Beyond Moscow subway bombings, Russia-U.S. intelligence bond limited
The FBI office in Moscow has a “great relationship” with its Russian counterpart and is likely querying U.S. intelligence databases for information that could help solve the massive train bombing there, a knowledgeable source said Tuesday.
But as time has passed after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the CIA in particular has learned that the Russians aren’t interested in talking about problems closer to American interests, to wit, terrorists operating from former Soviet republics bordering on Afghanistan.
The relationship is "not fabulous, but it’s decent, all things considered,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who has been responsible for international cooperation on counterterrorism and crime. The official spoke on terms of anonymity in order to discuss the issue freely.
The FBI referred a question on the issue to the White House, which did not return a query.
U.S.-Russian cooperation on counterterrorism has been limited in recent years to Moscow’s preoccupation with Islamic and nationalist insurgents in Chechnya, this and two other intelligence sources said.
It’s all Chechnya, all the time for Russia, a former CIA officer who served in Moscow said in an interview.
“Counterterrorism cooperation with the Russians has always been an iffy proposition,” he said. “As long as there is something to be gained in the worldwide struggle against Chechen terrorism -- yes, that’s the way they see it -- then the Russians, particularly the FSB, are all for it.”
The FSB, or Federal Security Service, is Moscow’s equivalent of the FBI.
“However, if we go to them with a request for assistance,” the former CIA officer continued, "it's a flip of the coin if we'll even receive a response, much less any help. It's most definitely a one-way street, and has caused no end of frustration within the building” -- CIA headquarters.
“Immediately post-9/11, it was pretty good in Uzbekistan,” he continued. “They helped us and the Uzbeks neutralize the IMU [the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan], but other than that, it’s been hit and miss.”
The U.S. counterterrorism take from the Russians became so paltry five years after the Sept. 11 attacks that the CIA’s chief of clandestine operations at the time, Stephen R. Kappes (now deputy CIA director), turned down the FSB’s invitation to its annual international conference.
All the European services sent senior officials (except for the former Soviet Baltic states, who weren’t invited) to the gathering that year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The CIA dreaded the thing, a multi-day drunk.
“These things were always like a big Chekist theater,” the former CIA officer recalled, referring to the first of the Soviet Union’s many internal security services, “a very elaborate show with absolutely no substance.”
“There were lavish lunches and lavish dinners, a big drunk, with speaker after speaker,” the officer recalled.
The Russians liked having the Americans and other Western services there, if only to brandish their attendance as endorsement of sorts for their brutal suppression of Islamic militants and nationalists in Chechnya.
So for all these reasons Kappes decided to stay away from Sochi and send a lesser official to represent the CIA, the agency's Moscow station chief, a well-informed source said.
Things haven’t improved much since.
“I am not aware of any meaningful cooperation,” said a recently retired top U.S. counterterrorism operative, who also spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. “They had their own strategy that focused on dealing with the Chechen problem. International cooperation against al-Qaeda was not high on their list.”
With one exception, the sources agreed: Iran. The Russian and American counterintelligence services keep a mutual eye on Iran’s substantial embassy in Moscow and personnel elsewhere.
Despite the FBI’s offer of help with the Moscow bombings, “The Russians really don’t need any help with this kind of investigation,” said a current U.S. counterterrorism official.
“They’ve been through it before, unfortunately, and they know the dangerous players from the Caucasus all too well.
“There is US-Russian cooperation on counterterrorism,” he added. “But you have to remember that an awful lot of what the Russians face in terms of terrorist threats comes from within their own borders. For them, a great deal of this is domestic.“
| March 31, 2010; 7:35 AM ET
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