any empirical evidence, “that the operation might have been conducted off the books by a proxy force with connections to the Ukrainian government or its security services.” The Times’ promotion of its sensational theory lacks important qualifiers, leaving readers to guess at its provenance and credibility. Not good.
Perhaps overlooked but first reported by local Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information, it turns out that a Danish patrol boat photographed a SS-750 class Russian naval vessel that carries a small submarine designed to support underwater operations near the Nord Stream gas pipelines just four days before the explosions. Coincidence? The Post article certainly neglected to mention it.
In fact, the Swedish prosecutor investigating the attack has long maintained that the “clear main scenario” was that a state-sponsored group had been involved. That view is supported by a wide cast of experts who uniformly maintain that the complexity of the operation required equipment and personnel possessed by a short list of major powers that does not include Ukraine or that can be anonymously rented by private interests.
Russian disinformation is nothing new. Its intelligence services are experienced at leaving breadcrumbs and counting on the media to do the rest. The Kremlin has directed covert influence campaigns on a wide range of topics, accusing the U.S. variously of the Red Brigade’s 1978 kidnapping and assassination of former Italian Premier Aldo Moro; of supporting the extremists who seized Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque in 1979 (which inspired Pakistani protestors to burn down the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad), killing a marine security guard; in creating the AIDs virus; and inventing the Islamic State.
Russian endeavors often leveraged forged or manipulated actual documents. But the contemporary information landscape and advent of technology has revolutionized the playing field, as has the ensuing pressure on journalists for scoops. That and the natural appeal of conspiracy theories provide ripe conditions that Russian intelligence exploits. After indictments from Russia’s 2016 election meddling were issued, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin tweeted that, "American reporters who took stories from Guccifer 2.0 or DC Leaks”—disguised Russian accounts that publicized emails detailing conflicts in the Clinton campaign—“have to wonder if they weren't used as a tool of a foreign military intelligence operation against our country."
A RAND Corporation study referred to Russia’s current approach as “the firehose of falsehoods.” Today’s model builds on Soviet Cold War–era techniques but now features high numbers of channels and messages; a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions which “entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience;” dissemination which is rapid, continuous, and repetitive; and an approach that lacks commitment to consistency. Why shouldn’t the mainstream media be as vigilant about Russian (and other) disinformation as it is falsehoods spread by Donald Trump and his minions, which it now routinely—and prominently—describes as “baseless” when warranted.
Journalists and their editors must still do their jobs; democracies demand as much. But they can’t afford to neglect their own tradecraft, which requires a bit more skepticism and far more vetting when the occasional gift horse arrives. Let’s not make our adversaries’ work any easier.###
Douglas London (@douglaslondon5) is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. London served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for more than 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station and as the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia.