WASHINGTON: The enemy of my enemy may not be my friend, but he can be useful. In a speech he’d ripped up and rewritten since Friday’s horrific attacks on Paris, CIA chief John Brennan said even the only superpower needs help in a dangerous world. That sometimes requires working with countries that make the world worse, he said — including Russia’s security agencies.
Such compromises are necessary because the stakes are high, Brennan implied — without outright stating it — this morning at a Center for Strategic & International Studies conference. The Paris attacks, he said, were well-organized acts of terror that are likely to be repeated elsewhere.
“I certainly would not consider it a one-off event,” Brennan said. “This was something that was deliberately and carefully planned over the course, I think, of several months … making sure they had the operatives, the weapons, the explosives, suicide belts — and so I would anticipate this is not the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline.” (The self-proclaimed Islamic State is also known also as the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria, ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq & the Levant, ISIL or Daesh, an insulting Arabic acronym and our personal favorite).
“I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call, particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence and security services are doing,” Brennan said. “In the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures” — i.e. Edward Snowden’s leaks — “and a lot of handwringing over the government’s role…there have been some policy and legal and other actions that have been taken that make [finding] terrorists much more challenging…. They have gone to school on what it is that they need to do to keep their activities concealed from the authorities.”
“It’s not just Europe,” Brennan emphasized. “I think we here in the United States have to be obviously quite vigilant” — which means, among other things, not restricting surveillance.
There’s actually statistical evidence that the world is getting worse. Brennan cited seven straight years of Freedom House reports that found democracy met more reverses than progress around the world. The UN reports there are more international refugees and “internally displaced persons” forced from their homes (but not across borders) than at any time since World War II. Overall, Brennan said, “in the past three years, there have been more outbreaks of instability than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, matching the rate we saw during decolonization in the 1960s.”
As a result, said Brennan, “when I meet with my foreign counterparts, both from friendly and from not-so friendly governments, I sense a very real apprehension about instability… even from officials representing governments whose policies are quite arguably contributing to the problem.
In particular, Brennan said, despite “significant policy differences” over Syria, “I have had several conversations with one of my Russian counterparts over the past several weeks about ways to strengthen US-Russian counterterrorism cooperation, specifically on the ISIL threat.”
“My conversations with my Russian counterpart [have] taken place a number of times over the last year….including over the last several weeks after Russian military forces found their way into Syria,” Brennan said, emphasizing that even this surprise move by the Russians didn’t break off ties.
“These talks focus on what it is that we can do together to try to prevent he flow of individuals in and out of that theater of operations,” Brennan continued. “There are over 2,000 — maybe 3,000 — Russian nationals that have come down from the Caucasus, from Chechnya and Dagestan and other areas, into the Syria-Iraq area.”
There are roughly 20 million Muslims in the Russian Federation, many deeply embittered against Moscow by decades of repression and outright war. (Compare that with about two million well-integrated Muslims in the US). That represents a huge recruiting pool for terrorists attacking targets both in Russia and around the world. There are Chechens among the Islamic State’s senior leadership, Brennan said.
The 2012 Sochi Olympics — held right in the Caucasus — strengthened US-Russia intelligence cooperation. “They very greatly valued the support we provided, the information we provided,” Brennan said. “I want to continue to do that, irrespective of disagreements of policies over Syria.”
Even in Syria, US and Russian interests can be made to coincide, argued Henry Kissinger, the dean of realpolitik, in the day’s last session at the CSIS conference. “One of the dominant strategic concerns of Russia,” Kissinger said, “is the fear that if non-sate organizations with a radical islamist content take hold in the Middle East, they will sooner or later reach into Russia and they will have a very fertile field in Russia.”
“Russia is trying to prevent the emergence and consolidation of this kind of radical islamist [threat], and in that respect their objectives, developed on their own, are really parallel with ours,” Kissinger continued. “So i see a possibility, in fact a likelihood, that we could come to an understanding with Russia.”
“Cooperation with the United States in the intelligence sphere… is of mutual benefit,” said retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering later at the CSIS conference. Even in the dark days of the Cold War, he noted — when Moscow was funding terrorist groups rather than fighting them — it was possible to find “an island of some kind of discussion, leading to cooperation, leading to various steps which were important.”
But we’ve tried cooperation before in the years since 1991, warned another scholar, and it’s foundered on fundamental questions of trust. “What are we actually willing to share with them?” asked Olga Oliker, director of CSIS’s Russia and Eurasian program. “We’ve had promises to cooperate particularly on counterterrorism with the Russians in the past, but they’ve been flummoxed to some extent that we don’t actually feel comfortable sharing information with them. [Particularly] in Syria, where they are in a clear and close coalition with the Iranians, we have reason to think anything we give to Moscow is going to end up in Tehran.”