NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Countering foreign strategic deception operations has been one of the official missions of all U.S. intelligence agencies since the Reagan administration.
But now one of the last units devoted to counteracting foreign lies, deception and denial of information by states like China, Russia and Iran is being closed down, U.S. officials tell Inside the Ring.
The counterdeception unit, known as the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee, is part of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a high-level analysis group of both officials and private sector experts located at CIA headquarters but officially part of the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
For more than 30 years, all intelligence agencies have been required to operate internal units devoted to identifying and countering disinformation and deception operations. The reasons were simple: to prevent strategic surprise and to stop false or misleading information from causing U.S. leaders to make wrong decisions based on false premises.
An example of a successful strategic deception operation has been China’s success in persuading American leaders and the general public that Beijing, despite being a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship that views the United States as its enemy, poses little or no threat. Successive presidential administrations have been caught up in the deception, resulting in many misguided policies. Only recently are some in U.S. government beginning to challenge what has been dubbed “groupthink” on China as wrong and harmful to long-term U.S. national interests.
According to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, bureaucratic resistance within the intelligence community, combined with the policies of current intelligence agency leaders, has resulted in most of the counterdeception units being eliminated, except for the NIC committee that, until the mid-2000s, was headed by Lawrence K. Gershwin, a longtime strategic intelligence analyst who warned about the threat of campaigns to deceive U.S. policymakers.
Those familiar with the committee say the opposition to counterdeception units arose from those in charge of spy agencies who argued they clashed with the current political narrative that says foreign powers today pose minimal threats and that limited resources should not be focused on foreign efforts to deceive and influence the United States.
Mr. Gershwin outlined the need for counterdeception in a 2006 paper produced for the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee.
“As a nation and a community of intelligence professionals, we must strive to reduce our vulnerability to strategic surprise, mistakes and omissions across the spectrum of threats to national security due to foreign denial and deception,” he stated. “This will require innovative thinking on the part of intelligence analysts and collectors and a renewed vigor in further studying and applying the best of counterdeception methods and analysis from across all disciplines.”
In one committee publication, analyst Barton Whaley stated in the preface to a bibliography of counterdeception: “The ideal deception makes the victim certain but wrong. Ideal detection reveals the truth behind the lie, the face beneath the mask, the reality under the camouflage. Good detection spares us from unwelcome surprises.”
DNI spokesman Michael Birmingham said there are no plans to eliminate the committee.
“The NIC has neither eliminated nor plans to eliminate the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee,” Mr. Birmingham said.
Bukovsky on hunger strike
Legendary Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky is the apparent victim of a Russian intelligence operation designed to discredit both him and his testimony last year before a British commission investigating the covert operation to assassinate Russian intelligence defector Alexander Litvinenko.
Mr. Bukovsky was one of the few Russians granted access to the archives of the KGB political police and intelligence service after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, he was targeted by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has institutionalized many of the service’s practices and officials within his administration.
According to press reports, the Russian disinformation operation involved Moscow hackers breaking into Mr. Bukovsky’s computer and planting child pornography, images which are now the basis of a British prosecution.
The former dissident vehemently denies the charges and is countersuing the Crown Prosecution Service for defamation. In April he also launched a hunger strike to further protest his innocence.
Asked by The Guardian newspaper why the Putin regime is opposing him, Mr. Bukovsky said it is the result of “continuity” among Moscow’s spy agencies.
“The KGB didn’t change at all,” he said. “It’s the same KGB, only been renamed. And I happened to be their enemy for 57 years.”
Mr. Bukovsky was a close friend of Litvinenko, who was poisoned by Russian agents, likely on orders from Mr. Putin, according to a British investigation of the 2006 assassination. The child pornography was reportedly found on Mr. Bukovsky’s laptop computer shortly before he was to testify about the murder last year.
The Russians then notified Europol, the European Union law enforcement agency, which in turn contacted British authorities.
The former dissident called the charges “Kafkaesque” and said the hunger strike is not aimed at proving anything to the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB. “I’m doing this for British public,” the 73-year-old Mr. Bukovsky said. “I don’t want them to have [the] Soviet Union here.”
Mr. Bukovsky was among the most prominent dissidents of the 1970s who challenged the Soviet regime, even during his imprisonment for 12 years in camps and prisons, including state psychiatric hospitals that were used to silence pro-democracy advocates.
His 1979 essay in Commentary magazine, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” remains a landmark on the dehumanization process under the Soviet rule.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.