Reality check: Where Russia has allegedly meddled

CNN's John Avlon breaks down Russia's suspected interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum and across Europe.

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 5:10 PM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 5:28 PM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States, modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily.

With a new year around the corner, let's all resolve to play a little harder to get.

As we look toward 2019, the intelligence community's work identifying and ranking worldwide threats -- from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to human health and economic growth -- helps policymakers identify where to allocate resources.

Last year's Worldwide Threat Assessment devoted a significant amount of attention to the risk posed by foreign intelligence services seeking to infiltrate our government, collect national security or proprietary information and sow distrust through influence operations.

Counterintelligence (CI) operations are nothing new, but we're currently making it too easy for foreign agents to assess our intentions, penetrate key organizations and manipulate decisions to suit their own needs -- which are often inimical to our own.

Foreign intelligence services have different reasons for deploying counterintelligence tools against us -- China is often motivated by a competitive desire to gain a commercial and military edge over the United States, while Russia's operatives are often deployed to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order. But they probably all share the view that their jobs have gotten significantly easier these last two years.

Going into the new year, any assessment of how to mitigate counterintelligence risks should focus on some key lessons:

You didn't win a popularity contest: Foreign intelligence agents want to penetrate our decision-making apparatus so that they can get good information on what our next moves may be and influence our decisions. That means that anyone with access and influence is a prime target for foreign agents. Members of campaigns, government employees, powerful lobbying organizations like the NRA, or executives with friends in high places are ideal recruitment targets.

It's no coincidence Americans become popular with foreigners when they join a campaign or accept high-profile jobs. Their phones start ringing because foreign intelligence services are hoping they have the inexperience, lack of judgment or ill intent that will make them susceptible to manipulation by skilled counterintelligence agents.

In other words, it's not an accident that the Russians contacted so many campaign, transition team and administration officials. And it's also not an accident that Maria Butina cozied up to high-profile GOP figures and the NRA. The more power you have, the more popular you are -- even if it means attracting the wrong crowd.

In light of several successful CI operations coming to light, brushing up on how to report foreign contacts may be a good New Year's resolution. Government employees are supposed to conduct foreign engagement through official channels and on official devices and to report any other contact to their security contacts. Campaign and private sector officials should go to law enforcement if there's any sense that they're being targeted as a CI target.

Play hard to get: Assessing intentions is a key part of any good spy game. Foreign intelligence services have historically had to work very hard to get information on presidential pressure points and what influences executive thought processes. This painstakingly collected intelligence probably served as a blueprint for enemies as they consider the ways to manipulate a president to make decisions that benefit their interests.

It's a whole different ball game today. In the age of social media, the more content that a president or any other senior officials put into the public sphere, the easier it is for foreign agents to glean useful information on how to push their buttons. Pavlovian Twitter responses to negative media coverage, for example, or perpetuating conspiracy theories make the process ripe for exploitation via influence operations and direct communications.

Playing hard to get is what's best for our country. Keeping tweets, tirades and other public engagements focused on policy would make it harder for foreign agents to manipulate important assets through influence operations and to get a leg up. We don't have the same kind of insights into other leaders' trigger words. Vladimir Putin doesn't wear his heart on his Twitter sleeve.

The lying game: Lying to the FBI and to Congress isn't just illegal, it's also a gift to foreign intelligence services. Anything that a foreign government knows about an American with access and influence (that the US government doesn't know) is a potential opportunity for bribery. Lies are foreign agents' kryptonite, especially if exposing those lies could put an American in legal jeopardy with law enforcement. Foreign agents can threaten to expose those lies unless their target cooperates with their requests.

Honesty is the surest way to stay out of jail and to avoid becoming an asset for foreign intelligence. The truth may hurt, but it will help our national security.

We're also assessing evolving developments on the following issues:

Abusive Behavior: The failure to punish China for its ongoing human rights abuses against religious minorities means that they're still at it. New reporting that China has detained 100 Christians follows other assessments that they are persecuting thousands of Muslim Uighurs, which could trigger US sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. But because we haven't punished China for their human rights abuses, it's unlikely they'll stop what they're doing anytime soon. However, actively pursuing Global Magnitsky Act investigations and sanctioning those involved in these abuses is a first step toward deterring more abuse.

Phone a friend: The outlook for the UN-brokered ceasefire between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels in Yemen is tenuous, especially with the news of ongoing fighting and allegations of truce abuse already coming out. If the ceasefire breaks down, millions of Yemenis will continue to suffer from severe food and medicine shortages, not to mention continued violence. The close relationship between the White House and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could prove helpful this week. Urging the Saudis to maintain the ceasefire, with additional pressure from Congress, could be an important message for the Crown Prince to hear.

Making (some) amends: Against a backdrop of ongoing violence and the death of another American service member, Afghan, Pakistani, and Chinese officials met in Kabul this weekend to discuss ongoing cooperation. The United States was not included in this tripartite meeting.

The decision to cut off more US foreign assistance to Pakistan as a means to pressure Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan into helping end the nearly two-decades-long conflict in Afghanistan has yet to bear fruit. But sending the top US Envoy to Islamabad and publicly acknowledging our request for assistance could help smooth things over. However, without a promise to resume US funding, it's unlikely that Khan will keep the US informed about his efforts -- or his real intentions.

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