US uncovers ‘Russian threat’

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U.S. Congress held annual hearings on security issues, based on the report by National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell. Along with al-Qaeda, Iraq, and Iran, U.S. intelligence officials listed Russia and China among the outer threats. Moscow and Beijing are charged with using their growing economic influence in the world for advancing their own political goals, and with cyber-terrorism. Kommersant’s special correspondent Dmitry Sidorov reports from Washington.

This year’s hearings are notable for the unexpected unanimity displayed by intelligence chiefs when discussing McConnell’s report. Covert competition among different agencies of U.S. intelligence passed into a proverb long ago. It is no secret that CIA officers are reluctant to share information with their colleagues from the National Intelligence, and vice versa. Also, the FBI always disliked people “across the river” (the CIA), and the latter reciprocated.

This time, however, intelligence chiefs seemed to have undergone drastic changes: they did their best to display readiness for constructive cooperation. So, CIA head Michael Hayden underlined the recently-appeared progress in special services’ cooperation, which did not prevent him from making a cautious reservation, though. He said that overcoming the in-house code of conduct “will take certain time”.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s report was as surprising as the climate at the hearings. Although the part devoted to Russia was not as extensive as the parts about Iraq, Iran, and al-Qaeda, it was the most sensational one. It is for the first time that the leading U.S. intelligence service listed Russia among chief threats to U.S. national security.

However, it turned out the U.S. special services believe it is not the only threat coming from Russia now. The second threat is cyber-terrorism. “We assess that nations, including Russia and China, have the technical capabilities to target and disrupt elements of the US information infrastructure and for intelligence collection,” said McConnell.

“The assessment is based on the analysis of Russia’s last-year cyber-attack on Estonia at the height of the Bronze Soldier conflict, and some other actions of Russian special services,” explained a source close to the U.S. intelligence. The source refrained from giving specific examples, though.

Speaking of the political situation inside Russia and its possible scenarios, the U.S. intelligence chief estimated it the following way: “In March, Russia is set to reach […] the first on-schedule change in leadership since communism and the first voluntary transfer of power from one healthy Kremlin leader to another.” By the way, McConnell avoided using the word ‘election’ when describing the upcoming authority change in Russia.

Moreover, McConnell said the process is “clouded, however, by President Putin’s declared readiness to serve as prime minister under his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, a move that raises questions about who will be in charge of Russia after Putin’s presidential term expires in May”.

“The Medvedev-Putin ‘cohabitation’ raises questions about the country’s future and the implications for Western interests.” “While many of the essential features of the current system are likely to endure, including weak institutions, corruption, and growing authoritarianism, we will be alert for signs of systemic changes such as an indication that presidential powers are being weakened in favor of a stronger prime minister, McConnell summed up the political situation in Russia.

The report focuses on analyzing the instruments of Russian diplomacy’s pressure for the nearest four years, including energy-trade and military capabilities. U.S. intelligence services see the threat to U.S. and its western partners’ national security in Moscow’s energy policy as well. “Aggressive Russian efforts to control, restrict or block the transit of hydrocarbons from the Caspian to the West—and to ensure that East-West energy corridors remain subject to Russian control—underscore the potential power and influence of Russia’s energy policy,” said McConnell.

The official also noted teething changes in the Russian army which is overcoming “a long, deep deterioration in its capabilities that started before the collapse of the Soviet Union”. At the same time, McConnell believes the Russian army has not yet reached “Soviet era operations”, and “still faces significant challenges”, such as “demographic, health problems, and conscription deferments”. “Strategic nuclear forces remain viable, but Russia’s defense industry suffers from overcapacity, loss of skilled and experienced personnel, lack of modern machine tools, rising material and labor costs, and dwindling component suppliers,” adds McConnell.

While discussing Russia, senators also touched upon Moscow’s relations with Iran. Senator Evan Bayh wondered why Russians supply nuclear fuel for atomic power plants to Iran.

“Russians are in talks with Iran, using the supplies of fuel for its peaceful nuclear program to show that Moscow is keeping everything under control,” replied McConnell. “Russians also explain to Iranians they can expect a lot if they agree to the international community’s offers,” he added. “I hope the matter is precisely so,” replied Bayh. In his turn, Christopher Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, evaded the question whether the U.S. regards Moscow’s military-equipment cooperation with Iran and Syria as a threat to its national security as well. “There is a whole range of threats,” said Bond evasively. “Each of them is quite serious, and I wouldn’t select any of them as the top one,” he said.

Meanwhile, a source close to the U.S. intelligence said the threats list includes a suspicion that Moscow-Tehran nuclear cooperation might be beyond the framework of current international agreements.

Beside Russia, the Senate Committee also heatedly discussed Iraq, al-Qaeda, and special services’ methods applied against international terrorism, questioned not only by human rights defenders, but also by congressmen. Chief news was that U.S. intelligence top officials acknowledged facts of using the so-called water torture during the questioning of terrorism suspects. The torture makes a suspect feel as if they are drowning. When asked whether these prohibited methods were used, CIA Director Michael Hayden had to admit the practice indeed took place. However, he stressed that water torture was applied only to three high-ranking Al-Qaeda members, and not recently, but over five years ago.

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