How Did Russian Invasion of Georgia Happen Under Our Noses?
by COLONEL KENNETH ALLARD (US ARMY, RET.)
August 22, 2008
Among the shoes yet to be dropped after the Russian invasion of Georgia: What did U.S. intelligence know and when did they know it? After seven years and several waves of organizational “reforms,” are we any better now at connecting the dots than we were before 9/11?
Remember the amicable way in which President Bush chatted up his old buddy Vladimir Putin at the opening of the Olympic Games? Now maybe George W. is a better actor than people ever realized. But he hardly looked like the leader of the Free World transfixed by the awful thought that Russian troops were once again on the march, hell-bent on invading the soil of a brave American ally. His administration as well as most of the NATO alliance seemed equally befuddled, surprised, and caught off-guard. When the Beijing weekend was over, Bush rushed back to the Rose Garden to deliver an impassioned though belated warning. But Generalissimo Putin had already flown directly to the invasion’s jumping-off point, the better to rally his troops for their murderous tasks.
What was especially hard for me, a former intelligence officer, to understand was how our far-flung and hugely expensive espionage establishment could have missed the telltale signs of Russian preparations. The reason: an invasion is one of the most unsubtle animals in the intelligence menagerie. After updating old Soviet practices, the Russians still had to move scores of ships, aircraft, armored and mechanized regiments, even elite paratrooper formations, hundred of miles to their pre-invasion positions. Had they somehow succeeded in imposing strict radio silence (an unlikely feat), there are literally dozens of systems and scores of ways in which those preparations should have been uncovered.
Benjamin Franklin classically observed that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. But today he would certainly add that you’re still in trouble if the live one has a cell phone. So how did we manage to miss the mark? Especially since these were not hidden preparations for a covert terrorist attack but intelligence targets that should have been large and rather obvious?
For most of the last two weeks, certain networks of unreconstructed Cold Warriors (Motto: “They’re baaaack!”) have been asking ourselves precisely these questions. So far, our collective soundings indicate that the U.S. intelligence establishment was closely following the Russian preparations, even concluding that a sudden move might be imminent against the fledgling Georgian republic. But what apparently stopped the analysis in its tracks was the unspoken assumption that the Russian move was unlikely to occur before the Olympics, with its traditional truce and so many heads of state hobnobbing together in Beijing.
While that might sound just like 9/11, most intelligence officers are reminded of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. It began after the Egyptians suddenly crossed the Suez Canal, overrunning shocked (but mostly unmanned) Israeli defenses. But for months, the Egyptians had painstakingly conducted nearly identical maneuvers, counting on the endless repetition and the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday to dull Israeli sensitivities to their growing peril. Ever since, the Mossad and its sister agencies have referred to that mind-set as “The Concept,” recognizing it as the deadliest of enemy deceptions.
Except, of course, for all those times when you resolutely insist on deceiving yourself. To help prevent that, the 9/11 Commission recommended sweeping changes to our intelligence establishment. Eventually, fourteen separate intelligence agencies were consolidated under the newly created Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Because those agencies shared neither a common zip code nor even the same travel agent, it was not immediately clear how consolidation would produce more insightful analysis. Instead, log-rolling now seemed to have been permanently enshrined. Some skeptics even murmured that layering an already entrenched bureaucracy meant only that the invitation to disaster had been engraved rather than scribbled.
DNI steadfastly refused all comment on the questions posed here, perfectly sensible behavior for an agency whose acronym is pronounced “deny.” But a new Congress and a new administration should unravel the growing hodge-podge before enemies past and present clarify its shortcomings beyond all doubt.