Inside the Ring: Russian intel and Edward Snowden

Russia’s SVR intelligence service, successor to the KGB, is behind a coordinated Moscow campaign to exploit the case of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden by fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in Russia, according to U.S. officials.

State-controlled Russian media in recent days actively promoted an online White House petition urging a presidential pardon for Mr. Snowden. Several news websites posted links to the petition.

The media’s reporting and promoting of the petition were assessed by U.S. officials to be part of a Russian government effort against the United States, said officials familiar with intelligence reports.

The covert campaign is part of a major anti-U.S. propaganda and influence program that has been largely ignored by the Obama administration. Instead, the administration has sought to pretend that Russia and the United States are on a path of greater cooperation and harmony under the administration’s so-called reset policy.

State-run media in the past have used the White House petition site to promote Kremlin policies by telling Russians it is a way to influence U.S. policies, the officials said.

Links to the Russian intelligence effort were traced to a pro-Kremlin activist identified by the officials as Nikolai Starikov, a leading anti-U.S. advocate who writes frequently for Russian news media and other government-controlled outlets.

A U.S. official said that since late 2012, Mr. Starikov’s website (ipolk.ru) has linked to White House petitions more than 50 times.

“Starikov is among the most industrious producers of anti-U.S. messaging in Russia, and he is likely associated with the Russian intelligence services,” the official said.

Mr. Starikov is frequently featured in films made by the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, which has ties to the SVR, the officials said. He also has written several conspiracy-laden books that seek to demonize the United States.

Mr. Starikov told Inside the Ring in an email: “I do not have anything to do with intelligence agencies of Russia, and I am very pleased that my modest contribution to the Russian public awareness about what is happening in the world is estimated [by the] staff of Western intelligence agencies.”

ROCKET CYBERATTACK?

Russia’s space program suffered another spectacular and costly failure on Tuesday, when a Proton-M rocket booster exploded shortly after launch, a disaster that is likely to trigger new Russian claims of sabotage.

According to state-run television Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, determined the launch failure was caused by “an emergency shutdown of the engines” some 16 seconds after liftoff.

Said Roskosmos’ spokesman Aleksey Kuznetsov: “An emergency situation occurred when [the] Proton-M launch vehicle was launched from Baikonour space launch site on 2 July. At the stage of the ascent of the launch vehicle, 16 seconds into its flight, there was an emergency shutdown of the engines and the vehicle fell back into the space center compound.”

The rocket landed about a mile and a half from the launch pad, and did not damage the pad or launch crew, he said. Toxic gas from the fuel was reported in the area.

No explanation was given for the cause of the engine shutdown.

However, in January 2012, the head of Roskosmos suggested that earlier failures of Russian rockets were the result of sabotage.

“I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude,” Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said of launch failures.

Tuesday’s launch failure came amid U.S.-Russian tensions over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, currently in a Moscow airport transit lounge, who initially sought asylum in Russia but then asked 20 other nations for political refugee status.

Russia’s government announced Wednesday that a commission is being formed to find the cause of the launch failure. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin promised to fire space officials found responsible for the failure, the second in the past three years.

Mr. Rogozin also suggested foul play may be involved. “I can say only one thing, that very harsh conclusions will be made regarding this situation. And I would like to tell you that they will be related not only to the search of a guilty person or guilty parties, but they will relate to a much more complex issue,” he told reporters.

It is not known if a sophisticated cyberattack on Russia’s space launch control facility could produce a shutdown of a rocket’s engines.

However, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, cited in a 2011 speech the example of the catastrophic destruction of a water-driven electrical generator at Russia’s Sayano-Shushenskaya dam, near the far eastern city of Cheremushki, in August 2009 to illustrate the kind of damage a cyberwar could bring.

Nine of the dam’s 10 hydro turbine generators exploded when a technician remotely started one of the generators that was being repaired. The result was an explosion that took out eight of the nine remaining generators.

Tuesday’s rocket failure resulted in the destruction of three Glonass satellites, worth an estimated $200 million, that were to be put in orbit as part of a Russia’s version of the Global Position System of satellites.

The satellites are considered a key feature of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces buildup, since Glonass provides targeting- and precision-guidance for missile warheads.

U.S. strategic nuclear weapons and the command systems that control them are vulnerable to cyberattacks, although most are hardened against many types of electronic attacks, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command said Tuesday.

Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the outgoing commander of Strategic Command, testified in March before the Senate Armed Services Committee that nuclear weapons communications are less vulnerable to disruption by computer network attacks.

“We are very concerned with the potential of a cyber-related attack on our nuclear command and control and on the weapons systems themselves,” Gen. Kehler said.

TURKEY SEEKS CHINESE MISSILES

Turkey’s Islamist government reportedly is seeking to buy Chinese air defenses, a plan that is upsetting U.S. and NATO allies concerned about the Ankara government’s anti-Western leanings.

The Istanbul newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported Tuesday that Turkey is close to a decision on purchasing Chinese-made, long-range anti-missile and air defense weapons.

Turkey, a NATO ally, recently was hit with anti-Islamist street protests, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said by U.S. officials to be one of President Obama’s favorite foreign leaders.

“That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” a senior diplomat from a NATO country was quoted as saying of Turkey’s possible arms purchases from China. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system, but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.”

A NATO defense attache in Ankara told the newspaper that Turkey’s deployment of Chinese air defenses would lead to “questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory.”

A Turkish defense official told the paper that Ankara is strongly favoring the Chinese weaponry because Beijing’s proposal was cheaper and allowed for adequate technology transfer.

Contenders include U.S. Patriot anti-missile interceptors, Russia’s S-300 missile defenses and an Italian-French consortium’s system.

The Chinese company bidding for the Turkish contract is the China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp., a state-run company sanctioned by the U.S. government for missile proliferation. It is offering Turkey its HQ-9 missile defenses.

The use of a Chinese air and missile defenses would prevent Turkey from integrating its defenses with other NATO allies.

Richard Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said China and Turkey have been developing weapons together for the past decade.

“China is simply offering a price so low that Turkey simply cannot refuse,” Mr. Fisher said. “But China likely has a clear sales strategy. Buying the HQ-9 SAM will require that Turkey buy Chinese radar and network systems in order to keep the Chinese out of any systems controlled by NATO agreements that would not allow for access by the Chinese.”

MISSILE DEFENSE TEST

The Pentagon will conduct an attempted intercept test of its largest anti-missile interceptor on Friday, the Missile Defense Agency announced this week.

The MDA, along with the Air Force 30th Space Wing and U.S. Northern Command, will test a ground-based interceptor that is part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) of the national missile defense system.

“The GMD element provides defense of the Homeland against the threat of limited long-range ballistic missile attacks,” the MDA said in a statement.

The test will involve a target missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll, in the Pacific Marshall Islands, that will simulate a North Korean long-range missile to be intercepted by the Capability Enhancement I (CE-I) Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which is one of the last stage of interceptors deployed at two bases in Alaska and California.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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