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Desipte the outrage over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, it was nothing new.
Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, the mainstream media, both left- and right-leaning, have been heavily focused on his alleged collusion with Russia. Some argue that it’s a “collusion-delusion” and that nothing unlawful ever took place, while others look at the Mueller report and hope further information can be divulged.
Regardless of whether collusion really took place, one thing has always been true: Governments of the world, including those of both the U.S. and Russia, have always used intelligence services to influence politics and public opinion in other countries.
While there are plenty of documentaries about the inner workings of U.S. intelligence agencies, much less is known about the intelligence services of the old Eastern Bloc and Balkan countries. How do they operate? What are their biggest challenges? Do they really have the capacity to affect elections in the U.S.?
To discuss those topics, I interviewed Sven Dekleva, a researcher in the field of intelligence studies at the University of Ghent in Belgium, faculty of law and criminology, department of criminology. Here’s a Q&A of our discussion:
Q: In today’s era of modern technology and warfare, what is the main task that intelligence services have?
A: An integral part of modern warfare is the desire to control the flow of information. This modern blend of conventional, irregular and cyberwarfare is known as hybrid warfare, and intelligence services are at its forefront, since gathering and manipulating information is their M.O.
Q: The Cold War was quite a long time ago. Since then, how have intelligence services developed? How have they changed their methodology and approach to surveillance and information acquisition in general?
A: Both technology, and methodology-wise, there’s an ongoing development in the field. The U.S. is the undisputed leader, with China coming in a close second. Governments are throwing substantial funds at research and development, and the results speak for themselves: Civilian communities are being conditioned online, by introducing new needs and habits via sophisticated tools and methodologies with the aid of experts from multiple scientific disciplines. Every online activity of every individual is easily documented and archived for subsequent use and processing. For the future development of technological capabilities, the sky’s the limit, and besides that, the assigned budget.
Furthermore, in five years, privacy will no longer be an issue, since everyone is already used to giving it up by using various information-gathering social-media services and search engines.
Q: So is “old school” intelligence gathering still a thing?
A: No, this is not to say that the HUMINT (human intelligence — information collected and provided by human sources) method, which you refer to as “old school,” somehow became irrelevant. The majority of experts still hold this classic “human approach” as something indispensable to the service. Interrogations and interviews with persons having access to information are a method of intelligence gathering that cannot be replaced by technical intelligence gathering disciplines. I see the future of intelligence gathering as a combination of both — technological activities and personal sources.
Q: Many of my readers are concerned with the ongoing developments concerning the presidential elections of 2016, as well as the Mueller report. In regard to what you’ve said about intelligence services, what is your assessment of the influence that Russian services have on the U.S. and countries of Eastern Europe?
A: Let me just say this: The U.S. has its reasons for insisting on the “omnipresent Russia” narrative. As a world power, Russia is undoubtedly interested in U.S. affairs, but it has rather different priorities than the Cold War-era USSR did. It’s primarily focused on internal control, and then on countries with which it shares religious heritage — Orthodox Christianity. Coming in last are ambitions to spread its influence beyond this main sphere of interest.
Q: What about the alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election?
A: I’m afraid the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Mainstream media perpetuate the “collusion with Russia” narrative because sensationalism sells, so to speak, and the general populace has bought into the story as well, which is why it’s still a topic.
Resources, technology and counterintelligence-wise, the U.S. has one of the most advanced intelligence networks in the world. Do you honestly believe it’s so easy to spy on Americans?
Also, with current immigrant policy in place and strong anti-Russian sentiment, I have a hard time believing the U.S. is full of Russian spies.
On the other hand, it’s logical to presume Russia was interested in the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. After all, it needs to carefully and strategically choose both its political allies and opponents, and an election resulting in a weaker opponent is always the preferred outcome.
The entire alleged collusion story looks more like a convenient excuse for a showdown between Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump, and now between Democrats and Republicans. Those with more influence on public opinion can more easily sway voters, and you need to prep the representative sample, so to speak, to get a desired outcome.
Q: What are the main goals that intelligence agencies have in Eastern Europe?
A: That’s an interesting question, though as someone who’s been a monitor for a long time and constantly in the field, I have to be honest, I’m not sure whether they currently have clear-cut goals at all.
Totalitarian regimes are a thing of the past in Eastern Europe. Nowadays, goals of Eastern European intelligence agencies should be economic- and security-related, i.e. focused on maintaining prosperity, safety and stability in the region.
Local governments are — or should be — responsible for identifying crucial goals, and agencies should ensure they are being implemented. It’s dangerous if an intelligence agency has its own government-independent agenda.
Q: What are the greatest challenges these services are faced with in Eastern Europe?
A: Currently, the biggest issues in the region are extremist cells that train and arm their members for terrorist attacks. Although to be fair, the situation isn’t as alarming as some agencies claim.
Thorough assessment is always in order, but making sensationalistic claims and pointing fingers at neighboring countries is unfair, to put mildly. When you take into account that these overblown reports are often presented as facts to leading politicians, you can’t help but wonder whether certain agencies are just desperately trying to justify their existence.
In the end, it all comes down to annual budgets. If you manage to depict the situation as more dire than it necessarily is, using a looming threat of terrorism, you might get a bigger slice of the cake. The sad truth is that a large amount of that money is often spent on new cars and other luxuries for agency directors.
All in all, terrorist activity in the region still isn’t significant, and Eastern European agencies should focus on strengthening partnerships and international cooperation instead of wasting time on back-stabbing.
Q: What’s your assessment of the general effectiveness of intelligence services in Eastern Europe?
A: Intelligence services in Eastern Europe aren’t as effective as they should be. Large amounts of money are spent on [operating] costs and the majority of tasks boil down to security checks of dubious efficacy due to formalism and bureaucracy. These agencies have covertness going for them, though, so it’s rather difficult to adequately assess their efficiency. Officially, they are subject to oversight, but it’s usually done poorly. They need new blood, young experts from different professions who would be able to meet the highest standards. Regulations also need a complete overhaul, especially in regard to criminal liability. We should demand greater accountability from agency officials. Unfortunately, the sentiment of a bygone era is still present.
Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.