Former CIA Officer: New York Times 'anonymous' op-ed is like a gift to Vladimir Putin

The anonymous op-ed published this month in The New York Times – allegedly written by a current Trump administration senior official – received a great deal of news coverage for its criticism of President Trump’s intellectual and psychological fitness for his job.

The essay has become another piece of political fodder for debate between opponents and supporters of President Trump. But interest in this controversial piece extends beyond our shores – especially to our nation’s enemies.

Much of my career at the CIA was spent focused on Russia. If there is one thing I learned it was that President Vladimir Putin, who directs the lion’s share of Russia’s military and intelligence actions against the United States, continues – like his Soviet predecessors – to view the U.S. as Russia’s “main enemy.”

I have a high degree of confidence that Putin analyzed the op-ed with the greatest of interest. And I believe he then directed his intelligence services to collect corroborating intelligence and prepare options for weaponizing its content, as a part of Russia’s espionage and information attacks on the U.S.

Russian intelligence would first focus on learning more about the author, whose identity is known to The New York Times. Russia would not rule out the possibility that not one but perhaps a number of Trump administration officials collaborated on the piece.

The Kremlin is the most sophisticated purveyor of “fake news,” including social media and networking manipulation and amplification through bots.

We should expect the Kremlin to mount a full-court press targeting not only Washington officials with access to the author’s identity, but also targeting The New York Times – both through human intelligence operations as well as intrusions in cyberspace.

Keep in mind that Russian hackers successfully targeted the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The New York Times should be prepared to defend itself from a Russian onslaught of phishing and social engineering attacks. Russia no doubt desperately wants to know who in the administration is operating against the president.

In “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Graham Allison and Phillip Zelikow outline three approaches to understanding government behavior:

?         The rational actor model, where governments – like individuals – make the most rational decisions based on a cost and benefit analysis.

?         The organizational process model, which focuses on the standard operating procedures inherent to any bureaucracy.

?         The government politics model, which focuses on how the key “players” – both people and organizations – compete for influence. This best reflects the high priority Russian intelligence would attach to understanding how senior Trump administration officials relate to one another and the president. Understanding these internal dynamics – the alleged “two-track presidency” described in the New York Times op-ed – would help Russia understand and predict U.S. policy with the highest degree of confidence.

For Russian intelligence it is not important whether the anonymous op-ed writer’s claim that senior Trump administration officials are working to frustrate parts of the president’s agenda is in fact true. It also does not matter if the op-ed is correct in saying that President Trump’s leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.”

Russia invented the term “disinformation.” The Kremlin is the most sophisticated purveyor of “fake news,” including social media and networking manipulation and amplification through bots. Russia’s goal is to sow cultural and political discord in the U.S. and degrade trust in our democratic institutions.

Russia would eagerly insert these themes into its information operations with an eye towards degrading both the U.S. domestic political process as well as foreign governments’ trust in the Trump administration.

Russian intelligence would seek to use its media platforms to sprinkle corroborating “evidence” to buttress the op-ed’s attacks on the president.

Putin is always cognizant of the potential for an Arab Spring or Color Revolution to end his regime. So he would seek to influence brave Russian protesters not to look to the U.S. for inspiration in their struggle for liberty, freedom and democracy – all absent in Russia.

Russian intelligence is ruthlessly focused on ensuring the anonymous op-ed is transformed into a Pandora’s Box, which might appear to be a gift to some of the president’s critics but becomes a Kremlin curse on us all.