Two of the largest foreign intelligence agencies in the world, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Russian Federation’s Foreign Intelligence Service (FSB), ironically appear more similar in their organization, methods, and ethics than not.

Similar to the CIA, the Russian foreign intelligence service operates under different levels of concealment from foreign governments. Both foreign intelligence services use “official cover”, meaning they pose as government employees in the country’s embassy which offers diplomatic immunity if the agent is caught. They also both have “non-official cover” agents (NOCs), where the agents “typically pose as private business employees and are subject to less scrutiny and, in many cases, are never identified as intelligence agents by the host government."” This role does not provide diplomatic immunity if caught (Bender 2015, and Finn 2003). The questionable ethical practices of both agencies have tarnished their names in the international public eye at times. Their politicization of intelligence, financing of insurgents or rebels in other countries, and the use of torture, have sparked international condemnation from many different corners.

Both foreign intelligence services have been accused of being too political. As noted by Robert Gates in his 1992 address to the CIA, discussing recent Congressional allegations of the agency’s politicization of intelligence:

“Almost all agree that [politicization of intelligence] involves deliberately distorting analysis or judgements to favor a preferred line of thinking irrespective of evidence. Most consider classic solicitation to be only that which occurs if products are forced to conform to policy maker’s views. A number believe politicization also results from management pressures to define and drive certain lines of analysis and substantive viewpoints. Still others believe that changes in tone or emphasis made during the normal review of coordination process, and limited means for expressing alternative viewpoints, also constitute forms of politicization” (Gates, 1992).

Similarly, the international community accused Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, of politicizing intelligence when he insisted that there were still serious grounds to believe the deadly chemical attack in Damascus was a ‘provocation’ staged by Syrian rebels, despite evidence in the United Nations report that seemed to suggest government forces were to blame (Mackey, 2013). In an April 2015 interview with retired Lieutenant General Leonid Reshetnikov, one can see a similar example of Russian politicization as he discusses how the United States ‘ditched Israel’ to work with Iran to ‘encircle Russia’, overthrow President Vladimir Putin, and divide the country (Chuikov, 2015). Both foreign intelligence services have done such things either to promote their own world view or to promote a particular agenda favored by the presidential administration in power. The problem with politicization is that it distorts information and thus leads to poor analysis and ultimately leads to skewed results rather than fair, balanced, and accurate assessments. Skewed intelligence hinders policy-makers and governments alike and prevents opportunities for understanding and collaboration.

Both the United States and Russia fund insurgents or rebels throughout the world. Currently, the CIA is funding the Syrian rebels against the government of President Bashar al Assad in Syria and ‘vetted rebels’ in Saudi Arabia against the Islamic State (Mazzetti, 2014). Similarly, both the United States and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have accused Russia of financing terrorism with respect to militarily arming rebels in Ukraine (Office of Foreign Assets Control, 2014 and EuroNews, 2015). Arming the rebels, however, in either case, is rarely done in a vacuum: this can lead to the arms or finances falling into the hands of other ‘unwanted’ extremist groups who wish harm the United States and/or Russia. In other words, the secret maneuvers often can backfire and strengthen the very opposition the CIA or FSB had hoped to defeat. As noted by President Obama, there aren’t many examples of pure success where the CIA [only] provided financing and arms to an insurgency (Mazzetti, 2014).

In addition to the politicization of intelligence and the financing of ‘rebels’ a third aspect where both the CIA and FSB are similar is in their use of torture to ‘confirm’ intelligence. In October 2012, during the 49th Session of the UN Committee against Torture, the United Nations reported that Russia’s intelligence services participated in torture, including beatings, removing finger and toenails, and sodomizing a subject with a bottle (United Nations Committee Against Torture, 2012, p. 4). Similarly, according to a previously released Senate Intelligence Committee report on the details of ‘harsh CIA interrogation techniques,’ the CIA has participated in torture including rectal feeding, sleep deprivation, insects, use of diapers, and mock executions. (Business Insider, 2014) Since the report’s release, the Senate Intelligence Committee has removed it from their site. However, several news agencies quoted the report:

“The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, the report’s executive summary says. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because we can never let the world know what I have done to you. CIA officers also threatened … to harm the children of a detainee … sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and … to cut [a detainee's] mother's throat."

These methods were often found to have achieved little to no actionable intelligence. For example, in an email titled "So it begins," a medical officer wrote that a detainee gave "NO useful information so far," but had vomited several times. “It's been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for now,” the officer said. (Business Insider, 2014) As noted by the Senate Intelligence Committee report, torture does not usually produce actionable intelligence. Veteran and former prisoner-of-war, Senator John McCain agreed: “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.” (McCain, 2014)

In conclusion, ethically speaking, both the United States and Russia’s foreign intelligence services are unfavorably similar to each other as both participate in practices that hurt their international reputation for little national security gain. Arguably, none of these activities provide their government with fair, balanced, or accurate intelligence and quite often the moral ambiguity encourages corruption and repression, let alone global condemnation. Thus, both intelligence services are similar in nature, organization, methods, and ethics – to their detriment. They are brothers-in-unethical-arms.

 

 


References

Bender, J. (2015, January 26). FBI Agent Explains How Russia's Foreign Spy Operations Work. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/fbi-agent-how-russias-foreign-intelligence-service-works-2015-1

Business Insider. (2014, December 9). The CIA Torture Details Are Appalling. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-senate-is-about-to-release-the-cia-torture-report-2014-12

Chuikov, A. (2015, April 9). Interview of a senior Russian Foreign Intelligence analyst. The Saker. Retrieved from http://thesaker.is/interview-of-a-senior-russian-foreign-intelligence-analyst/

EuroNews. (2015, January 27). Russia is accused of 'financing illegal armed groups' - Council of Europe. EuroNews. Retrieved from http://www.euronews.com/2015/01/27/russia-is-accused-of-financing-illegal-armed-groups-according-to-council-of-eu-/

Finn, E. (2003, September 30). How Deep Is CIA Cover? Slate.com. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2003/09/how_deep_is_cia_cover.html

Gates, R. M. (1992, March 16). Guarding Against Politicization. The Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/volume-36-number-1/pdf/v36i1a01p.pdf

Mackey., R. (2013, September 17). Russias Foreign Minister Cites Questions Raised by Nun in Syria on Chemical Attacks. New York Times. Retrieved from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/russias-foreign-minister-cites-questions-raised-by-nun-in-syria-on-chemical-attacks/?_r=0

Mazetti, M. (2014, October 14). C.I.A. Study of Covert Aid Fueled Skepticism About Helping Syrian Rebels. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://thesaker.is/interview-of-a-senior-russian-foreign-intelligence-analyst/

McCain, J. (2014, December 9). FLOOR STATEMENT BY SENATOR JOHN McCAIN ON SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE REPORT ON CIA INTERROGATION METHODS. Retrieved from ttp://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2014/12/floor-statement-by-sen-mccain-on-senate-intelligence-committee-report-on-cia-interrogation-methods

Office of Foreign Assets Control. (2014, December 19). Treasury Targets Additional Ukrainian Separatists and Russian Individuals and Entities. The Department of the Treasury. Retrieved from http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl9729.aspx

United Nations Committee Against Torture. (2012, October). ALTERNATIVE REPORT OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION OF JURISTS (ICJ) TO THE UN COMMITTEE AGAINST TORTURE ON THE FIFTH PERIODIC REPORT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION UNDER THE CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE AND OTHER CRUEL, INHUMAN OR DEGRADING TREATMENT OF PUNISHME. International Commission of Jurists. Retrieved from http://www.icj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/CATRussia-081012.pdf

Amy Hanlon

Amy Hanlon is currently finishing her degree in the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University and has been employed as a government contractor for the U.S. State Department since 2010. All views expressed within this piece are hers and hers alone and do not represent an official statement or policy from the United States government.

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