Russian intelligence targeting of US began a decade ago

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday expelled 35 Russian diplomats and their families from the U.S. as a part of a wide-ranging response to aggressive Russian cyber activity and harassment of U.S. diplomats inside Russia. This latest move, however, is just the latest in a tumultuous relationship between the countries.

The affected Russian diplomats, who reside in Washington and San Francisco, have been given three days to pack up and leave. In addition to declaring the Russian diplomats Persona Non Grata (PNG), two recreational compounds have been closed in Maryland and in New York.

The broader sanctions target five intelligence agencies and two top Russian government officials.

In a joint statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said malicious cyber activity “by Russian intelligence services is part of a decadelong campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. Government and its citizens.”

The statement continued, “These cyber operations have included spearphishing, campaigns targeting government organizations, critical infrastructure, think tanks, universities, political organizations, and corporations; theft of information from these organizations; and the recent public release of some of this stolen information.”

“In other countries, Russian intelligence services have also undertaken damaging and disruptive cyberattacks, including on critical infrastructure, in some cases masquerading as third parties or hiding behind false online personas designed to cause victim to misattribute the source of the attack,” the statement said.

U.S. shift opened door for Russian malicious activity

In February 1993, about 18 months after the fall of the Soviet Union, Jim Woolsey, President Bill Clinton’s CIA director, testified before the Senate during his confirmation process. During the session, he was asked, “How do you see the post-Cold War environment?”

Woolsey answered, “We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of.”

In the ensuing years, “the dragon” — also known as Russia, according to intelligence experts — has taken advantage of a shift in focus by the U.S. government when it comes to its enemies.

David Kilcullen, former chief strategist in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq War, told WTOP the shift provided time for the Russian government to regroup.

“For 10 years, from 1993 to March 2003, we lived in a Woolseyan security environment where we just worried about nonstates, failing states and weak states — things like peacekeeping in Bosnia or Rwanda or Somalia. We didn’t worry about state adversaries because the Russians were gone from the scene as a major adversary — temporarily.”

The decision carried with it unforeseen consequences. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent war, U.S. adversaries began to learn about critical U.S. defense strategies.

Kilcullen, who also served as special adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the U.S. unintentionally divulged key defense tactics to its adversaries during the Iraq campaign.

“After 2003, when President Bush invaded Iraq, we found ourselves massively struggling with a series of nonstate actors. We inadvertently showed all of our potential state adversaries how to fight us.”

Origins of the Russian plotting

The post-Cold War Russian government led by Vladimir Putin was militarily weak, nearly broke and embarrassed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Putin was determined to restore Russia’s image as a world player.

In 2008, Sergei Tretyakov, a former top KGB and SVR spy who later defected to the U.S., told WTOP during an interview that the “more Russia has money, more aggressive Russia will be [sic].” He was referring to Russia’s plans to bounce back economically and use its global economic position to attack the U.S.

“I’m not a Boy Scout; I’m not an alarmist, and I’m not an analyst. But, I know what the Russians are doing because I was part of that governmental team that developed those plans,” Tretyakov said, divulging his own connection to the Russian plot for revenge. “I know what their plans are and what the nature of today’s Russian government is.”

“Russia will do everything it can to undermine American interests,” Tretyakov added.

Tretyakov even pointed out in 2008 during the conflict between Russia and Georgia that Russia’s ultimate goal was to send a message to the U.S.

“What happened in Caucasus was not against Georgia. Georgia is an important player, but not that important. The whole Russian escapade in Georgia is aimed against the USA,” Tretyakov said.

“Why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because Georgia is the closest and only real ally of the U.S. and NATO in the whole region of the Caucasus.”

Tretyakov, who died unexpectedly in 2010, predicted, almost by chapter and verse, the Russian anti-U. S. activity that has unfolded in recent years. Having worked with U.S. intelligence after his defection from the Russian Mission in New York, Tretyakov claimed to have given thousands of documents to U.S. authorities regarding Russia’s plans and activities.

The U.S. intelligence has never commented publicly on his role in its activities regarding Russia.

“I watch Russian TV on a regular basis and I see the people I used to know, like Mr. Lavrov, Putin and others and it’s absolutely clear to me who was the real target of these actions [in Georgia], and it’s the USA,” Tretyakov said during the 2008 interview — one of many with WTOP.

The cycle continues

As the Obama administration proceeds with plans to retaliate against Russia for meddling in the 2016 election and other grievances, there is a growing concern that other U.S. adversaries might follow Russia’s lead during the transition period between presidents.

“If you’ll recall, right after the elections I predicted that our adversaries would try to take advantage of this transition period,” said Mike Maness, director of Trapwire and a former CIA covert operative.

“China is grabbing U.S. Navy drones, Russia is upping its game, and it’s probably not long before Iran and North Korea increase targeting of the U.S., and terror groups are probably not far behind.”

Maness said on Thursday “harassment of US government officials at embassies, provocations of our military forces, increases in espionage against critical infrastructure and personnel, anti-U.S. rhetoric in the foreign press are possible tactics that it might use.”

Russia has already announced it will retaliate against whatever actions the Obama administration takes.

U.S. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday she is anticipating strong action from Russia.

“We are tired of the lie about the ‘Russian hackers,’ which is being poured down in the United States from the very top,” Zakharova said.

She warned that Russia would respond to any manner of “hostile steps” the U.S. undertook.

Zakharova said their response would address “any actions against the Russian diplomatic missions in the US which will immediately ricochet [sic] the American diplomats in Russia.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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