- - Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Washington and Moscow recently exchanged tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, stemming from a suspected poisoning of a defected KGB officer and his daughter in London.

It is not a state secret that embassies of both powers contain numerous intelligence officers who are working undercover.

Hence a question is being debated in the U.S. intelligence community: Regardless of the brazen nature of the motivating attack, one of several carried out by the Russians in recent years, were the mass expulsions the best way to retaliate?

To be sure, the Russians must be taught that such brutal behavior violates the norms by which decent nation perform. President Trump and leaders of other Western allies must be applauded for demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that such actions will not be tolerated.

But an obvious downside is that replacements must be found for the expelled spies. For the Central Intelligence Agency, being assigned to Moscow Station — either in declared status or “black” (i.e., undercover) — reserved for the best-of-the-best officers in the Operations Directorate. Several years of extensive training in “Moscow rules” — highly specialized tradecraft — is required.



Unsurprisingly, a half-dozen retired officers with whom I spoke on a no-names basis had varying opinions of Mr. Trump’s action — although all agreed that some form of retaliation was necessary, and all agreed that countering expulsions by Moscow were sure to follow.

“Putin deserved a real good kick in the shins for what his people did,” one officer commented. “That sort of operation [the poisoning) had to be approved at the top.

“But from the practical point of view, replacing that [expelled American] from top officers will pose problems. A new officer assigned to Moscow requires months of on-the-street experience to be effective.

“And at one point or another, he obviously is going to be handling sources — Russian sources — who must have absolute confidence in him. For a new officer to come into Moscow and re-establish with those sources is going to be an involved and lengthy process.”

Another retiree with counterintelligence experience said the expulsion of Russian diplomats poses yet another problem:

“Speaking hypothetically: Suppose we have turned one of those ‘Russian diplomats’ into a valued source of intelligence. The expulsions mean that you kick out EVERYONE, including your man-in-place. Ivan might be your best recruitment in a lifetime. But leave him in Washington, you are pointing a deadly finger at him.

“But let me make it clear,” the officer continued, “Conduct of this nature cannot be tolerated. The United States and its allies must let Putin and his intel cronies know that there are boundaries to misbehavior.

“And by the same token, we must demonstrate to the defectors who have joined our side that we will protect them.”

Another officer saw a significant blow to Mr. Putin. “From the get-go,” this man said, “Putin has been trying to drive wedges in the Western alliance. In this instance, he took a shot at Great Britain by poisoning [Sergei] Skripal and his daughter.

“And right away, the U.S. and other allies came together and acted in unison to retaliate. That is not the sort of answer that Putin wants to hear.”

Yet another officer saw an overall loss for the U.S., and particularly the intelligence community. “Rebuilding our strength in Moscow is going to require months, even years.

“We are ‘going blind’ at a time of world tensions. Consider the Baltic States, which seem to be in Putin’s gun sights, so to speak.

“Our intelligence job in Moscow is to monitor, as best we can, what the guys in the Kremlin are thinking, and what they might be prepared to do. We cannot do that effectively when the entire Moscow Station is packed up and put on planes back to Langley.”

What would be an effective alternate punishment for Russia? Two officers pointed to possible sanctions under the SWIFT international banking system.

In the opinion of one of these officers: “We know that Putin’s hold on power relies strongly on his ties to the so-called ‘oligarchy’ of businessmen whose fortunes depend on their ability to shuffle money here and there around the world.

“Cut back on that easy access for a few months and give them a taste of plain old pain. When they holler, Putin will listen.”

Another officer with long experience in monitoring the Russian intelligence community in Washington had a tongue-in-cheek alternative to banishment: “Institute a rule that anyone connected with the KGB — including wives and other family members — loses shopping privileges at the ‘social Safeway’ (the grocery a mile or so down Wisconsin Avenue from the Russian Embassy).

“Petty? So what? Being able to shop in a store that offers something better than month-old turnips is a privilege the [Russians] really enjoy in Washington. Let’s bring some domestic grief into their daily lives.”

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence matters.

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