By George Friedman
The U.K. alleges, and evidently more than 25 countries agree, that Russia ordered and executed a nerve agent attack on British soil this month in an attempt on the life of a former Russian spy. If true, this brazen act warrants a stern response. That response came earlier this week, when more than two dozen countries, mostly in Europe but including the U.S., Canada and Australia, said they would expel varying numbers of diplomats from Russian embassies and consulates in their territories. Russia has denied the charges and vowed to hit back. The assumption, then, is that the expulsion of diplomats is a serious matter, approximately on the level of trying to assassinate someone on foreign soil.
But is that really the case? It is difficult to know the precise impact of the expulsions, but any analysis of this should begin with the fact that the people who were expelled were known by their host governments to be Russian intelligence personnel, and were expelled for that reason. And if they were known to be intelligence personnel, then their chances of being effective spies were limited. A spy who is known to be a spy will likely be under surveillance, greatly impeding his or her ability to spy.
Host countries suspect every diplomat of being an intelligence officer, because many of them are. An assistant to the cultural attache who has never heard of Mozart is either the nephew of the president or is using his post as a cover for his intelligence operations. The problem with inserting intelligence officers this way into any country, let alone a hostile or adversarial country, is that the officer, regardless of his taste in music, is likely to be put under surveillance by counterintelligence. Monitoring all or most embassy staff is an expensive proposition, but the more adversarial the relationship, the more resources are devoted to the task. In the case of British-Russian relations, we can assume that almost all their embassy personnel were under surveillance, their phones were tapped, and they were regularly approached by attractive but lonely people.
For this reason, countries are careful about how they conduct their sensitive intelligence work. More to the point, the most sensitive operations are kept far away from the embassy staff. The British knew that anyone contacted by a Russian officer might be a Russian asset. If the Russians had an asset in the British Ministry of Defense, for example, the last thing Russian intelligence would want would be for this asset to have anything that could pass for contact with a Russian embassy official. The source’s existence would be kept from the embassy personnel, save possibly from the Russian handler controlling the asset. A valuable intelligence asset – or an assassination – would not be run out of the embassy but by a team invisible to the embassy, because the assumption is that everyone in the embassy is being watched.
There are four functions that intelligence officers assigned to embassies may have. The first is to coordinate with the host country’s intelligence services. The second is to immerse themselves in the gossip of the nation, from which interesting morsels might be gathered. The third is to collect the vast amounts of open-source material that permeates societies. This can be very valuable and unclassified, but it can be hard to find. The fourth is operating technical intelligence, intercepting communications through technology. Not included are genuine covert operations. Let’s consider each function separately.
The liaison function would likely be carried out through the embassy. The Russians and Americans cooperate on some aspects of counterterrorism, and I assume the British and Russians do too. Much of the coordination probably takes place at the embassy, most likely involving some of those under what is called in the U.S. “official cover.” Why this is done through embassies rather than out in the open frequently has more to do with interagency rivalry than the need for cover. I would guess that the CIA, FBI and State Department compete for the task of liaison and spend a great deal of time competing with one other. The same is true for Russian foreign intelligence (the SVR) and military intelligence (the GRU). In addition, intelligence agencies sometimes talk to each other on subjects that their governments don’t want to leak. So, a conversation goes on between intelligence officers pretending to be cultural attaches even though both participants know perfectly well what the other is.
Gossip is not a trivial source of information. It doesn’t have to be a drunk revealing the date of an invasion. The simple process of human interaction can reveal useful things to someone who listens carefully and connects the dots. Embassy parties, one of the great burdens of civilization, can not only yield insight but also create genuine friendships that over the course of a career can be nurtured and exploited. The universe of gossip is both older and subtler than the internet, and for this, embassy personnel – even those known to be intelligence officers – are extremely useful. Of course, gossip is also a vector of carefully packaged lies designed to confuse.
Collecting elusive open-source material is also valuable. I recall a story of a Soviet medieval scholar who spent his days at the California Institute of Technology with a pile of quarters and a copying machine, an ancient but effective technique. Embassy personnel can be found at technical trade shows, university symposiums and the like, collecting perfectly legal documents that can tell a trained analyst much about the technical strategy of another nation. Most important, attendance can lead to friendships with scientists and others that appear merely personal but are part of a systematic attempt at exploitation.
Perhaps the most important use of an embassy is the collection of technical intelligence. Not too long ago, embassy roofs were covered with antennae, while the building across the street hurled microwave radiation to blind the antennae. Today, the emphasis is on physically penetrating the underground networks carrying the internet. The embassy is an excellent means for managing the intercepts and analyzing the traffic.
The expulsion of diplomats is a means of showing displeasure without interfering with a country’s actual intelligence gathering. The most sensitive intelligence work isn’t done at the embassy, and more important, the countries involved in this round of expulsions do not actually want to dramatically reduce the Russian intelligence capability. Blinding Russian intelligence only increases risk. In a tense relationship, it is important to make certain that the other side is reasonably aware of the other’s intentions and, in a broad sense, capabilities. The disequilibrium of intelligence can breed mistakes that are bad for all involved.
It is individuals who will suffer the real punishment. Russians who made their careers by being experts on the U.K., for example, no longer have careers once they are expelled and forever prohibited from returning. The same can be said of an American who is an expert on Russia but is now barred from Russia. This is a strange casualty of international tension, but not one of high concern.
The point is that, while these expulsions make good and perhaps necessary public statements, crippling each other’s intelligence outside the context of all-out war can have unwanted results. The quiet conversations between intelligence officers who appear to be cultural attaches but are known to both sides as embassy spooks serves a needed function. It’s the liaisons who can explain, for instance, that Russian military exercises outside of Belarus are just for show. But embassies make poor homes for truly covert operations. Those operations will continue.